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San Diego Opera’s ‘Madama Butterfly’: A Grand Opera

San Diego Opera’s ‘Madama Butterfly’: A Grand Opera

A scene from "Madama Butterfly" by the San Diego Opera in San Diego on April 25, 2024. (Karli Cadel)

Tiffany Brannan

Tiffany Brannan

5/6/2024

Updated: 5/6/2024

Commentary
There are few opportunities that allow for true grandeur these days. Going to the grand opera is one of those rare experiences. San Diego is fortunate to have a fine opera company in its downtown area. Having gone to see three of their mainstage opera productions during the last year, I’ve come to really appreciate San Diego Opera’s high artistic caliber. On April 26, I had the pleasure of seeing their production of “Madama Butterfly” by Giacomo Puccini at the Civic Auditorium.
San Diego Opera generally puts on three full opera productions per season. “Madama Butterfly” was the third opera of the 2023-2024 season. This is one of Puccini’s most famous operas, with a recognizable title which even those who don’t know a lot about opera will likely know. Puccini is one of my favorite opera composers, and I love singing and watching excerpts from this opera. However, I was less familiar with the plot than some of his other works, never having seen or listened to the whole production before. It was an amazing experience to see this opera performed live in the packed theater from an orchestra level seat.

The Plot

“Madama Butterfly” or “Madame Butterfly,” as it’s commonly called, is a classic East meets West romance. American naval officer Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin “B. F.” Pinkerton (tenor) is stationed in Nagasaki, Japan, in the early 20th century. Aided by matchmaker Goro, he has arranged a marriage to a 15-year-old Japanese Geisha, Cio-Cio-San or Butterfly. Goro also rents a house for them and hires servants. He and the U. S. Naval consul, Sharpless (baritone), discuss the Japanese marriage customs, and Pinkerton admits that he still plans to eventually have a “real” marriage to an American girl. Butterfly soon arrives with her relatives, deeply in love with Pinkerton and joyful about their marriage. She confesses to Pinkerton that she has secretly adopted the Christian faith to be a good American. However, when her uncle Bonze (bass), a Buddhist priest, barges in and announces that she has renounced their religion, all her relatives exit, denouncing her fiercely. Alone, Pinkerton consoles her, and they sing a passionate love duet, ending with a kiss.
In Act II, it’s been three years since Pinkerton left, and Butterfly has heard no word from her husband. She now has a 3-year-old son, and Suzuki, her maid (mezzo-soprano), is her only friend. Goro is trying to arrange a new marriage for her with the wealthy Prince Yamadori (baritone), but Butterfly refuses to believe him or anyone else that Pinkerton is never coming back. One day, Sharpless visits the house to tell Butterfly that he received a letter from Pinkerton, but he’s reluctant to share the bad news with her. The audience gets the idea that Pinkerton has no intention of returning to his Japanese wife, but Butterfly doesn’t. Sharpless can’t bear to break her heart, so he leaves without finishing the letter. Then, Butterfly and Suzuki see a ship come into the harbor.
A scene from "Madama Butterfly" by the San Diego Opera in San Diego on April 25, 2024. (Karli Cadel)

A scene from "Madama Butterfly" by the San Diego Opera in San Diego on April 25, 2024. (Karli Cadel)

Reading the name U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln on the bow, they realize that Pinkerton has returned. They joyfully prepare for his return. However, when Butterfly is sleeping the next morning, he comes with Kate Pinkerton (mezzo-soprano), his new American wife. They want Butterfly to give them her son to raise. Pinkerton leaves, unable to face Butterfly, but no one has the heart to tell her the truth when she comes out. She deduces that the mysterious woman is his wife, and she sadly agrees to give up her child if Pinkerton comes to get the child himself in half an hour. Alone, she uses her late father’s ceremonial suicide knife to kill herself, sacrificing her life so that her son can grow up in America without feeling guilty. Pinkerton rushes in calling her name, but he finds her lifeless body.

The Production

Before the opera began, the patrons could see the set as they crowded into the theater. The huge set of the Japanese house was too big to fit behind the curtain, so it was open the whole time. There was only one set for this opera, which is standard because all three scenes take place in the same location. That setting is the house which Pinkerton leases with Goro’s help when he marries Butterfly. There was no backdrop, but the screen at the back looked like the sky, changing colors to represent different times of day, from a sunny afternoon to a starry night with a pale moon.
The house itself was a traditional Japanese abode with several sliding doors which were repositioned throughout the opera. The rice paper walls were used to create dramatic silhouettes with great effect at the end of each act, first to veil a kiss and then to add delicacy to Butterfly’s suicide. The house itself was built on a slanted platform, gradually sloping down toward the audience. While the tilted design made me nervous for the singers’ safety at first as they navigated the set, the uneven setting reflected the unstable foundation on which Pinkerton’s Japanese home life was built.
The costumes were gorgeous. Authentic Japanese attire was the model for the Nagasaki residents’ colorful garb. In contrast, the American characters wore period-correct uniforms and civilian clothes. Although the Asian makeup was kept at a minimum for the Caucasian actors, the costumes and wigs made the ethnicities quite clear. The staging was very effective, particularly in Act II. I’m rarely moved to tears, but the moment when flower petals rained onto the stage, signifying Butterfly’s ill-fated hope, was irresistibly moving. As the audience burst into applause, I felt why human beings need to see live theater.
A scene from "Madama Butterfly" by the San Diego Opera in San Diego on April 25, 2024. (Karli Cadel)

A scene from "Madama Butterfly" by the San Diego Opera in San Diego on April 25, 2024. (Karli Cadel)

A Musical Delight

The cast of “Madama Butterfly” included international opera singers in the lead roles and local performers in the soloist parts and chorus. Like all SDO operas, it was accompanied magnificently by the San Diego Symphony, led in this performance by conductor Yves Abel. Cio-Cio-San was played by American dramatic soprano Corinne Winters, and Pinkerton was played by British tenor Adam Smith. It’s no surprise that this duo had a powerful onstage chemistry, since they are married in real life. There is a recent trend to cast increasingly heavy voices in leading soprano roles, but that wasn’t the case here. Both leads have powerful, full tones without losing the brilliance which is appropriate for a soprano and tenor.
I was delighted by Miss Winters’s performance in the title role. She embodied the role of Butterfly both through her voice and her acting. As an attractive, slender young woman, she also was convincingly beautiful to bewitch Pinkerton’s heart. Smith emphasized Pinkerton’s roguish nature, perhaps more than other tenors who’ve played the role. In fact, he made us resent the character’s mistreatment of Butterfly so thoroughly that he was playfully booed during the curtain call! Stephanie Doche was excellent as Suzuki; she gave a very touching performance as the faithful companion who suffers alongside Butterfly. With a full, rich, even tone and an emotional acting presence, she is one of the best mezzo-soprani I’ve seen in live performance. SDO regular character tenor Joel Sorensen stood out as Goro, providing enjoyable yet historically appropriate comic relief and an impressively resonant voice. The other soloists were also very effective.
It’s a delight for me, as an opera singer and ardent Puccini fan, to see this beautiful opera presented traditionally. Too often, the classics are ruined with altered settings or tainted with modern humor. That wasn’t the case with this production, which was presented just as Puccini would have wanted. I applaud San Diego Opera for having such high artists standards with this production, and I commend the local arts community for receiving it so enthusiastically. If you have the opportunity to see a traditionally presented classical opera, I highly recommend you take it! The beauty and emotional inspiration of such an experience can’t be underestimated.
A scene from "Madama Butterfly" by the San Diego Opera in San Diego on April 25, 2024. (Karli Cadel)

A scene from "Madama Butterfly" by the San Diego Opera in San Diego on April 25, 2024. (Karli Cadel)

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Tiffany Brannan

Tiffany Brannan

Author

Tiffany Brannan is a 22-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, vintage fashion enthusiast, and conspiracy film critic, advocating purity, beauty, and tradition on Instagram as @pure_cinema_diva. Her classic film journey started in 2016 when she and her sister started the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society to reform the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code. She launched Cinballera Entertainment last summer to produce original performances which combine opera, ballet, and old films in historic SoCal venues.

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