A Review by Tom Rubbert
A cold, rainy night did not dampen the spirits of the excited full-house seeing Los Angeles Opera’s opening night performance of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”.
The house was treated to a superbly crafted evening of glorious music very aptly conducted by Grant Gershon, whose experience as L. A. Opera’s long time chorus conductor was immediately apparent as he slowed the orchestra’s tempo and dampened (sorry) its sound to accommodate the singers. This made this truly a singer’s evening, and not one for the orchestra to loudly strut their stuff.
[Below: Oksana Dyka as Madama Butterfly; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka appeared dressed as a queen in a regal white gown with red satin lining — even while she sang how poor she was. Dyka, who had opened Los Angeles Opera’s previous season as a stellar Tatiana in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” [see William’s review at Ovations for Oksana Dyka, Dalibor Jenis, James Conlon – “Eugene Onegin”, Los Angeles Opera, September 17, 2011] appeared opposite tenor Brandon Jovanovich in his snow-white United States Navy uniform.
I had first seen Jovanovich in Los Angeles in Braunfels’ “The Birds” [See my review at German Birds Fly High at Los Angeles Opera in Rarely Seen “The Birds” – April 23, 2009].
The Montana born tenor had just completed his first round of performances in the title role of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” in San Francisco [See William’s review at Jovanovich is a Joy in Luisotti’s Luminous “Lohengrin” – San Francisco Opera, October 20, 2012.] Yet, even though he is moving into the Wagnerian heldentenor roles, Pinkerton has been a signature role for him and he has indicated that this is a role he plans to keep in his repertory [See William’s interview at Rising Stars: An Interview with Brandon Jovanovich.]
[Below: Brian Jovanovich as Lieutenant Pinkertson; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Basso Stefan Szkafarowsky was a fearsome Bonze appropriately fitted out in black and blood red, appearing as the background turned blood red. Tenor Rodell Rosel from Manila made for a terrific — and comic — Goro. A local favorite, Milena Kitic, sang the role of Suzuki. Baritone Eric Owens was the Sharpless.
Butterfly in Los Angeles and the World
The last time Los Angeles Opera mounted “Butterfly” was in Robert Wilson’s extremely minimalist black-and-white reading, replicating Japan’s famed Noh Dramas rarely seen in the U. S. but very popular in Japan [See Liping Zhang Resplendent in Robert Wilson’s L. A. “Butterfly” – October 1, 2008]. This season it is using the elegant San Francisco Opera production, last seen in San Francisco in 2007 [See The Remaking of San Francisco Opera Part III “Madama Butterfly” – December 8, 2007. An extensive discussion of the rationale behind Michael Yeargan’s sets and Ron Daniels’ stage direction is contained in that review.]
[Below: the wedding party enters as Pinkerton (Brian Jovanovich, front, second from right) and Sharpless (Eric Owens, right) watch; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Just a statistical note — “Butterfly” is one of the most oft-performed of operas not only in L. A. Opera’s repertory, but that of every other major American opera company — and is number 8 on the world-wide scale. And for good reason — is there anyone out there who doesn’t love “Butterfly”?
Puccini based his “Madama Butterfly” on a play by David Belasco with its opening in Milan at the famous La Scala Opera House (wherein I’ve seen it!) on Feb 17, 1904. The story is set around 1900 in Nagasaki, Japan when huge iron, steam-powered gunboats were very much abroad, with England, Germany, Russia, the USA, and indeed Japan having large navies with such massive seapower.
The collision between Japan’s totally modern fleet and the Russian Imperial Eastern Fleet took place with the sinking of most of that Russian fleet at or near Port Arthur in Northeast China (leased by China for the Russian military and trade ships), taking place while Puccini was arranging the opening of his “Madama Butterfly”.
But Puccini and reportedly mobs of the Italian audience thought it bombed (sorry) — so Puccini went back to his drawing board — then by May 1904 he presented a newly reconstructed “Butterfly” to great acclaim — while this Russo-Japanese War was furiously taking place, the first (of many) major naval wars of the 20th Century.
[Below: Pinkerton (Brandon Jovanovich, front left, in white uniform) marries Butterfly (Oksana Dyka, front right, in white kimono, but with the condemnation of her uncle, the Bonze (Stefan Szkafarowsky, center) ; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Yet few know that in 1906 Puccini produced a third, quite different version for New York, then a fourth version for Paris, after which he came out in 1907 with yet another, the fifth, which was the final and now called the Standard Version, which we usually see and hear today. He wasn’t easily satisified — as virtually any painter/poet/playwright, et al, would tell you. I’m still changing paintings I did 25 years ago!
Puccini had to have known about this first great tectonic naval collision between a major Western power and Imperial Japan involving these gigantic warships, with all these Western nations making their presence well know in Japan in “friendly” (i.e. show the flag) visits which is how Puccini portrays the visiting U. S. Navy ship in “Butterfly”.
Puccini had already produced the luscious “Manon Lescaut” — February, 1893, sublime “La Boheme” — February 1896, and the glorious “Tosca” — January 1900 (L. A. sees this too later in May 2013) — all great successes, so he thought to produce an opera using the exotic atmosphere of Japan in “Madama Butterfly” after seeing the Belasco play — he clearly felt this story was ideal — so he rushed to immediate work on “Butterfly”.
[Milena Kitic as Suzuki; resized image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
So in Puccini’s vision we have Lt Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, USN, coming off the US Navy warship Abraham Lincoln moored in Nagasaki Harbor. Indeed, I have been to Nagasaki, now a very thriving city by a beautiful bay with lushly green environs. While there, I saw U. S. Navy ships with sailors ashore, and if you don’t think the music of “Butterfly” was not roaring in my head, think again!
[Below: Butterfly (Oksana Dyka, left) having seen the American battleship Abraham Lincoln entering Nagasaki Harbor, spends the night in a vigil; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
You all know the story, but perhaps not in detail unless you have craned your neck gaping at the supertitles above the proscenium. Lt Pinkerton wants to have some fun while ashore, so he’s in contact with a Japanese “marriage” broker catering to these Western sailors — Goro — much like we now see in Las Vegas.
The broker comes up with the “marriage” contract — it conveniently could be cancelled on a month’s Notice (excellent legal advice, I must say)! Pinkerton could care less — a point Puccini underlines again and again — and in fact while dallying with Cio Cio San (aka Mrs Butterfly-Pinkerton), proposes a toast to his US buddies to the future day he is really married — in the USA to a real American girl (Mrs USA Pinkerton shows up in the final, extremely tragic and moving, ultra-emotion packed ending).
Buttterfly’s uncle, the Bonze, a Japanese high priest, has arrived in a fury to cast her out of Japanese society, as he has just learned she has renounced her Japanese-heritage religion and adopted Pinkerton’s Christianity. Three years have since passed with nary a word form Pinkerton, but finally at long last the U. S. envoy Sharpless ( how very appropriately so named!) arrives at Butterfly’s home to read Cio Cio San a letter from Pinkerton telling her he has married in the USA, but Sharpless cannot bring himself to read this tragic part of the letter to her. Just then Pinkerton’s little boy –named “Trouble” — enters.
Sharpless is confounded to silence, and learns the little boy will be renamed “Joy” when Pinkerton comes back for his marriage to Cio Cio San.
[Below: The American Consul Sharpless (Eric Owens, left) meets with the grieving Pinkerton (Brian Jovanovich, on bed); edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Later, Butterfly learns the truth and with incredible grace and self control, wishes Mrs USA Pinkerton all the happiness in the world, and if Lt Pinkerton will just come for his little boy who cherishes him, he may have the child with Cio Cio San’s blessings (not a dry eye in the house at this point).
But Pinkerton is too late, and Cio Cio San does the only thing she can possibly do that her family’s honor will tolerate — as the little boy looks on playing with a toy U. S. Naval ship flying the American flag. This has to be one of the most tear-jerking scenes in all of opera, ending Puccini’s monumental world-masterpiece.
[Below: Butterfly (Oksana Dyka) prepares a blindfold for her son (Garret Chang); edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Just 37 years after “Butterfly” opened, the Empire of Japan struck Pearl Harbor (as they had Pt Arthur) and Nagasaki was obliterated with USA’s nuclear attack — and in 1945 the U. S. battleship Missouri visits in Tokyo Harbor — on which Japan unconditionally surrendered.
So intense are the emotions of this piece that I have often heard roaring Booos for the character Lt Pinkerton, before he get his standing ovation as an artist. Puccini was perhaps the ultimate genius in getting to those of us seeing his operas to experience emotions in extremis.
With a strong cast, led by Dyka’s Butterfly and Jovanovich’s Pinkerton, and a handsome production, I unreservedly recommend these performances to both veteran opera goers and those interested in seeing opera for the first time.
Reports of strong ticket sales suggest that one should not wait too long to obtain tickets.