Madama Butterfly

ButterflyGiacomo Puccini - Madama Butterfly

Sferisterio Opera Festival Macerata, 2009 | Daniele Callegari, Pier Luigi Pizzi, Raffaella Angeletti, Massimiliano Pisapia, Annunziata Vestri, Claudio Sgura, Thomas Morris, Enrico Cossutta, Enrico Iori, Nino Batatunashvili | Unitel Classica - C-Major

I know it’s one of the most performed and most popular crowd-pleasers in the opera repertoire, I’ve heard it and seen it performed any number of times (usually in a fairly traditional staging), I know that, derived from a piece of popular theatre by David Belasco, it’s emotionally manipulative, racially stereotypical, riddled with cliché with little cultural authenticity or ethnic realism – but I still won’t hear a bad word said about Madama Butterfly. Even in its most unadventurous and traditional of stagings Madama Butterfly just works. You might not buy the story for a second, but Puccini’s score makes you want to believe it is real, and he does so convincingly.

I won’t have anything bad said about Puccini either. Easy listening it may be, and unchallenging to some, but familiarity hasn’t made his work any less impressive for me, but rather every listening, every new production of his operas, reveals something new about the structure, the composition of his works, his ability to build a scene and hit you exactly the right way at exactly the right moment for maximum impact – and not necessarily in a deliberately calculated or manipulative way, but truthfully, with every sentiment perfectly balanced and weighted. Even now, with the availability on CD and DVD of a much wider range of composers and rare compositions, Puccini’s brilliance never wanes, but rather, one can see how he is the culmination of a long line of a tradition of Italian opera, who is able to draw from the lyricism of bel canto and combine it with the melodrama of Verdi, but also, in his later works, show an influence or awareness of Wagner in his approach to dramatic structuring. Puccini is undoubtedly one of the masters.

So perfect an opera is Madama Butterfly moreover, that it doesn’t need any modern revisionism or high concept staging. It already works on multiple levels – like all Puccini’s work – and if you want it to see it as a straightforward clash between Japanese and American culture that inevitably results in tragedy, then that’s more than enough for it to work successfully. There are other clashes, divisions and incompatibilities brought out in the opera – from the division of imperialism and isolation, destiny or self-determination, modernity versus tradition to simply the clash of ideals between men and women in respect of what each of them hope to gain from a relationship. All these ideas exist in Madama Butterfly, and some of them can be tweaked for emphasis in individual productions, but they are all there to be drawn out by the listener in even the most basic of stagings.

Directed by Pier Luigi Pizzi, this production for the Sferisterio Opera Festival in Macerata in 2009 isn’t exactly basic, but it is fairly traditional, aiming for a stylised Japanese setting with silk kimonos, bamboo and paper houses on wooden struts and a cherry tree in bloom. Puccini’s Madama Butterfly can bear such idealism, since in many respects, there is an unrealistic idealism in the minds of the two main protagonists, the American sailor B.F. Pinkerton and the young 15 year-old Japanese bride he has bought, Cio-Cio-Can, known as Butterfly – both however clearly have different ideas about what they expect to gain out of this arrangement. This production makes use of the interlude music after the Humming Song to introduce a dreamlike ballet sequence that depicts this idealised version of the relationship, perhaps in Butterfly’s mind as she sleeps awaiting the return of Pinkerton, and it’s a nice touch that works very well with this idea.

The other notable thing about this production is the open-air performance at the arena which is not traditionally theatre shaped. The long wings to the side of the stage however are well used for processional marches, as well as giving a greater sense of isolation of Cio-Cio-San from the world outside. The walls behind the stage however do add to the reverb on the voices, but not in any overly detrimental way. It does tend to lend a stridency to the singing of Raffaella Angeletti who can certainly hold the high notes as Butterfly, but doesn’t have the delicacy that is required in other passages. She does however deliver where she needs to. Massimiliano Pisapia is a robust and traditional Pinkerton, alternating between confidence and cowardice, between being arrogant and being loving. I liked the tone of his voice here throughout. Claudio Sgura’s Sharpless demonstrates good clear diction, but the microphone or the mixing gives his voice too much reverb, and both his voice and Angeletti’s can occasionally be a little piercing in places. Overall however, the singing is good and this is a fine production of Madama Butterfly, presented on a fine Blu-ray with a strong picture and – allowing for the slight extra reverb of the open-air location – good sound-mixes in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1.

Giacomo Puccini - Madama Butterfly

L’Opéra National de Paris, Opéra Bastille | Maurizio Benini, Robert Wilson, Micaela Carosi, Enkelejda Shkosa, Anna Wall, James Valenti, Anthony Michaels-Moore, Carlo Bosi, Vladimir Kapshuk, Scott Wilde | L’Opéra National de Paris, 4th February 2011

What is the colour of Madama Butterfly? You could see it in crude terms of the national flags of the two nations involved in the opera, the red, white and blue of the Stars and Stripes in a clash with Japan’s the Rising Sun (or indeed, more likely in this particular case, with the pink of chrysanthemums). Such a superficial reading of Madama Butterfly, based on David Belasco’s play, a sentimental tearjerker, could perhaps be justified, Puccini’s score even explicitly evoking the American flag in its Star Spangled Banner refrain and attempting to incorporate Japanese music into the score. If you close your eyes however, listen to the emotional core of the music – a much more delicate and sensitive affair than you might at first think – you might visualise the tone of Madama Butterfly as pale green. Or pale green through to deep blue, with an infinite variety of shades in between, illuminated perhaps at various points with flashes of violent red.


Robert Wilson is the master of conveying the emotional tone of an opera in terms of colour and his reading of Madama Butterfly is convincing on this account. No matter that just about every Robert Wilson production works in shades of blue, green and grey – perhaps those are the colours of opera itself. Nonetheless, even operating within such a limited palette as just a personal signature still provides plenty of scope for the director (although I personally found it very restrictive in his production of Aida for the Royal Opera House a few years ago), and it’s particularly effective in this 1993 production revived for the Paris Opera’s 2010-11 season. In terms of staging and props, the production is unexpectedly minimal – ultra-minimal even, perhaps even more sparse than usual for a Robert Wilson production. “Tutti i fiore” there are certainly not in preparation for the return of Pinkerton at the end of Act 2, and is this a dagger I see before me at the conclusion? No, it’s a mimed one.

Aside from his work for Philip Glass, I’m not used to seeing Robert Wilson’s stage productions in anything other than a mythological or generic antiquity setting, which allows plenty of room for personal touches. Madama Butterfly however is a comparatively modern opera, or one at least in a recognisable period and specific cultural setting, but that’s unimportant as far as Robert Wilson is concerned. Everyone is still dressed in togas and tunics, albeit with an almost science-fictional Oriental touch. Overall however, it’s an approach that works well for this opera, stripping it down, the action rarely extending beyond formalised gestures and hand movements that suit if not imitate Japanese social interaction, effectively undercutting the heart-tugging sentimentality of the traditional kitsch faux-Japanese setting. It also makes use of space effectively – there’s no marriage of worlds here – they sit apart, each with their own ideals and needs, and never the twain shall meet.


Toning down the staging is one thing, toning down the music or the singing in Puccini would however be fatal, and consequently the Orchestra of the Opéra de Paris plough on marvellously, not regardless of the staging, but mindful of the simplicity and the subtlety contained within Puccini’s arrangements, as well as the bombast. James Valenti however didn’t find that balance in his Pinkerton. He has a pleasantly toned voice, but it was much too gentle for this role, and he failed to cut an imposing figure as the American imperialist, even ducking some of the higher notes. He certainly didn’t please some sections of the Paris audience at the performance I attended. Micaela Carosi (introduced in the recent Paris Opera production of Andrea Chénier) was announced as being unwell, but took to the stage nonetheless and performed marvellously. She was everything you could want of a Cio-Cio San (barring ethnicity) and, despite her illness, completely mastered a difficult singing role made all the more complicated by the very specific movements, poses and gestures required for this particular production.

Ultimately, Madama Butterfly is any colour you want it to be, but it fits in rather well with Robert Wilson’s uniquely personal palette and stylisations, not detracting from the power of the opera in the way that his work did for Aida, but giving the characters and their emotional lives space, enhancing and supporting the emotional tone in a manner that draws out its subtleties without over-emphasising, vulgarising or sentimentalising the opera’s crowd-pleasing qualities.