Sunday, March 08, 2009

A Butterfly That Draws Us In

(Reflection on MADAME BUTTERFLY. Composer: Giacomo Puccini. Librettists: Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. Based on play by David Belasco. Patricia Racette stars. Directed by Anthony Minghella. With Marcello Giordani as Pinkerton, Maria Zifchak as Suzuki, and Dwayne Croft as Sharpless.) Photo above from and, at left, from

I had seen pictures of Anthony Minghella's stripped-down production of Madame Butterfly, and its eerie little life sized puppet of "Trouble," the boy borne of Buttefly's short honeymoon with Pinkerton. I wondered if there weren't a whiff of condescension in the Oscar-winning director's comment that, for the stage, you had to direct it "theatrically." I'd read about his use of Japanese theatrical techniques. Ho - hum, I'd thought. Been there, done that. Had I written my review before seeing it, I would have written this:

Yes, the Japanese element of Butterfly is important and skillfully woven into the score, but the piece is still an Italian opera, not the ritualized Japanese drama that Minghella wants to force out of it. The director’s treatment of stage action and character is all style and surface, epitomized by the astonishing idea of presenting Trouble, the 2-year-old son of Butterfly and Pinkerton, as a Bunraku puppet. The puppet is cute as a button, and it’s ingeniously manipulated by three onstage hooded figures, but the device succeeds only in further diverting our attention from the dramatic situation and italicizing the mechanical artifice of the staging. The stiff interactions among the real-life characters are not much more convincing, and we lose touch with them and their problems almost the moment they appear.

These are the words of Peter G. Davis, reviewing the production for NEW YORK magazine. But having seen it myself now, I wonder if Davis perhaps had made up his mind before he saw it.

There is another possibility, that Davis simply didn't have a good enough seat. With the cinematic advantage of closeups, we watched the tears form and drop from Maria Zifchak's eyes in her role as Suzuki as the little family kneels and waits for Pinkerton's imminent return that never comes. We saw the momentary looks of terror in Patricia Racette's eyes as she sang most forcefully Butterfly's faith in the man who married her. We saw the warmth, pride, and sadness in the Japanese suitor who would take Butterfly and son away from their lonely hilltop house... a character who made no impression on me in the other production I've seen of this. Sharpless, the American consul, likewise projects smoldering indignation at the way his countryman has abused the delicate Japanese girl, and tender concern for her, for her son, and for her servant Suzuki.

Backstage, Zifchak told interviewer Renee Fleming that Minghella purposefully tightened the focus of the stage to a little box of light. He told the actors to fill that box, and to do no more. "He told us, 'We must draw the audience into us.'" She also commented that Minghella wanted the part of Suzuki to rise in importance, and it's hard for me to imagine the show now any other way, than to have Suzuki on stage for most of the show, a mostly mute witness whose face shows judgement, regret, hope, despair, fury. She and Butterfly communicate with small gestures -- a meeting of hands or a slight shaking of the head.

Even with warning and photos, I was surprised by that puppet. He runs on stage, arms outstretched. Butterfly picks him up in her arms, and his little legs kick in pleasure. His expression is always inquisitive, always on the line between wonder, delight, and trepidation... fitting all the situations he experiences. Unlike Davis, I felt the presence of the character and projected all the appropriate feelings onto him, and even felt protective of him as Butterfly does . . . all the while also being intrigued at another level of consciousness by the mechanics of the operation, and the awareness that three dedicated artists were manipulating him. Stagehands in black also animate the scenes with paper lanterns and origami birds.

MInghella forecasts the action of each act beginning with mute action or dance. Act One is preceded by a stylized dance with fans the presages the final image of the opera. (Unfortunately, the HD visual transmission blacked out for a couple of minutes in the middle of that opening sequence). Act Two shows the advancement of three lonely years with the simple shifting of a screen. Minghella uses another human puppet for a kind of ballet "dumb show" version of Act Three performed during the prelude to the act, and it is again very affecting and strange at the same time -- I think more affecting because more strange, as if the theatricalism distills the feeling.

My mentor Frank Boggs, who has seen many Butterflies in his 80+ years, marvelled that he had often admired operas before, but he had never been moved. (Mr. Boggs, a world-renowned bass baritone, also commented about the self-satisfied and undependable Pinkerton, "How appropriate that he's a tenor.")

Of course, the central figure of Cio - Cio San must hold the center of the piece, or it's all for nothing. I remember seeing the show the first time, and being uninterested because, while Pinkerton was a cad, Cio - Cio San was a ready-made victim. Not here, thanks to Manghella's direction. Writing of the soprano who opened in Manghella's production back in 2006, critic Patrick Stearns wrote of her "potentially controversial characterization of Butterfly as someone who had emotionally outgrown repressive Japanese culture before the opera started. That opened the door to full-blooded displays of temper and tragedy, plus a compelling loss of poise inconceivable in traditional productions."

Before it started, I commented to a neighbor who knew nothing of the opera that she should have her handkerchief ready. I meant it ironically, implying that it's effective at manipulating the emotions and it's also a bit comical for being such a tear-jerker. Then tears came in many unexpected moments, and always mixed with the element of appreciation for what the artists were achieving to clarify Puccini's vision. Unforgettable.

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