Madama Butterfly

Original poster from 1914 by Adolfo Hohenstein (1854-1928)
We've just returned from Intermission.  Butterfly spots the Abraham Lincoln coming into port.  She has faithfully waited three years for Pinkerton to return, and now believing that he will (for her), she scatters her house with cherry blossoms and high hopes.  The stagehands send up the ship's arrival with a simple silhouette projection, and Puccini's music heads into fanfare mode -- colored as for much of the opera with leitmotivic flair no less persistent than Valhalla's ghosts.  Then, faced with all that irony -- from "O say can you see by the dawn's early light," to Butterfly's ignorant son waving the American flag -- the audience bursts into Pavlovian applause.  It's another night at the opera in Washington, D.C.

Of course, we know that Pinkerton is kind of an asshole, and his arrival is no cause for celebration.  We know that Pinkerton brings along his new wife to demand sole custody of the child he earlier fathered with Butterfly.  And we know that there's a knife, and someone will die, and it ain't no Yankee.

Or do we?  And with that healthy question guiding my thoughts, I go back to the time in my late teens when first I experienced this dramatic work, not only the musical experience but also the high drama, which opera-tes on a different scale than literary or even cinematic fiction.  The dramatic arc of Madama Butterfly builds upon operatic conventions of aria and exposition, ascending into its tight, shocking narrative plateau that goes to blackout before the running time leaves room for wandering.  To remember this impact, without the baggage of having attended a dozen repeats, is the surest way to survey this opera's place as a repertoire masterpiece -- and thus, all the above harrumphing about audience reaction is not so simple.  If Butterfly's original dramatic impact should blanch upon one dozenth showing, what might emerge is this epiphany:  Puccini's masterpiece is highly manipulative, and it still works after all these years.

So yes, the audience cheers.  (During this extended run at the Kennedy Center Opera House, the Washington National Opera is packing seats with new blood, a winning strategy during this stormy time for the company and the economy.)  And having been manipulated that way, the audience willingly joins an artist's architecture designed to arouse an emotional climax.  (I might still maintain that the weird applause especially owes to the fact that The Washingtonian -- not least its pertaining genus of early evening arts patrons -- is programmed to applaud flags and fanfare...)  I make this rather drawn-out case about manipulation in order to propose that the work awkwardly mingles with our contemporary values, and now we only hope that the narrative simply appalls civilized society once her audience reaches the end.  (I've heard on good authority that Washington audiences earlier than mine had affectionately booed Pinkerton for his curtain call, rather like hissing at a vaudeville villain all-in-good-fun.)  This expectation for revulsion comes from several directions.  The Asian community (of which I am half-a-part) struggles with Butterfly's perpetuation of the classical "Oriental" archetype of a devoted wife who disproportionately subjugates.  Indeed, the opera inspired playwright David Henry Hwang in M. Butterfly to subvert the narrative into a gender-bending Broadway play that took Puccini's original snarkiness against Western repression to a whole new level of comeuppance.  Asians on the other hand cannot avoid the tragic admission that Butterfly's extreme devotion-unto-death, which seems insane, actually represents something of a crown jewel in the surviving Asian society aesthetic; from outside that culture, you might perceive it from watching a recent abundance of romantic comedy imports (one niche that Korea in particular has owned in recent years).  Ron Daniels' expert stage direction here expertly depicts Butterfly's obscene modesty as she stands behind a screen, unlatching just a panel or two for peeking into her moment of deliverance, just enough to preserve the heroism of Pinkerton's imagined homecoming.

From another direction, Butterfly strikes the American audience as suspiciously disparaging against Yanks.  Again, our national anthem functions here as an inglorious leitmotif, coming from a climate of Italian nationalism at a time when I cannot say they were on the right track either (fascism had almost arrived).  Indeed, if you should focus on the original 1914 poster at the top of this page, you may notice that Butterfly's son is waving a U.S. flag as his own mother kills herself.  (Many subsequent productions, and several I have seen, used this archetype.)  The ironic message cannot be lost on anyone, and is likely to be Puccini's contemporaneous vision as his society confronted all the wondrous fussing about a New World's greatness from within Italy's old world of richer history.

The Washington National Opera has inherited this production from San Francisco, and it ranks among the more conservative stagings we have seen (alongside cinematic adaptations like the Martin Scorsese production at left).  As recently as a couple of seasons ago, we were given a rather weird production, itself a repeat of the same production just a few seasons prior.  If memory serves, there was a surrealist wall of numerous dismembered hands reaching into urns and sprinkling cherry blossom petals onto a minimalist stage.  Something like that.  (And, rather derivative of Cocteau's visions in La Belle et la Bête.)  I also recall imaginary reflecting pools around which stage movement got blocked, until at some point the careful suspension of disbelief turned into "aw screw it," and unintended miracles of walking on water ensued.  Again, something like that.

Here, you get period costuming, and much use of sliding screen doors all across the set, and a peculiar burka-like hiding of Butterfly's butlers.  Of course, the big payoff in Butterfly -- the pinnacle moment so endemic to Puccini and so raptly anticipated (rather like The Three Tenors hauling through their third consecutive damn encore of "Nessun Dorma") -- is the sunset that leads into the Intermezzo between Acts II and III.  It might be the most gorgeous orchestral passage of Puccini's whole opus, and this production serves it best at its end:  The stagehands send up a silhouette of Japan's rising sun flag.  It is the emblem of Japan's imperial military, and it adds nuance to this complicated mix of nationalistic irony and old-meets-new.  Most of all, it heads off a finely tuned third act that diverts the audience into wrenching empathy -- bolstered no less by the preceding romance, and prettiness, and ironic fanfare.

In the Washington National Opera's longest run ever, and probably the longest run of any opera locally, this production continues through March 19.

The company has generously donated a pair of free tickets to DC Arts Beat as a gift to one reader and his/her guest.  The prize is a voucher that can be redeemed for either the March 14 or March 17 performance.  To enter:  (1) post a link to this page on Twitter, Facebook, or any other blog; and (2) send a simple email to contest@dcartsbeat.com with your name, phone number, and reference to where you posted.  At 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, March 10, the entrants will be run through this random picker and the winner contacted immediately with the voucher.  Good luck!