Why do people still sit spellbound through works of musical theatre that are dozens of decades old, written in and about times that have long passed from living memory? There is of course the music and the wonder of the unamplified voice, but opera is also, critically, about the story. There is love, passion, betrayal, pathos, death, hope. There is tension combined with, frequently, impossible choices. Our heroines are asked to choose between their families and their hearts, between a duty to country and a duty to themselves. Opera often poses universal questions—universal because there are no answers—and in that universalità there is unity.
When one transports an opera set in 13th-century Florence to early 20th-century Shanghai, as Opera Hong Kong did for the comic opera half of this weekend’s double bill of Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, one can expect some textual inconsistencies. Puccini’s only outing in opera buffa tells a story hinted at in Dante’s Inferno: of an out-of-towner who tricks a wealthy family out their inheritance by will-tampering. The story might have come from the pages of the South China Morning Post, so audiences on the whole seem willing to overlook the references to Tuscany. The setting allowed for a number of (quite funny) culturally-specific sight gags.
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.