Madama Butterfly: Review
November 29th, 2004
Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Vancouver BC.
Vancouver Opera's 2004 production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly is not only exciting on stage, it is exciting in the Vancouver community, and has created a good buzz, especially through the creation of the Views of Japan community outreach program.
Madam Butterfly is one of the most controversial and most loved operas in the North American Asian community, due to the importance of Asian roles and storyline as well as the reinforcement of Asian stereotypes. The 2004 VOA production has a bit of everything, especially an Asian Soprano in the lead role of Cio-Cio San, Chinese-Canadian Liping Zhang. But more importantly, the VOA production attempts to go beyond the stereotyping and to provide a deeper understanding of Japanese culture, that Puccini probably wasn't even able to grasp in his day, as his opera was based on play and not on an actual visit to Japan.
The curtain is open with a raked raised stage in the middle of the stage floor. This is the Japanese home, complete with shoji screens. The story begins with American Officer Lt. Pinkerton (Scott Piper) explaining to the American Consul Sharpless (Gregory Dahl), that he has just taken out a 999 year lease on a house, and has arranged through Goro the marriage broker to take a 15 year old Geisha as a wife… and when he feels like it, he can cancel both on 30 days short notice.
Piper and Dahl both sing in good strong voices, as Sharpless cautions Pinkerton that his devil may care / enjoy life no matter the cost attitude will have a devastating effect on the young bride. But Pinkerton is so enamoured of the young bride's fragile beauty, that he goes through with his plans. And so begins a now classic tale of mistaken cultural understanding and insensitivity as both Pinkerton and Cio-Cio San have different expectations for the marriage.
Cio-Cio San (Liping Zhang) arrives and it is learned that as part of the celebration of her marriage to an American, she has now forsaken her Buddhist beliefs and embraced Christianity, in an effort to become more American. It is in this first act that Zhang plays a young teen-aged girl, giddy with marriage, yet restrained in her inexperience. It isn't until Act 2, set 3 years later, as a love-lorn abandoned bride with no returning husband in sight, that Zhang's vocal power and theatrical presence really establish themselves.
Meanwhile, all around the outside of the house, are figures clad in dust grey ninja-like robes. They move like ghosts, these are known as the “ancient ones.” This is an addition by director Glynis Leyshon, that reinforces and strengthens the unseen ties to tradition and culture that Cio-Cio San can never completely free herself from. While many viewers might see the slow moving silent figures as a distraction, I personally found it fascinating. My companion (who has seen Madam Butterfly 6 previous times by different companies) was equally struck by the added dimension that the figures brought to the stage. The slow Butoh-like movements reminded me of the many performances that I had seen of Vancouver's Kokoro Dance Theatre, led by Jay Hirabayashi.
The musical highlights in Act 2, soared with Zhang's singing of one of the most famous arias ever, “Un Bel Dei”, as Cio-Cio San declares to her maid Suzuki (Julie Nesrallah), that no matter how much the community is talking, and Goro is trying to set her up with another husband, or that her family has disowned her – she still has faith that her beloved husband, the erstwhile globe-sailing American sailor, will return home to her. Zhang demonstrated why she has made this role her own, and is now recognized internationally. Her range of dynamics demonstrated great control from soaring voice to almost a whisper.
And on the day that she sees an American Naval ship arrive in the harbour, her joy erupts. Cio-Cio San orders Suzuki to decorate the house with flowers until the garden is bare. Flower petals gently fall on the stage as if from heaven. But it is in Japanese culture, that while heigh of the cheery tree blossoms are a scene of exquisite and sublime beauty, it is also recognized that soon will come a time of great sadness, when the blossoms must fall.
With great anticipation, Cio-Cio San begins her long vigil for her husband's return. The lighting effects subtlely recognize the shifting of time from day to evening, to night and to dawn. Zhang looks patiently into the audience, as the Vancouver Opera orchestra plays the plaintive “Hummer's chorus”. As if to demonstrate the emotional aguish within Butterfly, two of the “ancient one” take the entire song to move the 5 minutes across the stage, while others move on either side of the “house set.”
It is in the final scene that the “ancient ones” really fulfill their role, as they first assist Butterfly in preparing for her inevitable choice of honourable suicide in the face of Pinkerton's return to Japan with an American bride, despite her having born a child of him in his absence. These “ancient ones” hand Butterfly her father's sword, as they help her bind herself. When Pinkerton finally dashes into the house which he remembers only as a “love nest”, he is met with a prone Butterfly. He tries to reach her but a circle of “ancient ones” form a protective ring around her, to greatly increased psychological and dramatic effect.
Vancouver Opera director James Wright has done an incredible amount of community building to bring an understanding to the opera audience of both Vancouver's Japanese Canadian community and the Japan of the Meiji Period where Puccini's opera is set. It is almost as if VOA has followed the lead of the Vancouver Public Library's award winning One Book One Vancouver program which very successfully helped make the inaugural book Wayson Choy's The Jade Peony, come alive through author talks, related topics, and walking tours… Damn! That's exactly what VOA is doing… One Opera One Vancouver! Complete with Opera Speaks talks at the libary.
Does all this community programming help the production? I think it has helped to make the 1906 opera more vital and interesting in these times of cross-cultural examination. It is with having attended some of the Views of Japan events at the library, that I attended Madama Butterfly on Tuesday evening with an even greater appreciation of Japanese culture, and for what it means for Canadians and Japanese Canadians.