Sir David McVicar’s production of Madama Butterfly was first staged by Scottish Opera in 2000 and has been revived in 2014 by Elaine Kidd. What a wonderful interpretation of Puccini’s famous opera it is. I’ve seen a few versions over the years and I think this is the most moving. It is intimate and human and emotionally charged from start to finish. The tissues were at the ready from the outset in anticipation of the doomed love story about to unfold on stage. It is sung in the original Italian, with the usual surtitles to explain the story to those new to the opera.
Cio Cio San is only fifteen and is from a well to do family which has fallen on hard times forcing her to become a geisha. Goro the marriage broker has arranged for her to “marry” Pinkerton, a US naval lieutenant. The marriage is a sham for Pinkerton, he already has designs on getting a proper American wife back home. Cio Cio San, however, believes it is real and gives up everything – her family and friends, even her religion, to dedicate herself to her lover and adopt an American lifestyle. Cio Cio San is also known as Butterfly as she is so fragile and delicate and the American consul, Sharpless, warns Pinkerton that he must not harm her. At her wedding, Butterfly unpacks her box of treasured possessions and in it is a knife, which we learn was sent to her father by the Mikado as an invitation to him to commit suicide to save him from dishonour. This is a portent of the tragedy to come. Despite the warnings of the consul, Pinkerton deserts her to return to America, leaving her distraught and, unknown to him, pregnant.
There are two singers sharing the title role on alternate nights. I have heard good reports of Hye-Yun Lee but can only speak personally of Anne Sophie Dupreis who is excellent in the lead role. Her acting skills are equally as good as her singing and that is saying something. She conveys Butterfly’s fragility but also the strength of her commitment and sense of honour and we can feel her pain. When she sings her most famous aria, “Un Bel Di”, it is not sung, as so often happens, as a set piece but as a very natural part of the story – she is explaining to Suzuki her maidservant what will happen when she sees Pinkerton come up the hill to the house, a scene she has obviously imagined countless times. Marcin Bronikowski as Sharpless is also very effective as is Jose Ferrero as Pinkerton. The little boy who played Sorrow also managed to steal the show.
The music incorporates themes from both East and West, from the brash strains of the Star Spangled Banner to the more tender haunting Japanese refrains. There are heart rending melodies – the wedding duet, the flower duet and, of course, the Humming Chorus which marks the unbearably poignant vigil of Butterfly, her son and her maid as they wait in vain for Pinkerton’s return. I’m sure I’m not the first person to twig that this latter tune was pinched by whoever wrote Bring Him Home from Les Miserables, and this probably isn’t the only or last example of Puccini’s music being used in this way. Conductor Marco Guidarini ably leads the orchestra, managing to bring out the drama of the music without overwhelming the singers.
Pinkerton feels guilt in the end but not enough to redeem himself. As if Butterfly’s troubles weren’t bad enough, he does return but not to pick up his life with her again. This time he has come back with an American wife and when he learns of the existence of a son, he plans to take her child away and buy her off with some money. Butterfly takes the only honourable way out according to Japanese custom and tradition and kills herself using her father’s knife. The closing scene of the little boy blindfolded in the spotlight with his arms outstretched while his father cradles his dead mother is the final clincher and the audience erupts. What a classic – a wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon!