by Michael Caruso
The Delaware Valley Opera Company (DVOC) will bring its 2013 summer season of staged operatic productions to a poignant finale August 3, 7 & 10 with performances of Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.”
The libretto for “Madama Butterfly” was written by Luigi Illica & Giuseppe Giacosa. They based their work on David Belasco’s play, “Madame Butterfly,” which was the dramatization of John Luther Long’s short story of the same name. His work was, in part, based on Pierre Loti’s “Madame Chrysantheme.” Puccini’s opera received its world premiere on February 17, 1904, in Milan’s Teatro all Scala.
Puccini became fascinated with the subject after seeing Belasco’s play performed in English, a language he barely understood, in London in June of 1900. He quickly asked Belasco for the rights to turn it into an opera; they were granted in September of 1901. While waiting, Puccini sent a copy of Long’s story to Illica, who began working on combining Long’s story with Belacso’s play. Giacosa continued the process by turning the narrative into verse. Along the way, Belasco’s more tragic ending, with Butterfly’s successful suicide, was chosen over Long’s version, in which she is saved.
The premiere at La Scala remains one of the most famous fiascos in opera history. Puccini was accused of plagiarism of himself and others. He immediately withdrew the opera and made revisions. The second performance took place on May 28, 1904, in the Teatro Grande in Brescia. This “second premiere” was a resounding triumph. Not quite satisfied, however, Puccini continued to tinker with the score. This third version was premiered on December 28, 1906, at the Opera-Comique in Paris. The great Italian Maestro Arturo Toscanini was one of the most fervent champions of “Madama Butterfly,” with such great artists as Renata Tebaldi and Leontyne Price offering the finest interpretations of the title role.
DVOC’s stage director for “Madama Butterfly” is Sandra Hartman. A longtime local resident who lives “on the border of Roxborough and Manayunk,” Hartman has been working with DVOC since the company first began performing at the Hermitage Mansion in Roxborough more than three decades ago.
When I mentioned to her that the Academy of Vocal Arts once presented Belasco’s play in repertory with Puccini’s opera, Hartman replied, “Unfortunately, I have never seen the play, but I have read it along with the short story.”
Continuing, she explained, “I am keeping it in its original time and place, turn of the 20th century Japan. I think it’s important to show how women and foreigners were treated and perceived during that time, especially since the story was based on a true account from John Luther Long’s sister, who was a missionary in Japan.
“Some of the societal characteristics have changed,” she said, “but not everywhere. I think the story is still relevant because, in many cultures, women are still treated as second class citizens, and of course, prejudice is rampant everywhere. I think it remains a powerful narrative because it is a love story where the heroine is so grossly mistreated and yet holds onto her ideal of love. The injustice is heartbreaking.”
Speaking of Pinkerton, the American sailor who first loves then abandons Butterfly (called Cio-Cio-San in the opera), Hartman said, “I hope NOT to mute Pinkerton’s behavior and to show him as the selfish narcissist he is. One might almost think he’s remorseful in the third act in the trio and then his aria, but he shows his true colors by running away as a coward. By contrast, I have tried to emphasize the tenderness to and affection for Butterfly of Sharpless, the American diplomat. She certainly would have fared better with a gentleman like him.”
Expanding on Butterfly, Hartman added, “I don’t think Butterfly is clueless. I think over the three years of Pinkerton’s absence, she has considered her options. None of them is very appealing. She could return to the life of a geisha, into which she was previously forced for financial reasons, or she could marry the wealthy Yamadori and be one of the many women he has married and then divorced. She could also end her life and would prefer to do so, as she says in the second act. She needs to believe in Pinkerton. She wants to believe in him. She is the ultimate idealist, and I think our hearts go out to her because she believes in love and marriage – not as it often is, with lies and broken promises, but rather as it should be.”
“Madama Butterfly” will be performed August 3, 7 & 10 at 8 p.m. at Stage One, 101 Plush Mill Road, in Wallingford. Visit www.dvopera.org for more ticket information and directions.