Opera plots can often strain credulity; Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, on the other hand, cuts close to the bone. The story—of an American naval officer who woos, marries and deserts a young Japanese girl—matters: it is a tightly-constructed narrative and attempts to reframe it, reposition it in another time or place, can be fraught.
Musica Viva’s recent production focused on verisimilitude. While any company can, if it wishes, design an attractive, straightforward set and beautiful Japanese costumes, Director Lo Kingman went the additional step of ethnically-accurate casting: Asian parts played by Asians and American parts by Americans—even down to the chorus. This is of course easier when the company is based in Asia, and Hong Kong was fortunate to have sufficient resident American baritones and sopranos for two of the parts: that of the Consul Sharpless and Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton’s “real American wife” Kate.
Innovation was instead directed toward such additional Asian touches as the brilliant idea of having the “humming chorus” accompanied by an erhu in an onstage serenade between a young Asian couple that contrasted sharply—and sadly—with the interracial tragedy unfolding behind the house’s sliding screen doors. The production, indeed, was notable for touches of this kind: a small arched bridge over the orchestra pit and the vibrant Japanese color of the first Act’s choral scenes giving way to prim, almost missionary, American shading of the second Act as Butterfly plays out her illusions. The curtain comes down on a red-tinged tableau with the center of visual attention not so much Butterfly as the cherry tree framed by the doors of the house.
There were several familiar voices among the overseas leads. American tenors Dominick Chenes and Jeffrey Hartman shared the role of Pinkerton over the four performances, giving a brassy American gloss to the odious naval officer. Both had sung with Musica Viva before: Chenes as Rodolfo in last year’s La Bohème, while Hartman had sung the leads with the company on two occasions earlier in the decade. The opening night Butterfly, Korean soprano Sylvia Sang-Eu Lee, was also on her third visit to Hong Kong, with a Lucia di Lammermoor and Rigoletto already under her obi.
The singer making her company debut was Myung-Joo Lee, also from Korea. Lee, the qualities of her voice aside, is evidently an accomplished actress: her Cio-Cio San was uniquely strong-willed and no delicate cherry blossom. Lo Kingman had, incidently, cut the lines about Butterfly being fifteen years old as not being credible given the age and maturity of the sopranos that normally sing the role. And Myung-Joo Lee eschewed almost all the incidences of childish patter that the character is allowed. If Butterfly is a young woman with considerable resources of inner fortitude, Lee left no doubt as to where they were coming from.
Mezzo Carol Lin was an empathetic Suzuki, Butterfly’s stalwart and faithful handmaiden. Isaac Droscha was a gravelly and rather avuncular Consul Sharpless; Stefan Gordon’s portrayal was primmer—not that either step in to protect Butterfly.
The production again illustrated the emerging depth of the local talent pool from which companies can pick. Cases in point were Bo Wang and Henry Ngan, who created in the matchmaker Goro, two very different characters. This part, although a secondary role, is key to the development of the drama. Goro is the vector, to use the contemporary term, for the interaction between the Japanese world of Butterfly and the foreign world of Pinkerton: a man who has seen the future and wants to profit from it. Wang’s smarmy and almost vaudevillian Goro was surely immediately recognizable to anyone who has been accosted by real-estate agents at a Hong Kong shopping mall. Ngan gave a rounded characterization of an operator, obsequious and conniving but also a down-to-earth realist.
The cast was rounded out by a booming Freddie Tong as the Bonze, Sammy Chien as an unusually mellifluous Imperial Commissioner and locally-resident American sopranos Rebekah AuYeung and Michelle Lange in the small but crucial third Act role of Kate. It is Kate who alone among the Americans asks “Can you forgive me, Butterfly?”—she could have asked “Potete perdonarci?, us, not me, but doesn’t do so—the point when the light in Butterfly’s eyes finally goes out as she answers:
Sotto il gran ponte del cielo non v’è donna di voi più felice. Siatelo sempre, non v’attristate per me.
Beneath the great bridge of Heaven, there can be no woman more fortunate than you. Be happy always; don’t sadden on my account.
The chorus looked as marvelous as it sounded.
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books. He contributed the programmes notes and subtitles for the upcoming production.