Madama Butterfly may be the ideal opera. It combines traditional Japanese pageantry with a pulsating Puccini score, a soaring love story with a measure of psychological complexity, all encapsulated in one of the great prima donna roles. Here are a few things to ponder in connection with the St. Petersburg Opera production that opens Friday at the Palladium Theater.
John Fleming, Times performing arts critic
Puccini's 1904 opera tells the tragic story of a 15-year-old geisha, Cio-Cio-San, the purchased bride of U.S. Navy Lt. B.F. Pinkerton, who abandons her when his posting to Nagasaki is done. While she remains faithful, he returns three years later with his American wife. Butterfly gives up the son she had with Pinkerton and commits ritual hari-kari as strains of The Star Spangled Banner can be heard in the background.
In some ways, St. Petersburg Opera is returning to its roots with Madama Butterfly. Artistic director Mark Sforzini, onetime principal bassoon with the Florida Orchestra, made his opera conducting debut in a Sunstate Opera staging of the Puccini potboiler at the Palladium in 2005. This time around, he leads a company that includes a pair of singers who performed last winter at Sarasota Opera. Lara Michole Tillotson sings Cio-Cio-San, and Mathew Edwardsen is Pinkerton. Todd Olson, producing artistic director of American Stage, returns to direct his second full-blown production with the opera company, following last season's successful Cosi Fan Tutte. (Olson and Sforzini also collaborated on a pocket production of Puccini's Gianni Schicchi at American Stage in April and May.)
The musical Miss Saigon transplants Puccini's opera to the fall of Saigon in its tale of the doomed love of a Marine named Chris and the Vietnamese bar girl Kim. M. Butterfly, the play and movie about a French diplomat who falls in love with a Chinese diva, only to discover that she is actually a man, is set against the backdrop of the Beijing Opera and a performance of Madama Butterfly.
Un bel di (One beautiful day), Butterfly's aria to hope as she awaits the return of Pinkerton, is the opera's most famous number. Butterfly's entrance tops Wayne Koestenbaum's list of "queer moments in opera" in his brilliant book, The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire: "When Butterfly enters . . . the noose of gender loosens."
Many great sopranos have performed Madama Butterfly. Renata Tebaldi, Victoria de Los Angeles, Renata Scotto, Mirella Freni, Leontyne Price and Angela Gheorghiu all sing on classic recordings. The 1955 EMI studio production with Maria Callas as Cio-Cio-San and Herbert von Karajan conducting the La Scala Chorus and Orchestra is dazzling, even in mono sound.
For a vibrant, imaginative new Madama Butterfly, check out the Sony Classical DVD of the Metropolitan Opera production, directed by the late filmmaker Anthony Minghella (The English Patient). It features Patricia Racette in the title role and Blind Summit Theatre, a puppet troupe. Three black-veiled operators portray Cio-Cio-San's son, Dolore, with a wood puppet that is remarkably expressive.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.