Newton: Madame Butterfly At The Summit

A.J. Glueckert (Pinkerton) Kelly Kaduce (Madame Butterfly) and Megan Marino (Suzuki). Photo by Ken Howard/Courtesy of Santa Fe Opera

Los Alamos

Giacomo Puccini declared in February 1904 that Butterfly is “the best I’ve written.” Leading up to that moment he pursued the essence of East Asian music, and then merged it with music that would be appropriate for western characters.

Puccini drew some of his best poetic material from librettists Illica and Giacosa. But the opening night audience was predisposed to loudly reject it. However with his great acumen, Puccini made the first of many alterations and presented it 40 miles away in Brescia where it was wildly cheered during many curtain calls.

The Brescia version is the root of many later versions, and the production this year in Santa Fe is at the summit of many productions I’ve been to in the last four decades. In the aerie of Pinkerton’s and Butterfly’s home their lives as a couple appear to have a good but tenuous beginning, but then this verismo opera pulls at our heartstrings starting when her priest uncle curses her and her relatives abandon her. Her servant Suzuki attempts by every means she can muster to make Butterfly’s life fulfilling.

Although this production is a remount from 2010 when the late Lee Blakely created it, the Los Angeles based director Matthew Ozawa has modeled the body language of the Japanese characters to conform to the late 20th century. Notably the hands are held close to the center of the body and in relating to others their bodies are twisted in a manner that suggests being shy. Distinctly different are the expansive arm gestures of the westerners.

Intrinsic to the opera are diverse religious practices in Japan, which are more cultural than a matter of belief or faith. Buddhism with various practices was introduced into Japan when Shinto was essentially the state religion. The various deities which were indigenous are kami (mystical, superior, or divine).

Kami appears often in the libretto when Suzuki and Butterfly’s relatives are intoning their religious practice. The Japanese engage in rituals at Shinto shrines, and are likely to have Buddha images in their homes. Both Suzuki and Butterfly kneel before Buddha images.

Studying the score I spotted a Sakura melody played by flutes. Sakura is used as the name of the Japanese cherry tree, known for blossoms without fruit, but it is also the folk tune played on bamboo flutes. Puccini’s orchestral writing is a rich treasure, and John Fiore pulls out all the stops to give us a very emotional evening of joy and sorrow, just as Butterfly wishes Trouble will be transformed from sorrow to joy.

There may be some in the audience that are aghast at Butterfly wrapping herself in the flag. The flag that is used as a prop is the American flag that would have appeared in the offices of consuls and flown on ships of the navy from the latter part of the 20th century into the beginning of the 21st century. Butterfly wants very much to be the American that Pinkerton will reclaim.

It is very pleasing to have former aprentices reappear in principal roles, Tenor A. J. Glueckert delivers beautifully in solo, duet and ensemble numbers. Another is tenor Matthew DiBattista as the nakado Goro who is not only vocally resplendent, but also has fine acting skills. Another role that has been well filled in this production is the boy Trouble. Each time I’ve seen this production Paxton Bleyle has appeared after spending hours in the Green Room before coming on stage at a very late hour. His scene with Butterfly when she has him shake hands with Sharpless is a moment I don’t recall from previous productions.

Madame Butterfly never wears thin, and I’m so pleased it has returned after a seven year hiatus.

I hope that I will have the opportunity to visit with many readers attending performances in August when I will want to hear a different Pinkerton and a different Butterfly.

Nicholas Pallesen (Sharpless) and Kelly Kaduce (Madame Butterfly) with (Paxton Bleyle) the boy Trouble. Photo by Ken Howard/Courtesy of Santa Fe Opera

A scene from Madame Butterfly. Photo by Ken Howard/Courtesy of Santa Fe Opera

A scene from Madame Butterfly. Photo by Ken Howard/Courtesy of Santa Fe Opera

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