Patricia Racette sang Cio-Cio San in SF Opera’s latest revival of Madama Butterfly. Though I could happily never see Boheme again, I don’t mind a revival of Butterfly, and I wonder if anyone really does; its mythic story touches on something essential about the solitary nature of love, and anyone who has ever loved without return, which means everyone, is bound to find her monumental devotion powerfully moving. Boheme casts a golden nostalgic glow over an idealized first love, but Butterfly pulls no punches about the intensity of love and what that can mean for its subjects. Racette is always a powerful actress (she sang Liu here several years ago and I realized at one point that instead of watching Turandot and Calaf square off I was watching her to see how she reacted to them; her Roberta in An American Tragedy was so moving that to me it became a perverse measure of Nathan Gunn’s charm and skill that he could bound on stage in his singlet after her letter aria and still retain the audience’s sympathy) and she correctly realizes that Butterfly is not a weak girl but a woman who chooses for herself a samurai’s right to death rather than a life without honor. And at the beginning I really did believe she was, if not exactly fifteen, then a very young woman. At the end, with her hair down and herself grief-stricken, she looked like a ukiyo-e print. One touch that I missed from the last production was Malfitano (as Butterfly) slowly removing the flower from her hair and letting it drop crumpled to the ground when she realizes that Pinkerton has returned, but not for her; that just killed me.
I realized in this production how much Butterfly is on stage because frankly the show dragged when Racette wasn’t on. It’s a very attractive production, with only Cio-Cio San’s house having solid substance and the ship in the harbor and other manifestations of the outside world appearing as shadows. But I found Franco Farino wobbly in voice and physique (if you have man-boobs and a beer belly, for God’s sake keep your jacket on in the love duet; that’s why the Navy designs the uniforms that way) and the usually touching role of the consul was even more wobbly. And they need to change the surtitle in which he asks Butterfly if she has any sisters; I think it’s meant to be an avuncular interest in the girl’s family rather than a lecherous request if there are more where she came from, which is what the audience seemed to think from its tittering. The day after the performance I pulled out one of the first opera recordings I ever bought, the Leontyne Price Butterfly (shout out to my diva!) so that I could hear Richard Tucker sing Pinkerton as it ought to be sung. I think “Addio fiorito asil” is one of the highlights of the opera and contains his realization that he tossed away something precious and true and with it his youth. I don’t agree that he’s a brute or a clod. If he is, then Butterfly is a fool to hang on to him with such intensity. There’s an opera to be found in such a story, but it’s more like Lulu (which I love) than like this one. This is why the “US imperialism” interpretations don’t quite work for me; there are three Americans in the work: the consul, who is kindly and tries to help the abandoned bride; Kate Pinkerton, who offers to raise another woman’s mixed race child as her own (not a view typical of the racism that accompanies imperialism), and Pinkerton, who has to have some quality to justify Butterfly’s hopes (I see him as someone like Jude Law in The Talented Mr. Ripley; Sarah Caldwell’s “Pinkerton tossing the football” captured so well the sort of unthinking insouciance and self-regard of a goldenboy jock). I don’t see that those three really form a coherent indictment of US imperialism. I saw one production years ago that made much of the historic coincidence that Nagasaki was also the site of the second atomic bomb, which meant that Act 2 started with various butoh-style dancers crawling slowly towards us in complete silence; when the music started again, the whole story of Butterfly’s loss had been reduced to a tiny irrelevance in the face of a larger tragedy, which I think was not the effect the director intended. Butterfly is a mythic work just as much as Orfeo ed Euridice, and the truth of the myth is what the audience responds to.