The story of Cio-Cio San (Butterfly) is one of the most famous and popular stories in 20th century opera. It is set in 1904 with a United States that is expanding its economic power and trading heavily newly opened markets in Japan. Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton of the United States naval ship "Abraham Lincoln" has as part of this increased activity come to Japan. This is still an old Japan governed by a strict feudal system and traditions, and the newly arriving westerners are often not very popular with many Japanese who feel that their way of life and culture is under threat. Marriage outside of your own social status, never mind to "An American", is a social taboo.
Against this background we open with the wedding of Cio-Cio San (Butterfly) and Lt B. F. Pinkerton. The marriage (as was common practice) was arranged by Goro the local marriage matchmaker. Butterfly is only 15 years old when we meet her and she is deeply in love with Pinkerton and all the new ideas that he brings to her. Butterfly also sees him as her saviour from her life of poverty and humiliation as a geisha.
At the wedding are American consul Mr Sharpless, Butterfly's mother (her father is dead), aunt, her uncle (a local Shinto Priest) and a few dozen relatives. Unknown to her family and friends however, Butterfly has recently abandoned her own religion for the new Christianity of her soon to be husband, and when they find this out, everyone disowns her. All Butterfly has now is a few treasured possessions in a small bundle, and her new husband.
Unfortunately for Butterfly, Pinkerton is not the saviour she believes him to be and this for him is a marriage of convenience until he returns home to America and finds "a real American wife". The fact that Japanese law allows a man to simply disown a wife to end a marriage is a great convenience to him. Butterfly only has a short time with Pinkerton before he is recalled to his ship and The United States, but he promises to "return when the robin builds its nest".
The second act opens three years later and Butterfly waits patiently every day for her husband to return. She and her household are almost out of money, but Butterfly still will not accept her fate as an abandoned wife, a fate which under Japanese law would leave her free to accept a marriage proposal from a wealthy suitor. When at last Pinkerton returns on his ship, Butterfly is overjoyed. This turns to sorrow and desperation though as we find out that Butterfly has given birth (after his return to the USA) to Pinkerton's child and that he has no wish to see her again. In fact, Pinkerton has returned with his new "American wife", and when he finds out about his child, comes to take him away too.
Seeing only one way out of her dishonour and passing that dishonour onto her child, Butterfly kills herself.
This is a very simple story of a young and devoted wife, and that accceptance of her treatment by Pinkerton may seem a bit odd to 21st century audiences, but this was as things were in Japan at this time. A wife was pretty much duty bound to whatever fate a husband gave her with unquestioning obedience.
Alyona Kistenyova (soprano) as Cio-Cio San is very impressive here tonight. This is a technically and physically demanding role, and Alyona's voice delighted a packed Playhouse Theatre tonight. Somehow, Alyona gives the character of Cio-Cio San a strength that is not there at times in other people's interpretations of the role. This is a young woman who has survived a harsh upbringing and also survived for three years on her own without a husband. Butterfly is soft, but strong too.
Giorgio Meladze (tenor) as Lt Pinkerton also gives an impressive performance and displays an impressive tenor voice to its best advantage. He also has the light touch needed in parts to play the at times unpleasant nature of this character without making him unlikeable. Pinkerton is the bad guy here, and the audience will always be on the side of Butterfly.
Other great performances are by Vladimir Dragos as Consul Sharpless, and Zarui Vardanean as Butterfly's devoted female servant Suzuki. Vladimir Dragos puts in another great character performance as Consul Sharpless, and this is the third night in a row that I have seen an outstanding performance from this man (the previous nights were watching him in "Rigoletto" and "La Traviata"). I think Ellen Kent has found a real star here.
Like the previous two nights, this touring company is mostly made up of outstanding performers from eastern Europe and the music is by the Orchestra of the National Opera & Ballet of Moldova.
The music of course is what we can not forget. This beautiful music by Puccini still sounds very modern. In fact, at times, set against the very colourful costumes and set of tonight's performance, it almost seemed to be the music to a 1950s technicolour film. There is something almost cinemagraphic about Puccini's music at times. This is maybe one of the reasons that his music has been used so much over the years in films and advertising and why, even if you have not seen an opera like Madama Butterfly before, you recognise some of the music .
My favourites from this opera are as always, "One Fine Day" which was beautifully performed by Alyona Kistenyova (Butterfly singing this is probably most people's image of this opera), and the amazing "Humming Chorus". Just beautiful music performed tonight by a very strong and talented cast.
Review by Tom King