With claims in the press recently that Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is inherently racist, the Royal Opera’s production, now on its third revival, continues to pull in the audiences and send them away satisfied. Chinese-Canadian soprano Liping Zhang is a terrific Butterfly, singing beautifully and convincing us that she is a vulnerable child. As Pinkerton, the American tenor Andrew Richards, in his slightly delayed Royal Opera debut, has dashing good looks and is equally well cast.
Richards’ voice is not particularly big or beautiful, and he cracked a few times the performance I saw (most noticeably on “America Forever”), but he is youthful, believable and has great presence. Alan Opie is highly sympathetic as the wise US Consul Sharpless, who sees the potential for tragedy from the very beginning.
Who’d have thought that Puccini could be controversial? That may be overstating the case but there has been a slight ripple this week, following Professor Roger Parker’s contention that this opera is virtually unperformable nowadays because of some of the sentiments expressed. If we are to see opera as more than just music with a good story, this is an important issue and there are two ways (at least) of looking at it.
On the one hand, any work of art has to be taken on its own terms and accepted as a product of the age in which it was written. Madama Butterfly was composed when Imperialism was maybe on the wane but still acceptable. Whether it is a work that condones the rape and exploitation of one country by another or as one that subtly undermines it by showing the oppressor as villain (or simply as a story about a young man who doesn’t consider the consequences of his actions) is open to debate. Whichever way you see it, the opera, to a very large extent, reflects the attitudes of its time and should be accepted as such.
On the other hand, no performance can separate itself from the social and political context in which it takes place and if it is not to be a museum-piece, has to speak to a contemporary audience. You don’t have to dress everyone in orange jumpsuits to achieve that and I think it’s perfectly possible to bear both of these factors in mind when watching a work. Perhaps, the conflict between the two can help us to take opera from being a merely passive activity to one that makes you think.
Wherever you stand on these points may well dictate which productions you prefer. Either attitude taken to an extreme (rigidly “traditional” or trendily topical) can result in a deadly evening in the theatre. So, how does Covent Garden’s production of Madama Butterfly stand in relation to this interesting and, for the moment at least, hot issue?
Well, traditionalists won’t be disappointed. This is an uncluttered, clear production with simple and elegant designs. There are no attempts to undermine the intentions of the writers and the result is it all works beautifully. The performances are excellent and there are some fine moments I was very moved by Sharpless picking up Butterfly’s little boy, the first embrace from a father-figure that the child has known; Suzuki (Elena Cassian) and Butterfly’s duet while scattering flowers in preparation for Pinkerton’s return is exquisite and the humming chorus wonderfully delicate.
In the pit, Nicola Luisotti steers the orchestra through Puccini’s glorious melodies while staying on the right side of sentimentality.
In the light of the current debate, I left the performance with a new-found respect for Puccini and his librettists. I was able to sit back and enjoy the opera on its own terms while, due to the musical and dramatic complexity, not losing sight of the implications of the events depicted. It both moved me and made me think.