Madama Butterfly is an opera that divides people. For some, Puccini’s 1904 masterpiece is among the greatest depictions of doomed love ever to reach the stage. For others, its portrayal of a Japanese woman and her American husband’s relationship is a perverse study in imperialist cruelty.
If you’ve never seen this beautifully scored work yourself, you’ll soon have the chance to decide where you stand personally. This weekend, Russia’s Mariinsky Opera arrives at Muscat’s Royal Opera House with a sumptuous production of Madama Butterfly. The opera’s intense, tuneful lyricism may still delight, but in Muscat the curtain will rise on an opera about which perceptions have radically changed over its 109-year lifespan.
When it first appeared, Madama Butterfly fed an intense if superficial European fascination with East Asia. As Alexandra Wilson, a musicologist at Oxford Brookes University and author of The Puccini Problem explains: “At the time of Madama Butterfly’s premiere, there was such a vogue for all things Japanese, a great curiosity about the country that was primarily tied up with the picturesque. Unlike other composers of ‘exotic’ operas of the time, however, Puccini actually studied Japanese culture and listened to recordings of Japanese music quite carefully, and this is reflected in the score.”
This score is still wonderful but the opera’s storyline, exploring a romantic clash between eastern and western cultures, still stokes debate. When the Japanese noblewoman Cio-Cio San marries the visiting American naval officer Lieutenant Pinkerton, Cio-Cio San remains faithful to her husband despite pressure from her family, even when he sails home, leaving her pregnant. Pinkerton does indeed return, but he’s secretly divorced Cio-Cio San and has a new American wife in tow. Pinkerton asks that his son returns to America with him and his new wife. Cio-Cio San agrees, but when Pinkerton comes to collect him, she commits ritual suicide in front of him.
To its first audiences, Cio-Cio San’s self sacrifice may have seemed romantic, even noble, a portrait of a woman refusing to live beyond the extinguishing of her chief roles as wife and mother. Opinions have since changed, however, following influential work on cultural orientalism by writers such as the Palestinian thinker Edward Said. Now recognised as part of a Euramerican tradition that fashioned an imaginary exotic East, we are more likely to see Cio-Cio San’s passivity as the product of orientalist fantasy.
The music professor Roger Parker has gone further this way than most, noting in 2007 that it “has a lot of ideas within it that would be seen in any other circumstances as racist. It is not just a question of the words, it’s also Puccini’s music”. As an example of this, Parker cited the pentatonic Japanese-sounding music accompanying Cio-Cio San’s death, the self-conscious exoticism of which, he says, alienates the intended western audience from identifying with her.
Wilson agrees that we can’t look at Madama Butterfly the same way nowadays: “For a western audience at least, there’s no getting away from tensions that make them feel guilty. While we might admire Cio-Cio San’s strength, we tend to see her as weak or naive for ever believing Pinkerton in the first place. That loyalty of hers is not very modern.”
At the same time, Wilson says, criticism of Pinkerton’s actions have always been implicit in Puccini’s opera, especially in its original form: “It’s impossible to sympathise with anyone else but Cio-Cio San and it’s also possible to see the opera as an indictment of imperial attitudes – it’s ambiguous, really.”
While this ambiguity makes the opera troubling, it also helps keep it alive. It’s perhaps a testament to Puccini that more than a century later, his work not only ravishes audiences with its beauty, but also makes them ask interesting, difficult questions.
• Russia’s renowned Mariinsky Opera, led by the artistic director Valery Gergiev, performs Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Visit www.rohmuscat.org.om for details
? sands of time
Here are three other operas whose meanings have changed over the years
Porgy and Bess
Gershwin’s fine opera caused real controversy when it was first staged in 1935. Critics were challenged by the influence of black musical traditions of the American South it displayed, while the cultural establishment often saw that Porgy and Bess’ all-black cast as a novel but dangerous incursion into their world. Nowadays, the opposite is true. While Gershwin’s opera was progressive for its time, Porgy and Bess has often been seen since as peddling hackneyed racial stereotypes.
Cosi Fan Tutte
This comic Mozart opera, whose title loosely means “women are like that” follows two men who decide to test their girlfriends’ fidelity. Pretending to go away to war, the friends then come back incognito to woo their fiancées in disguise – with devastatingly successful results. For centuries, this opera was seen as a witty take on female inconstancy, but during the past few decades things have changed. Nowadays, the lying hypocrisy of the male characters comes under scrutiny. There’s good reason for this: not only are the flawed but vulnerable young women more sympathetic, but they also get the best tunes.
With an opera cycle as vast as Wagner’s Ring, it’s inevitable that meanings will shift over time. When it first appeared in the 1870s, the Ring Cycle’s exploration of a powerful, deadly ring forged from stolen gold was already both an exploration of ancient German myth and a critique of industrialisation. Since then, it’s been constantly re-imagined. In recent productions, its central figure, the god Wotan, has been recast as the chief executive officer of a failing corporation and his warrior henchwoman Brunnhilde portrayed as a suicide bomber.
* Feargus O’Sullivan
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