Opera Lyra concludes its 29th season with the Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Before I really start to get into this specific opera I need to lay some groundwork here. I love the opera. I try to go as often as I can. Do I know much about the opera? The more I go the more I learn. If I see an opera that catches my eye I start to research, where did that opera get its roots, was there already a cultural folklore surrounding said piece, have there been any changes to the opera since its inception, if I liked this opera, what else might I like?
When talking about the opera it’s hard to really express ones sentiments in regards to whether you enjoy it or not because there are two very distinct aspects to each performance that you see: the performance itself, this encompasses the on-stage talent, the orchestral unit, the conductor and stage director, amongst many other off-stage talents; the second is that of the piece itself, this encompasses the story, the splitting of the acts, the character development and so on and so forth.
Here in lies the problem, there are some operas that are phenomenally well staged, yet the content is a little mind-numbing at times, while other times we may see the story to be grossly engaging, yet the stage presence lacking. Our hope in attending the opera is to have a story we can connect to and not feel like we’re rushing to a conclusion as well as be entertained by top level performers.
Madama Butterfly falls into the first category. Puccini’s opera, which was based on the play “Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan” by David Belasco, which originated from a short story “Madame Butterfly” by John Luther Long, which drew its foundation from a semi-autobiographical novel “Madame Chysantheme” by Pierre Loti. Set in 1904 Japan, Madama Butterfly becomes the watered down story of a young 15 year old former Geisha, Cio-Cio San (Butterfly), who, in the bindings of an arranged marriage to an American sailor in the Navy, B.F. Pinkerton, falls head over heels in love with him. Pinkerton, using Cio-Cio for his own physical pleasures never returns the feelings. Ultimately this tale of unrequited love leads to where most tales of the sort lead, tragedy, sorrow and death.
Madama Butterfly is actually quite a simple tail, yet its extravagant deliverance may feel like too much. The first act, which unites Cio-Cio and Pinkerton together in marriage, drags on and on. A lot of the first act is foreshadowing the tragedy to come, yet it’s not until the second act that this opera really picks up. The second act features more of the Puccini that opera-fans love and adore, with a very tongue-in-cheek style to the script and a much needed comical scene to prepare the audience for the heaviness of the third act. The third act finds the audience grieving with Cio-Cio and trying to come to a forced understanding of Pinkerton’s behaviour that almost feels rushed and really betrays the depth of both characters.
When we look at Opera Lyra’s performance of Madama Butterfly we are introduced to the beautiful and talented Shuying Li (Cio-Cio), who holds the entire opera together and is captivating from the first moment she is on stage until the moment the curtain drops. Li received the standing ovation that she deserves. If there are any readers out there in either Shanghai or Colorado make sure to check out Flowing Water to the East and Madama Butterfly, respectively, where she will next be on stage. Two other artists who stole the show include Ottawa’s own Armine Kassabian, who plays Suzuki, Cio-Cio’s loyal maidservant and Statford, Ontario’s James Westman, who plays American Consulate Sharpless.
There’s much more than just the on-stage artists who make up an opera though. The artistic direction and stage management play a huge role in the overall experience, and they were executed flawlessly. There’s an iconic moment in Madama Butterfly where Cio-Cio and Suzuki are decorating the house with flower petals for Pinkerton’s return, and as they sing and twirl throwing flowers carelessly, flower petals start to rain down from the rafters onto the stage. The simplicity of it isn’t even thought of while the audience marvels in the cascading beauty. At another point as Cio-Cio faithfully waits for her husband’s return the orchestra is supposed to bring the audience through the evening, overnight and into the dawn before another word is sung, and what could have been dull to watch, was a beautiful scenery transition that also included Cio-Cio growing more and more despondent as time progressed.
The final piece of the puzzle was that of the orchestra. The NAC Orchestra is by far one of the best orchestra’s in Canada, if not the world, and having the full orchestra in tune with this phenomenal performance is the cherry on top. Tyrone Paterson, the artistic director and principal conductor, has many hats to wear, but helped create an experience that will not be forgotten any time soon. It will be truly exciting to watch him take the conductors role once more for the Opera Lyra performance of Tosca in September 2014.
The hauntingly beautiful Madama Butterfly runs April 19, 21, 23 & 26 at The National Arts Centre. For more information or information on how to purchase your tickets check out The Opera Lyra website!