Madama Butterfly

Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly grabs you at the heart and takes a long hold of it. Before you know it, the tragic heroine Cio-Cio-San(Madama Butterfly) stirs up the waterworks. There are no dry eyes among the audience even as the cast reappear onstage for the much deserved standing ovation at the New York State Theater.

Madama Butterfly, as produced by the New York City Opera, does not have as much razzle and dazzle as the sold-out versions of the Metropolitan Opera but the story and the music remains heart-wrenching. The stage set is minimalist, dominated by huge sliding doors in front and back of the stage and countered by a long set of horizontal steps. It's Nagasaki at the turn of the 20th century but at its heart, Madama Butterfly remains a weepy Italian opera.

There are Three Acts in this 3-hour performance with libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Based on the one-act play written by David Belasco, Puccini wanted to show the exotic clash of cultures between the East and the West. What makes this operatic adaptation ageless since its premiere in 1904 is the continuing divide among cultures and the continuing stories of sacrifices that we hear. Madama Butterfly tells us that loving and living between different cultures has as much thorns as there are petals in a rose.

Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, a young U.S. Navy lieutenant, marries 15-year-old geisha Cio-Cio-San after arranging the union with a broker. He has quite a different arrangement: his marriage along with his 999-year lease on a home overlooking Nagasaki harbor can be cancelled on a month's notice. Even though Butterfly truly loves him, Pinkerton doesn't take the marriage seriously as he was bent on finding an American wife ultimately. Pinkerton leaves Nagasaki for three years not knowing that he bore Butterfly a son. Butterfly continues to hope that Pinkerton will return someday: always on the look-out for ships entering the harbor and always listening for cannon booms signifying a ship's arrival. The American consul arrives to read her a letter from Pinkerton and despite the painful realization of abandonment, she finds strength in their young son, knowing that Pinkerton will surely return because of him. A remorseful Pinkerton returns to Nagasaki accompanied now by his American wife with a mission to bring the son to America. Butterfly, realizing a better life awaits her son, bids him goodbye and commits ritual suicide.

For this performance, Atsushi Yamada conducted the orchestra, bringing out a fluid rendition of Puccini's score. The soprano Shu-Ying Li (as Butterfly) effectively belted out arias that rode in the crest of orchestral high notes particularly in her scenes of self-delusion in Act Two. For his part, Christopher Jackson (as Pinkerton) gave a mechanical performance but still managed to offer a respectable voice of a tenor. What's good for a debut was mezzo-soprano Keri Alkema who played Suzuki, Butterfly's devoted househelp.
As with all Italian operas, everything was sung in Italian (with English supertitles). A good way indeed to feel like I'm not in New York.

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