Even if you’ve never paid the slightest attention to opera, you probably have a cartoonish version of Madame Butterfly tucked within your cultural references. The broad outline is familiar mostly for its exotic pathos: the Japanese beauty abandoned by her American husband, the little boy taken from her, the suicide as finale.
Mounting this warhorse in 2017, as Opera Theatre St. Louis has done with Saturday’s season-opening premiere, is both a no-brainer and a decision fraught with challenges. Puccini’s music is consistently glorious, but the idea of an Asian woman as a suffering little butterfly feels uncomfortably dated — and in an age when even Halloween costumes are policed for insensitivity, it’s hard not to squirm at a mostly white cast decked out in kimonos.
Yet in the hands of director Robin Guarino and her extraordinarily talented cast, this Madame Butterfly is no yellowface minstrel show. It’s instead a work of breathtaking power, a production grounded in its heroine’s agency and a tragedy that feels far more modern than you’d anticipate.
As Cio-Cio-San, Rena Harms is no suffering sphinx. She’s utterly sympathetic, a teenager who had only a few choices but made the most of them — and whose biggest mistake was casting her lot with a U.S. Naval officer who proves far from a gentleman. Harms at first is wide-eyed and beguiling, but as Madame Butterfly unfolds, her Cio-Cio-San is revealed as a woman in her own right, and that’s when we see the steel that girded her coquetry. She continues to insist on the values she was told America believed in — even when the evidence increasingly points to the contrary — not because she is stupid, but because she cannot allow herself to contemplate the alternative. Her suicide is not a cry for help; it’s a political statement.
- (C) KEN HOWARD, 2017
- Rena Harms triumphs as Cio-Cio-San.
Making a memorable Opera Theatre St. Louis debut, Harms boasts a voice that’s almost shocking in its beauty, and the cast supporting her is terrific. As her loyal maid Suzuki, Renée Rapier is also a standout. It is evidence of how thoroughly Rapier inhabits her role that, at the end of the play, you may find yourself thinking not of what will become of Cio-Cio-San’s blue-eyed boy, but what will happen to her maid. The women’s friendship is the second love story in what, by the end, feels like a feminist fable — A Handmaid’s Tale with international borders.
Indeed, it is fascinating to consider that Madame Butterfly made its premiere in 1904. This was before the Korean War, before Vietnam, before, even, the U.S. went “over there” and helped to end World War I and II. Yet Michael Brandenburg’s Officer Pinkerton — Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, no less — is a villain right out of a Graham Greene novel, an American who blunders his way through a foreign country armed only with a feckless selfishness and a cheerful blindness to the chaos he leaves in his wake. His musical theme is our national anthem, which would feel didactic in the hands of a lefty playwright pushing an agenda. In the hands of Puccini, never one for politics, it feels downright chilling, an indictment of everything we’ve done as a nation and the fact we’ve seen it as one great adventure.
Special praise, too, goes to set designer Laura Jellinek. Her deceptively simple version of a Japanese home in the mountains is no cartoon, but it’s somehow instantly evocative. Puccini may have had a European’s tendency to exoticize Asia, but the talented women at the helm of this production have grounded it, thrillingly, in reality — no small trick for a century-old work in the most artificial of stage genres.