By Montage Gammon III
Virginia Opera closes its current season with Giacomo Puccini’s great heartbreaker, Madama Butterfly.
Arguably one of the two great tear jerkers in the operatic repertoire – Puccini’s La Boheme being the other – it’s also one of the most frequently produced operas in North America; in some years it has been America’s most often produced opera.
It’s a tale that touches on devoted love and male chauvinism, hope and despair, loyalty and desertion, colonialism and honor, all wrapped up in glorious music.
In brief, it’s the story of Cio-Cio-San (a.k.a. Butterfly), a 15 year old girl who lives in Nagasaki in the late 19th Century. She marries American Naval Lieutenant Benjamin Pinkerton. He’s truly fond of her, but the arrangement also seems,for him, to be something of a “sailor’s-girl-in-the port” convenience.
She’s head over heels, or maybe heart over head, in love. They have what Adam Turner, VO’s Artistic Director and conductor of this Butterfly, calls “a beautiful, stunningly gorgeous love duet…that goes on for about 20 minutes. Before we get to the tragedy it’s such a beautiful story. You lose yourself in the beauty of the love they share.”
Butterfly’s family rejects her for marrying a Westerner.
Pinkerton is shipped back to the States, unaware that his bride will give birth to his son in his absence. Butterfly waits faithfully for him and is ecstatic to hear, some 3 years later, of his impending return.
He comes back to Nagasaki in the company of his American wife, fatally devastating Chio-Chio-San.
Of course, the full story involves lots more emotional detail, and numerous other important characters.
“Everybody likes a tearjerker,” Turner said, adding that the popularity of such heartbreaking stories is allied to the very basic foundation of tragedy, as articulated by Aristotle some 2350 years ago.
Sad stores are cathartic, Turner pointed out. In essence, we can find emotional release, letting it all out as we pity the tragic heroine.
Turner is enthusiastic about Danielle Pastin, the young Metropolitan Opera veteran who was a much loved and praised Liu in the 2016 VO production of Puccini’s Turandot (“passionate, beautifully sung,” wrote reviewer M. D. Ridge). Pastin returns as Cio-Cio-San, a role she has done many times all over the country..
Some time before Pastin first arrived in Virginia, Turner was listening to the Saturday afternoon radio broadcast of the Met’s Pagliacci in his car. Impressed by the unnamed soprano playing Nedda, he wondered just who was this “phenomenal” singer. Over the swelling ovation during the curtain call, the Met’s radio announcer said that was Pastin, making a “triumphant” broadcast debut as a last minute substitute for an ailing cast member.
Butterfly can be seen as a story of Asian and Western cultures meeting, mixing and misunderstanding. “I really wanted someone of Asian heritage to be steering this ship,” said Turner. “In this age of heightened awareness I really wanted to be sure that we were engaging with that kind of director who would guide this piece with sensitivity.”
Turner picked the Filipino American, New York based director Richard Gammon [no known relation to this writer], with whom he “has been friends for many years.”
“I really think that Richard’s involvement in the production and the heritage of his life experience, what he brings to a story, his American experience growing up an Asian in America, will inform this in a new light.”
WANT TO GO?
Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
March 16,17 & 19
Harrison Opera House
160 W Virginia Beach Blvd., Norfolk
(Additional mainstage performances in Richmond and Fairfax)