Home     Content     Articles      La Scena Musicale     Search   

La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 8

Madama Butterfly

Par/by Wah Keung Chan, Graham Lord, Joseph So, Pierre Marc Bellemare / May 11, 2008

Madama Butterfly – Isolated Mother

Wah Keung Chan & Graham Lord

Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is a tragic story of love, betrayal and a young mother Cio-Cio San’s ultimate sacrifice. Michel Beaulac, artistic director of the Montreal Opera explains, “She gives up her son, Dolore, to Pinkerton and Kate in order for him to be happy, so that he will be raised in a society in which he will be accepted for what he is, whereas in Japan, he would have been ostracized, just as Cio-Cio San herself is ostracized by all of Japanese society. The choice is difficult and painful, and her pain is so great that she ends her own life.”

When the Montreal Opera’s next production of Butterfly opens on May 24, Cio-Cio San’s isolation will be emphasized in the striking sets from Opera Australia. “Right after the marriage, she is alone in her world, isolated in the choices she has made,” explains Beaulac. “Visually, what is extremely imposing and to the point is the plateau on which all the action takes place. The plateau is a square with light-coloured (pale-blonde) wood, and all around it is water and the access to that water consists of three bridges, one from upstage, and one from each side, right and left stage. It really represents the intimacy and isolation of Cio-Cio San all through the evolution of the drama. It’s all closed in and there are shojis that lift up to let the people come in and intervene in the drama.”

The role of Cio-Cio San is vocally extremely demanding and requires a soprano with tremendous technique. “There are big emotional moments, such as Un bel dì vedremo and Che tua madre, where she sings very vocally demanding lines,” says Beaulac. “At the end, there’s Tu, tu piccolo Idio, and the soprano has to give it her all, after singing for three hours, so it’s extremely demanding. Puccini calls for a spinto voice: you need a lyric voice, but one to which you can apply much more appoggio, much more support so that you can reach a level of volume and expression that characterizes the line and gives it its full potency in terms of reaching out to the audience. Puccini is very connected to the soul and the heart. You need to be able to express that emotion without breaking your voice on every line because your heart is breaking.”

Although according to Opera America Butterfly is now the most performed opera, when it premiered in 1904, it was very poorly received. After Puccini revised the way the acts were split and made other minor changes, it became successful and in 1907 received its Metropolitan Opera premiere. “It is certainly a turning point in Puccini’s writing,” says Beaulac. “In a way, it’s the opera that gave him the most grief. The extremely touching nature of the story, the fact that the success wasn’t there on opening night… this really drained him and caused him great sorrow. There were several years between Butterfly and the next opera (La Fanciulla del West premiered in 1910). There are many accounts given of his burnout and depression following Butterfly, yet along with Tosca and La Bohème, it’s probably one of his three most popular operas.”

For Beaulac, Butterfly has so many beautiful and touching moments, it’s hard to pin down a favourite part, “I don’t think there’s a line in the entire score that’s not touching. Certainly, Che tua madre is extremely dramatic, but that’s obvious. If Un bel dì vedremo is sung the way it’s supposed to be sung, with the right intention from both the singer and the conductor, with involvement and in the true Puccini style, it’s as if you were hearing it for the first time, even though we’ve all heard it countless times. When Cio-Cio San finds out that Pinkerton has married Kate and that she will be abandoned, that he’s come to let her know and maybe even take the child away…this moment is extremely moving. The letter scene, as well, if it’s done in a very precise and intricate way, it is so subtle, yet so heartrending.”

Madama Butterfly at the Montreal Opera. The production stars Hiromi Omura as Cio-Cio San, or Butterfly, while tenor Richard Troxell plays Pinkerton, the American naval lieutenant who marries her. Troxell also sang this role in a film version of the opera by Frédéric Mitterand. Canadian baritone James Westman plays Sharpless, a kind-hearted American consul in Japan, while Butterfly’s maid, Suzuki, is sung by another Canadian, mezzo Annamaria Popescu. Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the Orchestre Métropolitain. Directed by Moffatt Oxenbould, former director of Opera Australia, this production is taken from the Australian company, as was last year’s Lakmé. Evening performances at 8:00 PM are on May 24th and 28th, June 2nd, 5th and 7th, while a 2:00 PM matinée takes place on May 31. Take note that LSM’s next fundraiser is for the opening night of this production, the 24th (call 514-948-2520 for more details on this fundraiser).

Michel Beaulac's Butterflies

1- Victoria de los Angeles

Because of the vocal characterization; even though the voice is on the smaller size, the purity and childlike colour and intelligence of her interpretation make this recording a reference.

2- Mirella Freni

The balance between the voice and the interpretation merits attention and appreciation, especially in a performance where she is coupled with Luciano Pavarotti; the vocal marriage is perfect.

3- Renata Tebaldi

For the sheer beauty, and emotional power of the voice. The means are too great for the part but not for the heart.

Cio-cio San: Myths and Realities of a Puccini Woman

Joseph So

Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1905), based on the play by David Belasco (1900), who in turn drew his inspiration from a short story by John Luther Long (1898), is the archetypal “flawed woman”. Perhaps more than any other composer, Puccini is a master conjurer of women who tug at our heartstrings, characters the likes of Mimi, Tosca, Manon Lescaut, Minnie, and Suor Angelica. These endearing ladies are larger than life but all “imperfect” in some way – the vain Manon loves money, Tosca is too jealous for her own good, Mimi sleeps around, Angelica gives birth to a baby out of wedlock, Minnie cheats at cards, etc. But we love them just the same, despite their little foibles. A case can be made that Puccini’s geisha does not fit this mold, given her unwavering inner strength that rises to truly tragic heights in the end. The cynic will say her flaw is her naïve faith, sadly misdirected to someone unworthy. Indeed, Butterfly is one in a lineage of doll-like Asian women that have been eroticized and exoticized as products of the western imagination for well over a century.

A precursor to Cio-Cio San is Pierre Loti’s Madame Chrysanthème, a novel written in 1887. It bears strong kinship to David Henry Hwang’s M Butterfly (1988), subsequently made into a hit movie by David Cronenberg starring Jeremy Irons (1993). Of more recent vintage is the Academy Award winning movie Memoirs of a Geisha (2005). In postmodern critique, these characters, be it the love-sick geisha, the icy princess Turandot, or Broadway’s Miss Saigon, all represent a certain racialized, pan-Asian femininity seen strictly through the eyes of the western male. These child-like women are soft, pliable, passive, weak, eager to please, faithful in love, sexually reticent yet alluring and welcoming. Even Turandot, for all her fearsome qualities, is ultimately “conquered” by the foreigner hero Calaf and transformed into another “China Doll”. Given that we live in an enlightened era of 21st-century gender politics, it is curious that these mythical Asian stereotypes retain their resonance with undiminished power, not only in the opera house but also in western culture at large. Perhaps these images are not so much a reflection of reality but fantasy, and in a way, they serve as a commentary on the construction of masculinity in western culture.

Unlike in literature where imagery is left up to the readers’ imagination, dramatic verisimilitude in the opera house is another matter. An ideal Puccini heroine combines youthful sensuality with the requisite vocal maturity, a rather tall order for any soprano. Even the most attractive Butterfly is likely to elicit a collective chuckle from the audience when she demurely sings “Quindici netti, netti; sono vecchia diggià” in reply to Sharpless asking her age. Well, a Charlotte Church-like 15-year-old Cio-Cio San is just not in the cards, given the nature of opera singing! Historically there have always been more full-figured Butterflies the likes of Toti Dal Monte and Montserrat Caballé than the svelte and glamorous Raina Kabaivanska or Cristina Gallardo-Domas. With the rise of the stage director and the demands for greater theatrical realism, not to mention the scrutiny of the television camera, opera houses today tend to adopt a “looks first, voice second” policy in casting. Modern sensibilities have also led to a move towards casting Asian sopranos in the role. A lovely Cio-Cio San was Chinese soprano Ying Huang in the 1995 Frederic Mitterand film, but her fragile lyric voice is more suitable for Susanna and Zerlina than the dramatic Butterfly, a role she has never sung onstage. To be sure, there are Asian singers who can do justice to the role, from Yasuko Hayashi a generation ago to Xiu Wei Sun, who sang it in Toronto and Washington; Liping Zhang, marvelous in this role in many of the major houses including Covent Garden; and Montreal Opera’s current Butterfly, Hiromi Omura.


Pierre Marc Bellemare

Comme il y a lieu de s’y attendre, s’agissant d’un opéra aussi immensément populaire que Madama Butterly, la discographie de l’œuvre est abondante et très riche. L’âge d’or de cette discographie correspond à l’ère du 33 tours, soit du début des années cinquante à la fin des années soixante-dix. Beaucoup des plus grandes étoiles de la scène de l’époque ont enregistré le rôle-titre, dont Renata Tebaldi (avec Giuseppe Campora – Erede, Decca/London, 1951), Victoria de los Angeles (avec Giuseppe di Stefano – Gianandrea Gavazzeni, EMI/Angel, 1954), Maria Callas (avec Nicolai Gedda – Karajan, EMI/Angel, 1955), Renata Tebaldi, une deuxième fois (avec Carlo Bergonzi – Serafin, Decca/London, 1958), Anna Moffo (avec Cesare Valletti – Erich Leinsdorf, RCA, 1958), Victoria de los Angeles, une deuxième fois (avec Jussi Bjoerling – Santini, EMI/Angel, 1959), Renata Scotto (avec Carlo Bergonzi – Barbirolli, EMI/Angel, 1966), Mirella Freni (avec Luciano Pavarotti – Karajan, Decca / London, 1974) et Renata Scotto, une deuxième fois (avec Placido Domingo – Maazel, CBS/Sony, 1978).

On aura noté que ces gravures sont toutes « anciennes ». La plupart ne sont même pas en stéréo ! Malheureusement, et comme c’est souvent le cas des œuvres de grand répertoire, aucune des versions plus récentes ne semble présenter des qualités artistiques, et notamment vocales, comparables à celles qui font le prix de leurs devancières. Alors que les techniques d’enregistrement plus modernes sont toujours au rendez-vous (encore faut-il savoir comment s’en servir), on note toujours des faiblesses plus ou moins graves, soit de l’orchestre, de la distribution ou de leur symbiose.

Quoi qu’il en soit, les versions « modernes » vont et viennent tandis que les classiques ont tendance à rester. Les versions susmentionnées sont celles qui, souvent repiquées, sont les plus susceptibles de se retrouver sur le marché, et leur niveau de qualité moyen est si élevé que l’amateur en quête d’une « bonne version » pourrait presque se contenter d’en prendre une au hasard. Le reste est affaire de préférences personnelles, « pour ou contre Callas » ou encore l’attrait ou non d’un enregistrement complet mettant en vedette Jussi Bjoerling en Pinkerton. Il faut tout de même préciser que les critiques ont tendance à préférer la première version Tebaldi à la deuxième ainsi qu’à primer la première version Scotto (Barbirolli) à tous égards, sauf peut-être la direction d’orchestre.

Le catalogue DVD contient maintenant une demi-douzaine d’enregistrements de Madama Butterfly, mais pour l’essentiel, le choix se ramène à deux. L’une de ces productions (London/Deutsche Grammophon), remontant à 1974 et dirigée par Karajan, est signée Jean-Pierre Ponelle. L’autre (Columbia Tristar), plus récente (1995), dirigée par James Conlon, est l’œuvre d’un autre réalisateur français, Frédéric Mitterand. Les deux versions ont ceci en commun qu’il s’agit de films plutôt que de vidéos de représentations scéniques. Pour le reste, tout les distingue. Ponelle pouvait compter sur des vedettes (Mirelli Freni, Placido Domingo, Christa Ludwig), tandis que Mitterand a préféré recourir aux services d’inconnus, la Chinoise Ying Huang en Cio-Cio San et l’Américain Richard Troxell en Pinkerton. Ni Huang ni Troxell (qui, soit dit en passant, doit reprendre le rôle dans la production de l’OdM) n’ont des instruments comparables à ceux de leurs illustres prédécesseurs, mais qu’à cela ne tienne : Troxell n’a pas non plus des kilos à perdre, comme Domingo, pas plus que Mme Huang n’a trois fois l’âge de son personnage, comme la diva modénaise. Mais ce sont d’excellents comédiens dirigés de main de maître. Pas étonnant que, tandis que Ponnelle fait le choix de la stylisation, Mitterand a préféré jouer la carte du réalisme, quitte à prendre une autre tangente à quelques endroits (dont la visite du zio bonzo). La version du premier est aussi passionnée, sentimentale, « vériste », que celle du deuxième est tendre, sensuelle, voire sexuelle. Comme l’un et l’autre de ces DVD sont maintenant disponibles à des prix relativement modiques, je n’hésiterais pas à les recommander tous deux, d’autant plus que la diversité des approches est ici particulièrement révélatrice de la richesse des niveaux de signification de l’œuvre. S’il faut vraiment choisir, je recommanderais la version Ponnelle aux amateurs traditionnels d’opéra et celle de Mitterand à ceux qui sont plutôt cinéphiles. Pour finir, notons que la version Mitterand comporte quelques coupures dont celle (difficile à justifier) de l’introduction orchestrale au dernier acte (le réveil de Nagasaki) et que l’on a modifié l’ordre de certaines pages, notamment au premier acte.

(c) La Scena Musicale