In Madama Butterfly, the delicate geisha succumbs to the manipulative charms of an American naval man; once she is betrayed, her despair evolves into a sacrifice so absolute – a ritualized suicide – that it becomes something noble. Madama Butterfly’s setting combines Orientalist exoticism with the good guy-bad guy swagger of American individualism; the United States’ imperialist presence in the Far East becomes a metaphor for Pinkerton’s arrogant use and cruel abandonment of Cio Cio San.
In general, over the past century of Madama Butterfly’s enduring popularity, the most successful productions of the opera have been extremely beautiful: whether sets, costumes and direction have been lavish or spare, they have all served the innate beauty of the music, preserving Puccini’s dated paradigm of Romantic tragedy.
Heartbeat Opera, however, approaches Puccini’s opera differently. Founded only four years ago, Heartbeat’s goal is to make “radical adaptations of classic operas in intimate settings for twenty-first century audiences.” Heartbeat Opera’s creators, dramatic and musical artists who first connected at Yale University, want audiences “to experience the miracle of the operatic voice and the thrill of these powerful stories up close and in new ways.”
Heartbeat’s radical adaptation of Puccini’s opera – Butterfly – exposes Cio Cio San’s tragic story to a stunningly harsh light. American imperialism is more than a metaphor for braggadocious male ego: it is the explicit facilitator of vicious exploitation. Pinkerton is not simply a heartless womanizer, but an unsubtly lewd pedophile, not merely a consumer of fragile female delicacies, but a ropes-bondage sadist who offers no safe words.
The artistic team responsible for this Butterfly made radical decisions and changes. Puccini’s original three acts of linear story – love and “wedding,” waiting, betrayal and death – are reorganized and abbreviated into three scenes of waiting, remembered love, and then betrayal. Some minor characters in the original opera are eliminated to create a caste of just five singing characters. The entire orchestra is reduced to a chamber orchestra of just six musicians, the Cantata Profana. The adaptation of Puccini’s orchestral score for this small chamber group by Daniel Schlosberg is remarkable: unexpectedly, its absolute faithfulness to Puccini’s musical intent at almost every turn made up for the diminished number of musicians.
The set, designed by Reid Thompson, was superbly evocative and effective. A four-paneled rolled-down yellow cloth with a large ink-brushed butterfly – half lepidopterology and half Rorschach – on it served as a curtain between scenes. Open room dividers provided an illusion of a minimally furnished small house; the singers’ movements blurred outdoors-indoors distinctions. As the opera progressed, the “stage,” a platform within the open performance space, became more and more minimal, until it was nothing: the final “action” – Butterfly’s ambiguous end, her possible suicide – took place behind the yellow gauze.
The costuming by Valérie Thérèse Bart evoked the dark themes of Heartbeat’s reading of the opera and was as skillful as the set. In the unnerving wedding night scene, when Cio Cio San removes her beautiful marriage kimono, she’s wearing the school-girl uniform of cliché Japanese porn flicks. She is a genuinely good girl, tentatively trying to be flirtatious; as Pinkerton caresses her and then begins tying her up, his identity as a shameless rapist is genuine, too.
At the end of Butterfly, when Cio Cio San’s son by Pinkerton is almost three, Pinkerton returns to Japan with his new American wife (a mannequin, in this production), and Cio Cio San knows that she must give up her child. Cio Cio San’s costume in the final scene is both Japanese and drab every-woman, kimono open over a white tee-shirt and plain skirt. The abused girl has become a sorrowing, fearfully wise and weary woman, and her remaining white geisha make-up, partially rubbed off by her son’s farewell embraces, serves multiple functions: she is revealed as both living woman and remembered double-fantasy. She believed she was Pinkerton’s true wife and he believed she was a disposable toy.
Virtually every element of this production has been carefully and effectively thought out, and virtually every risk proves worth it. The exposure of the ugliness inherent in this opera is almost completely successful, rendering the heart-break for Cio Cio San – and the audience – all the more profound.
All of this, of course, would be irrelevant and no-account if the singing had not been superb. But the mission of Heartbeat Opera, after all, is not just the systematic rereading and reconsideration of various operatic texts. It is also the presentation of opera as an enduring musical art form.
The role of Cio Cio San was sung by Banlingyu Ban. A 2016 Professional Studies graduate from The New School Mannes College of Music, Ban is already a fluent Puccini singer. This production, however, was her first performance in this role. She was at every moment in control of her singing, managing the extreme dramatic demands of her character’s evolution without ever sacrificing musicality. Ban’s rich, flexible soprano voice was well suited to the evocation of both childlike sweetness and mature womanliness; her capacity for unhurried lyricism was particularly lovely in the mezzo-piano range and her final, uninhibited and rage-filled anger was earthy and unexpectedly wild.
Siobahn Sung’s Suzuki was very fine. Because Sung is a good actress, she retained a character-specific plainness in her singing throughout most of the opera. In those duets with Ban in which Sung’s own lyrical singing could be displayed, however, she sang very beautifully. Her voice was well matched to Sung’s, and they sang wonderfully together.
Mackenzie Whitney’s Pinkerton was – in all respects but one – first-rate. He is a strong, convincing romantic tenor; his supple, vigorous voice made him a good Puccini leading man. Whitney’s interpretation of Pinkerton, however, provided one of the few missteps in the Heartbeat examination of Pinkerton’s psyche. His singing in his description of his lust for Cio Cio San and in his seduction of her was well matched to his acting: he shaped his melodic lines to replicate the exposition of his thinking, managing to make his articulation of the libretto’s disturbing text – “Fifteen years old!” – suitably predatory without violating the lyricism of Puccini’s melodies.
But in his last major aria of remorse, there was slippage in his presentation: it was a conventionally presented, beautiful expression of regret. If Whitney had been directed to a more destructive continuum of character development after his rape, abuse and abandonment of Cio Cio San – if, for instance, he had succumbed to addictions of excess or substance abuse, such as his moral depravity might naturally have led him to – then his final aria could have been darker and psychologically richer, even while retaining the melodic eloquence of Puccini’s writing.
Matthew Singer’s Sharpless was unerringly solid and sensitive; his character required less interpretive adjustment for Heartbeat’s purposes than either Cio Cio San’s or Pinkerton’s. Jordan Weatherston Pitts’ Goro was very good as well. As an actor, he exuded crude self-interest; the forthrightness of his desire to manipulate women and situations to his own advantage made him less morally objectionable than the hypocritical Pinkerton. Pitts sang vigorously and engagingly.
Jacob Ashworth’s musical direction and conducting were elegant and authoritative. He made the small group of singers and the chamber orchestra a coherent, organic whole; he was particularly skilled at leading the instrumentalists to support the singers in the dramatic nuances of their arias and duets. The balances among instrumentalists and singers were all even; sound was well distributed and the positioning of the singers’ stage and the orchestra within the performance space of Baruch’s Rose Nagelberg Theatre worked well.
One talented non-singer performer added an important layer of interpretation to this Butterfly. Young Noah Spagnola, listed in the program as a fourth grader from New Haven, played the part of “Sorrow,” the imagined modern child of Cio Cio San and Pinkerton. Before the opera starts, he’s perched on a modern off-stage bed, googling words such as geisha, yellow fever and hari kari on his computer; throughout the performance, he sits just outside the “stage,” observing the action of the opera and at one point interacting with the instrumentalists. Sorrow watches the opera in an attempt to make sense of his own self. The audience sees and listens to this Butterfly as Sorrow himself does: he, too, is a tragedy, the unwritten sequel to the story of Cio Cio San and Pinkerton, transported to the twenty-first century.
The artistic risks of this radical Butterfly were worth it. In ten years or more, some production details, such as Pinkerton’s iphone selfie predilections, might seem dated, but the core project will maintain its validity. The beauty of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly has always contained an abuse story; Heartbeat’s Butterfly makes the ugliness of the abuse explicit. Where traditional productions emphasized beauty, presupposing a late nineteenth century concept of tragedy that was elegant and noble, and using the core abuse story as a source of poignant pull on the heart-strings, Heartbeat’s Butterfly requires the audience to revise its understanding of tragedy. Abuse of any sort is always ugly. It must not be romanticized.
Then: having unflinchingly confronted the ugliness of Madama Butterfly, the Heartbeat audience must reassess beauty’s purpose in this particular work of art. Here, beauty enhances the examination of ugliness by being its opposite; beauty simultaneously provides relief, offering solace and the possibility of hope.
Directors, designers, instrumentalists, singers … apparently this hour and a half adaptation of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly was the product of more than 80 artists in a wide variety of disciplines. Their talents, insights and disciplined energy paid off: this Butterfly was a work of exceptional intelligence and unwavering artistic integrity.
Heartbeat Opera: Butterfly (May 20-28, 2017) performed in repertory with Carmen (May 21-28, 2017)
Baruch Performing Arts Center
The Rose Nagelberg Theatre, 25th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues in Manhattan
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission