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Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Blindfold (on Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly)

Lugi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa (libretto), based on the play by David Belasco and the story by John Luther Long, Giacomo Puccini (composer) Madama Butterfly / the production I saw was a recast in high definition of the Metropolitan Opera production on Saturday, March 7, 2009 with Patricia Racette, Maria Zifchak, Marcello Giordani, and Dwayne Croft

Nearly anyone who has seen an opera knows the story of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Having fallen in love with the dashing American Navy Lieutenant Pinkerton, the fifteen-year-old Cio-Cio San marries him, despite the fact that in doing so she must give up her own family and friends. With Yankee haughtiness and a sense of superiority, Pinkerton scoffs at the American consul's advice that Cio-Cio San is taking the marriage seriously, and soon after, leaves her behind as he sails off to America and, ultimately, a "real" wife.

Meanwhile, Cio-Cio San trusts that eventually he will return, singing her famed aria "Un bel di," in which she describes one beautiful day when a ship will sail into the harbor, returning Pinkerton to her. Meanwhile, Cio-Cio, courted by local men such as the wealthy Goro, refuses to give up her so-called "American" marriage and ardently denies their insistence that Pinkerton has left her for good.

The consul, Sharpless, has been given the difficult task of reading a letter from Pinkerton to Cio-Cio, reporting that he has been married, and will not return, but she, so delighted to hear any word from her husband, cannot comprehend what he is attempting to tell her, and when Sharpless tries to explain the facts in a more outright manner, she produces her and Pinkerton's son whom she is sure will draw Pinkerton back to her.

Pinkerton, in fact, has already returned to Nagasaki, and has no intention of visiting Cio-Cio. When he does hear of the child's existence, he, his wife, and Sharpless, convince Cio-Cio's servant Suzuki, to break the news that Pinkerton and his new wife will adopt the son.

Finally, Cio-Cio, who has been blinded throughout the entire opera to the truth, has her eyes opened, realizing, in horror, her delusional condition. She asks Pinkerton, a man so selfish that he has refused even to face her himself, to return so that she may offer up the child. But we also know that she intends to leave him her own body, committing ritual suicide. Who could not be moved by Patricia Racette's dramatically convincing performance? The Lithuanian-born American next to us—who had never before attended a Met video performance—was in tears, as were Howard and I.

Belasco the original playwright and storyteller John Luther Long, upon whose work Puccini based his opera, was quite prescient in his fin de si├Ęcle piece, establishing a type, the ugly American, which has remained in place for all those years since, particularly in the context of the Korean, Viet Nam, Afghanistan and Iraq wars. In Puccini's hands, the dichotomy between the all-consuming Yankee and the self-sacrificing Japanese maiden could not have made clearer.

Yet, one can only recognize that it is Cio-Cio San's propensity for self-sacrifice is as much a problem in this relationship as has been Pinkerton's greed and disdain of her life. In her absurd innocence, she has been blinded not only to the impossibility that she could be recognized as an American wife, but has forgotten who she herself is and how her traditions and behavior conspire to permit the Pinkerton's of the world to prey upon such youths.

Puccini poignantly points up this fact by having her son, whom she has sent out to play, wander into sight just as she is about to draw the knife. To protect him, she blindfolds the child, sending him on his way. But in doing this she merely reiterates her own condition all along. Singing of her hope that her son will remember her at the very moment that she is about to disappear from his life, we can only perceive that were he to do so, it could only bring him great pain for the rest of his days. In Anthony Minghella's Metropolitan Opera production Howard and I saw, the child, "Sorrow"/"Trouble" was played by a Bunraku-like puppet, manipulated by three hooded assistants, which visually restated the child's future sense of emptiness, his destiny, perhaps, to join in the world of hollow bodies.

Accordingly, although the opera ends with a corpse upon the stage, we know that it is already a disappearing thing, representing as it does a way of living that will inevitably be replaced by the avaricious gluttony of the survivors.

Los Angeles, March 28, 2009

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