Two of Western culture’s most cherished versions of “the other” collide in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, which received a fine production from Opera Santa Barbara at the Granada last weekend.
What do you get when you cross the otherness of femininity with the exoticism of the Orient? In this case, you create a potent brew of extreme pathos. When reluctant geisha girl Cio-Cio-San (Mihoko Kinoshita) marries the American naval officer Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton (Alexey Sayapin), she ends up paying dearly for her decision to follow the path of least resistance. By entering into this very one-sided long-distance relationship, Cio-Cio-San becomes the victim of a kind of double. double-standard; as a woman she is less mobile and much less autonomous than her husband, and as a Japanese person in the first decade of the 20th century, she is extremely vulnerable to all sorts of further degradation.
When Pinkerton leaves soon after the wedding (and after getting Cio-Cio-San pregnant), the Butterfly must take up the awkward role of the caterpillar, waiting for years as a single mother and hoping that “one fine day,” her husband will return.
The arias of Madame Butterfly are among the best-loved pieces of vocal music ever written, and they were sung with startling clarity and grace by this outstanding cast. Kinoshita and Sayapin were transcendent in “Vogliatemi bene,” the achingly beautiful love duet that ends Act One. Sayapin, in particular, seemed to be aflame with passion, which is a key factor in getting the audience past its potential ambivalence about Pinkerton’s less-than-sterling intentions toward Butterfly. Hometown favorite Nina Yoshida Nelsen packed plenty of vocal excitement into her turn as Suzuki and helped Kinoshita cast a spell over the audience in Act Two’s “flower duet,” which prepares for the meditative and suspenseful “humming chorus” that takes the opera over into Act Three. Conductor Sara Jobin managed brilliantly when it came to the challenging task of balancing Madame Butterfly’s vocal pyrotechnics with what are some of Puccini’s longest instrumental interludes.
Inevitably, in Act Three, things fall apart, albeit with gusto, melodrama, and eventually even bloodshed. Young mezzo-soprano Tammy Coil brought just the right measure of compassion to the role of Kate Pinkerton, the bad lieutenant’s American wife. When she offers to take care of Butterfly’s young child, it’s both a grand gesture and, for Butterfly, the beginning of the end. Butterfly agrees, but with one demand — Pinkerton must come for the child himself. She will not continue her waiting forever. However, her sense of honor overcomes her resolve, and she turns the blade of her father’s ceremonial sword on herself before Pinkerton has a chance to enter the chamber. The final aria, “Con onor muore,” ought to be too much, yet somehow it never fails. This was the case on Friday evening, when Butterfly’s self-sacrifice was greeted first with gasps, and then with cheers of “brava,” presumably for the performance, but also for the helpless rectitude of this immortal operatic heroine.