The story is straightforward, as grand opera plots go: a naval officer deceives a poor young girl and pretend-marries her, gets her pregnant and leaves town. When she learns, three years later, that he has for-real married someone else, she turns the child over to his new wife and kills herself.
In Madama Butterfly, currently playing at Seattle Opera, this age-old tale of wayward love, of trust and betrayal, is set in Japan (a new and exotic land to early 20th century Europeans), but Puccini's music and the Giacosa-Illica libretto were written for Italian ears: over two hours of nonstop, romantic arias, duets and interludes swirling inexorably toward the Butterfly's inevitable, tragic ending.
The term "cad" may be old-fashioned, but Butterfly's lover, Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, is nothing less. Though he woos her well, in a magnificent love duet that ends Act One, he never considers her more than a plaything. Much is made of his "America Forever" sense of entitlement to "pluck the flowers on every shore" he visits. The US Consul, Sharpless, warns him about not to break Butterfly's "trusting heart," but Pinkerton has convinced himself that in Japan, "everything is flexible," even a marriage contract.
Poor Butterfly. When she enters with her bridal party, luminous beneath a golden parasol, she is "the happiest girl in Japan." She gives herself completely to Pinkerton, even though she's promptly renounced by her family. At the beginning of Act Two, abandoned for three years, she still waits for Pinkerton's ship to return. And here, at Madama Butterfly's midpoint, comes "Un Bel Di," the opera's most famous aria, the heroine's gut-wrenching resolve to tough it out, come what may. Alas, as we know all to well, It's all downhill from there.
When Pinkerton does return, he can't even face Butterfly. Too late, he realizes what a shit he's been. Too late, Butterfly acknowledges she's been deceived. "I knew it would end like this," clucks the Consul. (Last year, an American professor wrote a book, "Butterfly's Child"--renamed Benji-- that imagines the youngster growing up \on a farm in the Midwest after Pinkerton retires.) Stefano Secco, the tenor from Milan who sings Pinkerton in this production, says he knows he's done a good job when he gets booed at the curtain call.
But in the end, it's all about the soprano who sings Butterfly. Patricia Racette owns the role, taking us from a giddy teenager thrilled to be marrying an American in a Navy uniform to the sadder but wiser single mom who chooses suicide over dishonor. Racette has lived in Japan and knows firsthand the gestures and movements of a geisha; she has sung Butterfly almost 100 times, most recently at the Met in New York. Vocally, the part demands everything, while physically the Japanese geisha gestures must be precise. If there's an emotion to be manipulated, Racette knows how to wring the heartstrings.
The story, in fact, was originally adapted for the Broadway stage by the American playwright David Belasco; Puccini saw a production in London in 1900 and--though he understood not one word of English--was moved to tears. And, sure, there's a certain irony that in Seattle the American naval officer is sung by an Italian, the American consul by a Canadian, the two Japanese women by Americans, all led by a Bulgarian conductor. If you stood around until the world produced a perfect Japanese Butterfly, you'd still be waiting for the downbeat.
On the HD simulcast at Key Arena on opening night, it was a bit of a surprise to see beer vendors in the aisles before the music started, although there was no intrusive "Getcher programs, getcher peanuts, getcher sooshee!" thank goodness.Instead, the jaw-dropping immediacy of the performace itself. I found that the closeups of the singers made the story seem even more tragic, but my own sense of awe and terror wasn't readily shared. (That essay is here.) Onstage at McCaw, there seemed to be much greater warmth in the audience toward the performers, a greater connection with the artists, and a growing sense of excitement and foreboding that exploded in well-deserved applause at the final curtain.
Seattle Opera presents Madama Butterfly, at McCaw Hall. Performances May 11, 12, 16 & 19 at 7:30 PM; May 13 & 20 at 2 PM. Tickets from ($25 to $244) online at www.SeattleOpera.org, or by calling the box office (206-389-7676) during business hours.
Above: Patricia Racette as Butterfly, Sefano Secco as Pinkerton. Seattle Opera photo © Elise Bakketun