May 20, 2016 at 9:00 AM


May 20, 2016 at 9:00 AM

MadamButterfly.jpgSplendid! . . . Words don’t even come close to sufficiently describing the performance I saw/heard on Saturday of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly at HD Opera at the Movies. Anthony Minghella’s production comes as close to perfection as one will ever reach in the arts – perhaps in any endeavour.

The singing was superb, but I’ll mention in particular Kristine Opolais’s  Cho-Cho-San (Butterfly). The wedding of her superb voice, its range, richness and control, with the intensity and “truthiness” of her acting, wrapped in a surround-sound of Puccini’s heart-rending score, left nary a dry eye in the house. Patricia Racette, who sang the role of Butterfly in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2014 production, has said, “By the end I literally feel almost turned inside out,”echoing my own feeling as an audience listener, that of feeling utterly destroyed.

But it wasn’t only the music and acting drama that made this opera a cornucopia of sensual ripeness. Costumes, sets, choreography, lighting, offered a visual feast. All came together, integrated such as every composer hopes to achieve, (as Wagner dreams of achieving – my opinion), when at the opera’s climax, Cho-Cho-San must face the truth that the faithless US Navy Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton will not return to her, but in fact has come to take her son away for a better life in America with him and his American wife. Elizabeth DeSchong, who played Butterfly’s devoted servant Suzuki in the 2011 COC production, has said, “It is [just] another woman cleaning up a man’s mess.”

Having nothing left to live for, Butterfly commits hara-kiri: "Who cannot live with honor must die with honor.” At that moment, Butterfly’s red sash is set free, flowing outward in a stream, which, by the enchantment of lighting, becomes a river of blood.

ARiverofBlood.jpgPerhaps the most astonishing in the Minghella production is his use of a puppet to play the role of Cho-Cho-San and Pinkerton’s son. Usually played by a real child, the role in this production is portrayed by a puppet, manipulated by three puppeteers who stand behind, cloaked in black and who fade from our vision; the articulation of this wooden puppet, its face, neck, chest, arms and hands, legs and feet, transformed as eerily human. With a baldish head and sculpted features, its impassive porcelain face seemed magically to convey sorrow, empathy, sadness, joy, fear, love, in a way that no child actor can.

Can we imagine such a breath-taking moment as when Butterfly blindfolds her son — a puppet!— and sends him off-side:

The pathos of the blindfolded puppet-boy prior to his mother’s suicide, taking faltering steps, is overwhelming.”
Barry Millington, Evening Standard, 7 Nov 05

 A puppet was also used briefly to stand in for Cho-Cho-San:

 “When, during the "dream ballet" ... the puppet representing Butterfly clutches with desperation at the departing Pinkerton, we heard an audible gasp go up around us.” 
The Londonist 8 Nov 05

I don’t pretend to be exceptionally knowledgeable on the subject of style; I am learning more all the time. But because of the recent research I’ve done for a series for Inanna’s blog, examining the life and writing of Canadian author Helen Weinzweig, I’ve become increasingly more aware of the use of elements of magic realism where I’m not expecting them. I couldn’t help but be struck by the blend of realism and magic in Minghella’s Madame Butterfly. Despite the music’s high romanticism, its exoticism, Puccini is nevertheless described as “one of the greatest exponents of operatic realism” (Encyclopedia Britannica). True, the realism in the last decades of the 19th century is not the realism of novels and dramas of the same era. We are not so interested in the hard truth of life or its portrayal, but in the opera’s soaring melodies.

And obviously, “magic realism” was not within the vocabulary of Puccini (1858-1924); Butterfly first appeared in 1904. Neither was the idea of using puppets to play a character. Nor do we know if the contemporary Minghella was thinking in those terms when he brought in Britain’s puppeteer troupe, Blind Summit.

However, [bear with me a moment], in Madame Butterfly, the setting is realistic enough; we’re anchored in  a known country and familiar cultures,  (Japan, America), in a Japanese home, (sliding screens), tea ceremonies, historically correct surrounding events, and all-too-human relationships. In Minghella’s production, integrated seamlessly with that world, with no particular acknowledgment of anything strange, is a wooden puppet with whom characters interact in the most realistically human ways. We accept it unquestionably as possible, if not probable. 

Minghella may not consciously have been seeking out magic realism as a style for his production. There are many creative and even practical impulses at work in such an endeavor. But in so effectively fusing what is real and what is magical, there is no doubt that he is very much an artist of his time

- Rhoda Rabinowitz Green, author of Aspects of Nature (May 2016)

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