Madame Butterfly – Opera Review

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Madam ButterflyEast is East, West is West, racial inter-mixing is never blessed.

There’s no ifs, ands or but-terflies about it — Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 Madame Butterfly is among the most beloved operas of all time, and rightfully so. From our 21st century “post-racial” (as if!) perch it’s easy to get up on our high horses and dismiss this early stab (no pun intended) at depicting interracial romance as being stereotypical, even racist. For instance, in commentary accompanying a Turner Classic Movies screening of Son of the Gods, Robert Osborne criticized this 1930 pre-Code film about racism — sexual and otherwise — against Asians in America as “cringe-worthy” and “creaky.” The usually circumspect Osborne went on to disparage D.W. Griffith’s 1919 classic Broken Blossoms, which was actually a plea for understanding and tolerance that likewise starred Richard Barthelmess.

In the same vein some may deride Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka’s turn as the title character in Madame Butterfly as “Yellowface” — a white person impersonating a character of Asian ancestry through cosmetics, costuming, mannerisms, etc., which is also true for other “Oriental” roles performed by Caucasians in this production. Perhaps. Racism is certainly America’s original sin and disg-race-ful, and should always be exposed, wherever it rears its proverbially ugly head. But at the same time, in hindsight, we must not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Griffith richly deserved to be protested and picketed for his vile racism in 1915’s The Birth of a Nation, but his subsequent Broken Blossoms, like his 1916 masterpiece Intolerance, are motion picture pleas against man’s inhumanity to man, and can be viewed as attempts to make up for the harm he did with his racially despicable Civil War epic. Again, I don’t mean for a second to excuse racism and stereotyping, but I am arguing that we must view works of art within the context of their times. Having said all that —

Meanwhile, back at the review:

The splendid first act of Butterfly ranks with the very best work in all of the L.A. Opera productions I’ve covered. Michael Yeargan’s scenery and costuming are evocative of turn of the last century Japan. The libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica quickly reveals B.F. Pinkerton’s (Montana-born tenor Brandon Jovanovich) perfidy and opportunistic streak, as he likens the 99-year lease on his home — which he has a monthly annullment option — to his marital vows to eponymous character, Cio-Cio-San. Like the shoji panels at his hilltop house overlooking the harbor, he views his marriage — arranged by matrimonial broker Goro (Manila-born tenor Rodell Rosel) — as sliding, lasting only during his brief Naval deployment to Japan, until he makes “real” nuptials with, shall we say, “one of his own kind.” (Lyric soprano D’ana Lombard of New York plays Kate Pinkerton.) The thoughtless Pinkerton confides his treachery to U.S. Consul Sharpless (Philadelphia-born bass baritone Eric Owens — and BTW, since we’re discussing race specific casting, would the U.S. diplomatic corps have had an African American represent U.S. interests overseas in 1904?).

The unfortunate Cio-Cio-San has had to support herself and her family since her father’s hara-kiri death (her revealing of the blade that did the suicidal deed early in Act I foreshadows what is to happen) by becoming a geisha. Pinkerton is clearly smitten by the charming Cio-Cio-San, and likens the kimono-clad beauty to art, flowers and insects; she refers to herself as a “goddess.” It never seems to occur to either of them (in particular to Pinkerton) that this “Butterfly” is merely human, a flesh and blood being with heart, soul and psyche. Indeed, it turns out Cio-Cio-San is only 15 years old, so by today’s standards, Pinkerton is arguably a child molester, if not a child rapist.

Cio-Cio-San is described as having profound feelings for her white “husband”; perhaps because of her father’s fate, and the limited options available to a young lady in early 20th century Japan, she seeks to escape social restrictions by “marrying” an American and elevating her status. Cio-Cio-San turns her back on her ancestral religion, incurring the wrath of the Bonze (New York-born bass Stefan Szkafarowsky), who disrupts her “wedding” ceremony, and casts a sort of fatwa upon the two star crossed lovers.

Nevertheless, afterward, when its bedtime without Bonze, lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge illumines the lovers’ marital bed with the constellations in a dazzlingly romantic expression of their passion. The scene captures what, to paraphrase Spike Lee, could be called “bamboo fever,” as East meets West in sexual bliss.

But alas, as Rudyard Kipling put it, “never the twain shall meet.” Act II greatly encapsulates the action, as Pinkerton ships out, leaving behind Cio-Cio-San and, unbeknownst to Pinkerton, a love child. And unbeknownst to Butterfly, her American has flitted away and wed a fellow Yankee Doodle Dandy. As Butterfly pines away for her feckless gaijin (Caucasian), she sings the breathtakingly beautiful aria Un bel di (One Fine Day), which Dyka delivers flawlessly and movingly (even if it may be politically incorrect for a Ukrainian to portray an Asian, and anatomically incorrect for a hefty 34 year old to depict a slender teen). Well, when that not so mighty fine day does arrive — and with it, Mrs. Pinkerton — let’s just say it’s “ciao,” Cio-Cio-San.

What was Puccini getting at 108 years ago? Madame Butterfly is much more than a mere Mikado minstrel show. (Indeed, from 1915 to 1920 Japanese opera singer Tamaki Miura played the part in America and Europe.) Pinkerton’s rank is relatively low; he’s only a lieutenant, after all. It’s as if the color of his skin and racial pedigree was such that it bestowed a social status that outshone that of another suitor, the wealthy aristocrat Prince Yamadori (Korean-born baritone Museop Kim), who tries to woo Butterfly while her unfaithful “husband” sails the seven seas. His American-ness seems to be the allure for the outcast geisha Cio-Cio-San, who has been spurned by her own people and their cultural codes. Madame Butterfly is subject to interpretation, but I suspect Puccini, who so sympathized with countercultural artistes in La Boheme and political prisoners in Tosca, was criticizing racial intolerance, and not interracial love.

Ron Daniels ably directs the production which has some complex mass scenes, and Grant Gershon wields his baton with all the finesse of a musical samurai, conducting Puccini’s effervescent score.

And now, the ultimate irony of this misbegotten amour between the Japanese female and an American military officer: The story is set in none other than Nagasaki. As Oliver Stone convincingly argues in his current Showtime documentary series and companion book The Untold History of the United States, the U.S. did not need to nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki, massacring mostly (nonwhite) civilians, to bring World War II to a close. The Enola Gay’s radioman Abe Spitzer described the result of that B-29’s dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima:

“As I watched, hypnotized by what I saw, the column of smoke changed its color, from a grey-white to brown, then amber, then all three colors at once, mingled into a bright, boiling rainbow. For a second it looked as though its fury might be ending, but almost immediately a kind of mushroom spurted out of the top and traveled up, up to what some say was a distance of 60,000 or 70,000 feet…. Some said it was 80,000 feet, some 85,000 feet, some even more…. After that, another mushroom, somewhat smaller, boiled up out of the pillar…” According to the book, Spitzer heard someone say, “I wonder if maybe we’re not monkeying around with things that are none of our business.”

And perhaps that quintessential ugly American, Pinkerton, should not have monkeyed around with Madame Butterfly, using white supremacy and deception to court then abandon the trusting child Cio-Cio-San, who was so cruelly caught between two worlds.

Madame Butterfly is being performed Wednesday Nov. 28, Saturday Dec. 1 and Thursday, Dec. 6 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 9 at 2:00 p.m. And for those who haven’t had enough of their Puccini fix,

Tosca is being performed May 18 – June 8, 2013 at LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. For more info: (213)972-8001; www.laopera.com

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Ed Rampell About Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film critic/historian and author named after Edward R. Murrow, in honor of the broadcaster's exposé of Senator Joe McCarthy. As a film critic and historian Rampell co-wrote Made in Paradise: Hollywood's Films of Hawaii and the South Seas and Pearl Harbor in the Movies and Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States. He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., Islands, Action Asia, Travel Age West, Skin Inc., Porthole, Far East Traveler, Asian Diver, L.A. Times, Toronto Globe & Mail, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, Pacific Business News, E The Environmental Magazine, L.A. Reader, and is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Journal.