“Madame Butterfly” in Hong Kong

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The concept for this new production Madama Butterfly was been influenced the work’s literary background: the western perception of Japan present throughout the autobiographical novel of Pierre Loti (Madame Chrysanthème, 1887) and the diary treatment of the subject by Félix Régamey (The Pink Notebook of Madame Chrysanthème, 1894). These two sources present the protagonist Madame Chrysanthème is in two completely different characterizations: in Loti, she is a dissolute and licentious woman, while in Regamey she is a needy, extremely sensitive creature. David Belasco, meanwhile, (who wrote the play (1904)—derived via an 1898 short story by American John Luther Long—that was the main reference for Giacomo Puccini’s librettists Illica and Giacosa, describes her as a victim of a fatal and irresistible love.

Puccini’s opera refers to the geisha Cio-Cio-San and similarly retells her fictive marriage. While the work reveals exploitative and opportunistic Western machismo, the opera nevertheless concentrates on Butterfly’s feelings, her psychology and the highly dramatic conflict between her identity and her true love, a unsolvable conflict which leads her to delusion and to death. This approach draws the opera back into the original discourse surrounding the Western discovery of Japan in the late 19th century, a contentious field involving contemporaneous questions of exoticism, race, gender and sexual exploitation. These themes were of enormous significance in Puccini’s day and this production thus places his opera back in this original context to give an intriguing and innovative interpretation for present-day audiences unfamiliar with its background.

 

Pamela Recinella is directing a new semi-staged production of Madama Butterfly for Opera Hong Kong 16-17 August.
Pamela Recinella is directing a new semi-staged production of Madama Butterfly for Opera Hong Kong 16-17 August.

My reading of the piece focuses on this particular aspect of the drama: Butterfly belongs neither to the East nor to the West—a particular interpretation that makes the opera relevant to the modern dilemma of many women today. Butterfly has lost her roots with the East, but yet she has never becomes part of the West as she has always wished to be. Since her family and her culture have disowned her, she cannot return and so instead latches onto a future with her fictive husband, but soon is forced to realize the end of her fantasy and that her marriage was only for the amusement of a Yankee.

The events of the opera are simply too much for the fifteen-year-old to cope with.

Unusual for opera at that time, Madama Butterfly was set contemporaneously. Around the end of the 19th century, the old, patriarchal order and the force of feudal authority had lost their relevance and power due to increasing Western influence. The aggressive Westernization devalued both Japanese wisdom and tradition. Butterfly was born during this upheaval. She recognizes neither the old tradition nor the emerging corrupt Japanese society: Cio-Cio San lives in a culture in which selling her body as geisha is acceptable but falling in love with a foreigner is socially taboo.

The events of the opera are simply too much for the fifteen-year-old to cope with. She therefore creates in her mind the fantasy of the marriage with the visiting naval officer Pinkerton and, once he has left, imagining him to be one the verge of returning; she also sees herself as a respectable American woman.

Butterfly must fight against the Western cliché of a Japanese woman—a compliant, natural beauty in a kimono—as she doesn’t identify herself with it. She wishes to destroy the symbol of the Japanese woman at the beginning of last century—a puppet, an attraction, a mere divertissement—and to become a real woman, a Western woman. Butterfly therefore tries desperately to identify herself in the female imagery of Western culture, idealizing it. After her wedding, which is her farewell to her culture, religion, tradition, a farewell to the East, she behaves like an American woman: she changes her appearance and the furniture of her little house, she goes to church rather than the temple, she reads the Bible, she teaches her son English, she cooks Western food. Other Japanese ridicule her and some of her acquaintances suggest she marry a rich man.

Only when she is in front of Kate, a blonde American woman, Pinkerton’s “real American wife”, does she realize that she has been living in a fantasy. There is no future for her either in the East or in the West and she has to annihilate herself.

 

The semi-staged format is a good opportunity to express a clear reading of the piece, focusing on the crucial dramatic moments and particularly on acting. We will not have many scenic elements but we will use the entire concert hall to portray Nagasaki and the furthest part of the stage for “la casa a soffietto” — Butterfly and Pinkerton’s house—mentioned in the piece. Around is the garden, in front the sea. The production will present a modern reading of the piece within the period in which it has been composed: the costumes references are adapted to the first decade of the 20th century.


Pamela Recinella is an Italian stage and opera director.