Saturday, October 13, 2007

Madama Butterfly.

Last night I went to see the Anthony Minghella production of Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera. The Met was one of the great discoveries of my first year at Ciszek; though I've always enjoyed classical music, I wasn't much of an opera fan before I came to New York. That started to change last year as I had the opportunity to attend several performances of the Metropolitan Opera thanks to a group of subscribers at Fordham who had season tickets they couldn't always use. As it happened, the first opera I saw at the Met was Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, a six-hour epic that "has shining moments and interminable half-hours," as one Jesuit opera aficionado (and admitted Wagner buff) aptly put it. Having survived Wagner, I took in performances of George Frideric Handel's Giulio Cesare and Richard Strauss' seldom-performed Die Ägyptische Helena. The Met production I really wanted to see last year and missed was Madama Butterfly, so I was happy to have a chance to see it this season.

In my admittedly limited experience, I've noticed a healthy tension between tradition and innovation in the Metropolitan Opera's programming. At the risk of making a sweeping (and perhaps unjustified) generalization, my sense is that the Met's most loyal subscribers are relatively conservative in their artistic tastes. They seem to have a strong preference for lavish productions with elaborate sets, period costumes and swarms of extras, and they'll pay to see the same production season after season as long as it suits their tastes. At the same time, Met loyalists appear to be somewhat suspicious of innovation, liking decidedly traditional (and admittedly very lovely) interpretations of their favorite operas more than new and sometimes shockingly different productions. That's not to say there isn't a market for innovation for the Met, because every season features several new productions. To their credit, the old-line subscribers seem willing to give new productions a try, but they reserve the right to grumble about them afterward. Each Met season offers a carefully blended mix of new and old, balancing new (or newish) productions with the old favorites that are guaranteed to please the most loyal subscribers.

The Anthony Minghella production of Madama Butterfly fits the bill for innovation at the Met, and as a result it has its share of detractors. Criticisms of the production tend to focus on the fairly minimal sets (not much more than Japanese screens) and Minghella's decision to use a bunraku-style puppet to represent Cio-Cio-San's three-year-old son rather than a real child. I liked the sets and didn't mind the puppet, though I'll admit that since this was my first time seeing Butterfly on stage I don't have the same perspective a seasoned fan might. Soprano Patricia Racette did a fine job as Cio-Cio-San and tenor Roberto Alagna offered a nicely nuanced performance as B. F. Pinkerton, who might otherwise have come across as a cardboard cad. On the whole, I enjoyed Minghella's Butterfly enough that I would very happily see it again.

The cultural, racial and sexual politics of Madama Butterfly have attracted much comment in recent years, and I don't wish to add to the debate. From my perspective, the great tragedy of Madama Butterfly comes from the heartbreaking devotion of Cio-Cio-San and the striking naïveté of Pinkerton. The fifteen-year-old Cio-Cio-San is probably at least somewhat aware of the conventions that govern "temporary" marriages like the one she enters into with Pinkerton, but her love for the American sailor is so strong that she believes that he will remain as loyal to her as she is to him.

Pinkerton, who knows how the "temporary" marriage game is played, is at least superficially captivated by Cio-Cio-San. However, Pinkerton fails to perceive that his young bride's professions of love are much deeper than his. The angst that Pinkerton reveals when he returns to Nagasaki with his American wife and learns of Cio-Cio-San's genuine feelings suggests to me that the American sailor was ultimately just as heartbroken as the Japanese geisha that he unknowingly betrayed. Pinkerton may not be bound by the traditions that lead Cio-Cio-San to commit suicide, but the son he brings back to the United States offers a permanent reminder of his sin. I'm sure some would disagree, but I think Rivers Cuomo got Pinkerton right. AMDG.


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