The story of Cio-Cio San (Butterfly) is one of most famous stories in 20th century opera. The year is 1904 and the United States is trading heavily with the recently opened trade borders of Japan, and Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton of the United States naval ship "Abraham Lincoln" is in Japan. The Japan of this period is still a very traditional place firmly rooted in its feudal system. Western and Japanese culture are exchanging ideas and clashing with one another in many areas. Western artists such as Hornel are visiting Japan and incorporating oriental visuals and themes into their art,and traditional Ukiyo-e artists such as Utamaro have been adopting new ideas such as western perspective in art into their style. The up to very recently very closed society of Japan is often not taking kindly to its new trading partners and westerners are not held in high regard by many Japanese. Marriage outside of your own social status, let alone to a "foreigner" is simply not something that a person does.
Against this background we come straight into the wedding of Cio-Cio San (Butterfly) and Lt. B. F. Pinkerton which has been arranged by Goro the local marriage matchmaker. Butterfly is only 15 years old at this point and for her to marry an "American" and get a new life away from the poverty of being a working geisha girl is a dream come true. Butterfly loves Pinkerton with all her heart and gives up everything to be with him.
The wedding is attended by American consul Mr Sharpless, Butterflys mother (her father is dead), aunt, her uncle (a local Priest) and a few dozen relatives.
When Butterfly's family and friends find out through her uncle at her wedding that she has also abandoned her religion in favour of Christianity to be with Pinkerton, they disown her. All Butterfly takes into her marriage is her love for Pinkerton and a few treasured possessions.
Unfortunately for Butterfly, Pinkerton is not as honest about their marriage as she believes. For him, this is only a marriage of convenience until he finds himself an American wife. The marriage for Pinkerton is no more important to him than the 999 year lease option that he has taken on their new house. Like the leasehold on the property which he can choose not to renew, his marriage under loose Japanese laws of divorce is also completely disposable when it suits him.
After their wedding night, Pinkerton is recalled to his ship and to the United States. He does however promise never to forget her and to "return when the robin builds its nest".
The second act opens three years later and Butterfly has been watching every day for Pinkerton's ship to return. Butterfly now has a three year old son to Pinkerton (who was born after he left), a devoted servant in Suzuki and a household running out of money. Butterfly's dreams come true and Pinkerton returns. Her dreams soon turn into a nightmare though when she learns that Pinkerton has retuned with his American wife and that, upon finding out about his son, intends to take him away to America with him and leave Butterfly alone and divorced by desertion.
Seeing only one way to retain her honour and give her child an honourable new start in America and a life where he is not dishonoured by his mother abandoning him, Butterfly kills herself.
This is a very simple story of love, betrayal and honour and some people nowadays find the absolute devotion to Pinkerton that Butterfly has, her unswerving loyalty, refusal to accept the obvious and willingness to die rather than be without him difficult to understand and accept in modern attitudes, but this is feudal Japan and a wife is pretty much the property of her husband and her status demands absolute submission to that role.
What can never change over the years though is the beautiful music of Puccini. Madama Butterfly is one of those operas that even if you think you do not know the music there is going to be something there that you probably will recognise. Puccini's work has been heard so many times in the 20th century that it has become entwined into our musical fabric. The work of Puccini is everywhere, from pop music to large advertising campaigns. It actually just struck me for the first time tonight listening to this performance just how cinematic much of the music of Madama Butterfly is. This music could just as easily be a film score as an opera. Puccini was visionary when he wrote this. There is genuinely beautiful music here and Puccini was careful to give the music an auhentic Japanese feel to it.
South Korean Soprano Hye-Youn Lee as Cio-Cio San is outstanding in her role. Her voice just seems to float across the stage. There is nowhere for Butterfly to rest in this opera and the sheer amount of time that she is on stage must make this a very physically demanding role to play too. How someone so fragile looking has such stamina and vocal presence on stage is a mystery.
Jose Ferrero as Lt Pinkerton is also in great vocal form and again this must be a very demanding role vocally. The very physical presence of Ferrero on stage make Hye-Youn Lee's Butterfly look even more fragile.
Outstanding performances are also give by Christopher Purves as Consul Sharpless, and Hannah Hipp as Butterfly's devoted female servant Suzuki.
Set and lighting design are very simple and effective. They are both true to traditional Japanese minimalism. Nothing in the set detracts from the simple story that is being told on stage.
When you just shut your eyes and listen to Puccini's work on this opera, you realise that this is music that works on you at a very instinctive level. This was a master (if not a genius) at his work.
This is a great production from Scottish Opera. Try and make the time to see this one at The Festival Theatre during an all too short a run.
Review by Tom King