In 1904, when Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly premiered at La Scala in Milan, the story it tells, of an unscrupulous American naval lieutenant who marries and then abandons a young Japanese woman, Cio-Cio-san, could have come from the day’s news. More than 100 years later, Madama Butterfly is still going strong as one of the most frequently produced operas of all time.
While the exploitation of foreign women by sexist American military officers may be less common today than it was at the turn of the 20th century, the feelings that give life to the music of Madama Butterfly — excitement, confusion, longing, and despair — endure, as do the dilemmas faced by couples whose religious backgrounds force them to make difficult choices. Despite a conspicuous paucity of experience with the actual place, Puccini nevertheless conjured a Nagasaki of the mind in Madama Butterfly that still stands as an emblem of unrequited cross-cultural love. Among the many operas that mourn the tragedy of the sexual double standard, Madama Butterfly takes pride of place. Its bewitching mixture of naïve orientalism and mature Italian passion never grows old.
For this production, Opera Santa Barbara (OSB) has assembled an extraordinary team. OSB General and Artistic Director Kostis Protopapas knows this material in his bones, and with soprano Eleni Calenos, he has a Cio-Cio-san that he can stack up against any singer in the world. She wowed us in 2018 as Mimi in OSB’s production of La bohème, and she has had two recent opportunities to deepen her knowledge of Cio-Cio-san, one in this country, and the other at England’s prestigious Glyndebourne Opera Festival.
Calenos will be joined by a stellar cast including another singer familiar to OSB audiences, Harold Meers. This world-class tenor adds Pinkerton to his long list of credits here, which stretches back through Manon in 2017 and Carmen in 2016 all the way to March 2006, when he made his Santa Barbara debut in a memorable Gianni Schicchi at the Lobero.
Baritone Luis Alejandro Orozco will play Sharpless, the United States Consul who tries — and fails — to temper Pinkerton’s appetite for sensual destruction. It’s in some ways a more interesting role than the lead, because Sharpless has a conscience. Watch for him in Act II, trying to read a letter to Cio-Cio-san informing her that Pinkerton has taken an American wife, and again in Act III, as he rounds out the devastating trio that finally gets this painful point across to her.
When Puccini wrote Madama Butterfly, portraying the Japanese characters Goro (Benjamin Brecher) and Bonze (Colin Ramsey) as stereotypes of native superstition was still somehow considered acceptable. Today that’s no longer the case, but that doesn’t mean that these singers won’t enjoy plenty of divine musical moments regardless. Opera Santa Barbara has brought in the highly creative director Octavio Cardenas to give the piece a new look, but without compromising the original historical setting.
Cardenas was the director of an outstanding Carmen for OSB in 2016, and this time he has additional design support in the form of new digital projections by Daniel Chapman and original lighting design by Azra King-Abadi. These two artists will make the most of the Granada’s state-of-the-art technical assets.
Opera has always been about taking us places that don’t exist, and somehow making them more intensely memorable than reality. Puccini never saw Japan except in his mind’s eye, yet the music he made of this vision lives on.
4•1•1 | Madama Butterfly runs Friday, November 1, 7:30 p.m., and on Sunday, November 3, 2:30 p.m., at The Granada Theatre (1214 State St.). Call (805) 899-2222 or see operasb.org.