By Paul Bench
Desperate longing and obsessive love are the narrative currency of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. For a contemporary audience, this piece of late nineteenth century Japonism could be culturally fraught, with its explicit geo-political themes and cultural stereotyping. Japan as host to the USA provides more than a metaphor in this opera, with Madama Butterfly’s circumstances acquiring the resonance of fable. The uneasy relationship between characters is drawn along lines of culture and nationality that are neither wholly antagonistic nor compatible. The Italian interpretation of these themes with an international audience in mind adds a further dimension of geo-cultural interest and difficulty.
The established nature of the opera, its place in international repertoires and therefore cultural consciousness seems in some ways to surmount these difficulties. However, Moshe Leiser and in their production for the Royal Opera House, grapple with established traditions to negotiate a more twenty-first century conception of cultural identity whilst maintaining a faithful relationship with the text. The challenge of the opera is its limited malleability and that of audience expectation. Whilst Puccini’s vision was originally performed in the first years of the twentieth century, its roots lie in literature of the nineteenth. As such, it is imbued with those contemporary conceptions of Japanese aesthetics inspired by newly possible trade with the country. Madama Butterfly thus takes the political relationship between Japan and the USA as its specific theme whilst also forming a concentrated version of Japanese inspired aesthetics. The visual display of the opera cannot be disengaged from this combination of East and West, political and visual. The visuality of the opera being thus historically defined is perhaps the reason that it attracts little cultural anxiety: the interstice of more than a hundred years allowing its established visual language to seem more politically diffuse and picturesque.
The challenges afforded by the opera are not unmet in the Royal Opera House’s production. The raising and lowering of translucent wall panels proves sufficient to suggest the paper screens of traditional Japanese architecture and transform the space. These also serve as fields for coloured light and shadow silhouettes.The costumes, while adhering to audience expectations of a broad conception of Japanese ceremonial and traditional dress, are inventive within these conventions. Butterfly’s dress is an obvious focus for narrative and the visual identity of the opera. Eschewing heavy embroidered and jacquard silks with crisply structured folds and restrictive obi, Leiser and Caurier seem to have derived inspiration from western aesthetic dress that was influenced by Japanese imports in the 19th century. The exaggerated sleeves and robe effect denote kimono styling but are realised in a more fluid, lustrous and undecorated washed satin. Beneath, Butterfly wears a more western Edwardian style skirt, cinched at the waist with ample volume at the back including a slight train. Her robe is often unfastened, mobile, and distanced from the contours of the body beneath. The effect is a draped looseness neatly combining inter-cultural references with references to the historical period of the opera’s conception.
Cio-Cio San (Butterfly), the eponymous lead character comes to embody through her costume the driving theme of the opera’s east-west tension. The fluidity of her garments also dramatise every movement. The lightweight cloth becomes voluminous in her gestures of frenzied excitement or despair. These may also however, adhere to more traditionally columnar form with a perfectly pooling train at moments of formality – the hem seeming to be lightly weighted by padding. The garment is empathetic to action in this way, collapsing around Butterfly as she collapses physically and mentally in her torpor of the final act. The kimono style robe also makes the obvious visual parallel between Butterfly and her name, not only in its fluttering open and closed, but in its metamorphosis.
Beginning and ending in virginal white, Butterfly’s robe attains soft ombre hues of blue and yellow that suggest the progress of creeping transfiguration. Added to the pink of her skirt, the subtle rainbow and winged silhouette is a visual eponym that calls to mind growth within the chrysalis. This growth for Butterfly is however one embittered by poverty, yearning and loneliness. Her development is arrested and the screened arena of the stage becomes a bleak confine when the audience learn that she will not leave. In this way the opera constantly incites empathy with Butterfly’s hopes and their abrupt demise in tumultuous fluctuations. Her re-adoption of the wedding robe from the first act is a symbolic attempt to reinstate the freshness of her aspirations and erase visually for the audience the emblematic colour of temporal progress that signified her languor. The two robes are equivalents in all but colour. The colourful version belongs to a characterisation of Butterfly as Penelope awaiting her Odysseus, whilst the re-adoption of the colourless wedding robe is akin to the Dickensian Miss Havisham – a symbol of thwarted expectation, vain hope and pathos.
The beauty of the opera is in the unveiling of a nobility attached to Butterfly’s presumed naivety. This is in part achieved by her steadfast belief and formation as an archetype of virtue in the grand theatrical tradition whilst simultaneously being a pathetic figure. This oscillation between the pitiable and the elevated, explains the reinstatement of the white robe, providing as it does the stark shroud for her dramatic suicide. This final act, her control and her sometime husband Pinkerton’s translated viewpoint assert her power. Previously shunned and demeaned, she is shown as superior through her faith in a particularly Christian tradition but with a classically tragic end. In this case rather than dress conveying the progress of character, it is its ability to move and change that is effective. The violence and release of the narrative is given further visual expression by the physical release of Butterfly’s hair. This freedom from constraint and social dressing norms implies a human reality at once more base and more poetic.
The final scene closes with incredible force. Butterfly is dead and prostrate in centre stage. Her young son, blindfolded as cupid appears in hard profile waving the star spangled banner. He is raised on a platform to the back of the stage, becoming graphic and symbolic. Screens are absent. The space is made abstract. The silence is final and brief. Heavy cherry blossoms fall with dramatic thuds onto the darkened stage and are luminous in the blackness. The whole visual metaphor suggests a doomed relationship between the two countries and is arranged as a painting with compositional precision. The opera thus provides some critique of the pitfalls of cultural exchange, or more accurately, of insensitive appropriation. This is perhaps most reflective of the political atmosphere in which it was originally conceived. Transposed into allegorical form however, Butterfly’s state is both identifiable for the audience in the universality of its emotional themes and is elevated to the symbolic.
Featured Image: Kristine Opolais as Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly copyright ROH 2015. Photo by Bill Cooper by Royal Opera House Covent Garden.