| Palm Beach Daily News
Few characters in opera are as iconic as the teenage geisha at the weeping heart of Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.”
The story of Cio-Cio-San (pronounced Cho-Cho-San), a naïve but determined Japanese girl in Nagasaki who becomes the bride of a callow U.S. Navy lieutenant who abandons her for a “real” wife back home in the States, is one of the most popular operas ever written. Although its premiere at Milan’s La Scala in 1904 was a disaster, in its revised form it has won over generations of fans who find its tragic story and its gorgeous music irresistible.
Palm Beach Opera opens its 61st season this week with three performances of “Butterfly” at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach. This will mark the eighth time in the company’s history that it has presented “Butterfly,” not including during its very first season in March 1962, when it presented excerpts from the opera as part of a Puccini Festival.
Starring as Cio-Cio-San will be the soprano Jennifer Rowley, seen last year in the leading role of Lehár’s “Merry Widow.” She will sing the role Friday night and Sunday afternoon. Palm Beach Opera double-casts lead singers in some of its productions, and on Saturday night, soprano Toni Marie Palmertree will be Cio-Cio-San. Opposite Rowley as Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton will be tenor Jonathan Burton, who was Don Jose in Bizet’s “Carmen” last season. On Saturday night, tenor Robert Watson sings the role opposite Palmertree.
Singing the role of Butterfly’s domestic servant Suzuki will be mezzo-soprano Renée Tatum, while baritone Troy Cook is Sharpless, the U.S. consul who tries unsuccessfully to dissuade Pinkerton from going through with his Japanese marriage of convenience. The stage director will be Alison Moritz, and the music will be directed by Carlo Montanaro.
One special part of this production comes from the company’s sensitivity to cultural issues. The audiences of 2023 are not the audiences of 1904, and today an opera in which a vulnerable young Japanese woman is exploited by an American military man raises many more uncomfortable questions. To address that, the opera company has for the first time hired a cultural consultant, Satomi Hirano, and partnered with the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in suburban Delray Beach for two community events.
“While we are thrilled to open our mainstage season with Puccini’s iconic ‘Madama Butterfly,’ we are also very mindful of the challenges it presents to companies and communities today,” the company’s artistic director, David Walker, said in a prepared statement. “We are embracing the opportunity to dive into everything from the costumes to the set to produce and experience this masterpiece with a new perspective.”
The opera is based on a play by David Belasco, now forgotten except for the Broadway theater he named for himself in 1910. Belasco drew his play from an 1898 short story by John Luther Long, who in turn based it on stories his sister, who lived in Japan with her missionary husband, told him of her experiences there. Long also was influenced by a French novel from 1887, Pierre Loti’s “Madame Chrysanthème.”
Puccini’s opera opens with Pinkerton discussing with a marriage broker named Goro about the wife being secured for him, as well as the house he will be able to rent for 99 years. Butterfly appears, and amid preparations for their wedding, she reveals that she has renounced her religion for that of her American husband. The ceremony is interrupted by Cio-Cio-San’s priest uncle, the Bonze, who denounces her for what she has done. Pinkerton comforts her, and they enter their garden together.
The next act opens three years later, with Butterfly, now with a son by Pinkerton she names Sorrow. Pinkerton left months after their marriage and has not returned, but Butterfly is confident he will be there soon, and sings the well-known aria “Un bel dí” (One fine day) to her servant Suzuki about the joy she will feel when he comes back home. A cannon shot is heard in the harbor, announcing the return of Pinkerton’s ship. Butterfly and Suzuki decorate the house with flowers and prepare to wait all night for Pinkerton to come back to the house.
The next morning, Butterfly is sleeping after keeping vigil, and Sharpless arrives, with Pinkerton and his new wife, Kate. Suzuki realizes who the American woman is, and agrees to break the news to Butterfly. A guilt-stricken Pinkerton leaves, at which point Cio-Cio-San arrives, only to find Kate, who has come to help take Pinkerton’s child to the United States. Butterfly agrees to give up Sorrow, but only if Pinkerton will come back to get him. She goes into the house, grabbing the dagger her father had used to kill himself, and stabs herself to death, as Pinkerton comes running in, calling for her.
“We believe there is still much to be learned from ‘Madama Butterfly,’ and we aim to celebrate its beauty while continuing to reflect on how it resonates with us today,” Walker said.
Performances are set for 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday, at the Kravis Center. For tickets or more information, call 561-833-7888 or visit pbopera.org. Tickets range from $25 to $265, and can also be had at the Kravis Center box office or by visiting www.kravis.org.