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East/West Cultures Clash in León “Butterfly”

By John Bills

The Teatro del Bicentenario in León opened its 2013 opera season on April 14th with an innovative production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, designed and directed by Juliana Faesler. Based on the play by David Belasco, Puccini tells the story of a Japanese geisha whose love for an American sailor leads to tragic loss and death. Butterfly is the saddest of Puccini’s ill-fated heroines, and for this opera he created perhaps his most moving, and certainly his most atmospheric and carefully composed score; there is hardly a bar of music that isn’t notated with dynamic, tempo and/or articulation markings. Twenty-three year old conductor Iván López Reynoso led a crisp and remarkably mature performance, favoring Puccini’s tempo markings over the much slower versions we’ve become used to in modern times, balancing pathos and sentiment without descending into mawkishness.

Two aspects of the production stand out: moving the time frame from late 19th Century Japan to 1950 post-war occupation; and the addition of a Kabuki character representing Butterfly as a child, whose brief appearances (playing before the opera begins and again with Butterfly’s son in a magical shower of cherry blossoms to close Act 2) remind us of the stark contrast between American and Japanese cultures, and who in the end becomes a comforting Angel of Death, welcoming Butterfly home to the realm of her ancestors.

Large red and gold planks were suspended over the stage, and timber walkways extended from the rear, suggesting a deconstructed “rising sun” Japanese flag. A small platform floated over the black stage floor, in different positions for each act, becoming an intimate playing space for the emotional heart of the opera in Act 2, and the tragic unfolding of Act 3. As post-war Japan struggles to adjust to a new society, the clash of cultures was emphasized by traditional kimonos side-by-side with 1950s suits and dresses (designed by Mayra Juárez and Mariana Meza). Prince Yamadori, Butterfly’s Japanese suitor, is transformed into 50s “royalty,” a Yakuza gangster complete with two bodyguards in sunglasses and sharkskin suits. Goro, the marriage broker, was a wartime propaganda figure straight out of Hollywood, the wily Asian in his too-tight suit, bow tie and thick horn-rimmed glasses. Although Ms. Faesler might have done even more to emphasize a population under the thumb of foreign rule, all in all her concept works very well, a harbinger of Butterfly’s inevitable sacrifice.

In Act 2 the heroine wears a flower print housedress, showing us that she is no longer the geisha Butterfly, but, having renounced her traditional religion, is now Mrs. B.F. Pinkerton, welcoming guests to her “American” home, where flowered wallpaper and Western chairs have replaced shoji screens and floor cushions. We know the tragedy that is coming, but Mrs. Pinkerton is ever confident that her American husband will return to make a home with her and their child.

As Pinkerton, Basque tenor Andeka Gorrotxategui cut a trim figure in his dress whites, singing well with secure top notes; dramatically he was more callow than callous. In this context, this was a missed opportunity to highlight the insensitivity of the occupier to the traditions of the conquered country.

Much better dramatically was baritone Armando Gama as the humane American Consul, Sharpless. When he tries in vain to warn Butterfly that Pinkerton will not return, Mr. Gama was heart-breakingly compassionate, his baritone smooth and comforting, his shock at discovering that Pinkerton has fathered her child genuine and compelling.

Butterfly’s faithful maid and companion, Suzuki, was warmly sung and acted with great sympathy by Rosa Muñoz. When Suzuki realizes the cataclysm that is about to engulf her world, her grief was unforgettable.

Butterfly is required to be onstage for nearly 90% of the opera, portraying a teenage girl while singing very difficult music. Violeta Dávalos succeeded dramatically in every way: diminutive, girlish, effective yet understated in her geisha gestures, fierce in her protection of her marriage and family, playful and loving with her child, and ultimately courageous, resigned to her final fate. This was a complete character in every way. She had the advantage of a 50-piece orchestra, instead of the usual 80 players, and a conductor who sensitively held back the orchestra where he could, but in the end this beautiful, but essentially lyric voice lacked sufficient metal for Butterfly’s moments in extremis.

John Bills is Artistic Director of Opera San Miguel and sang more than 5000 performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.



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