float like a ‘Butterfly,’ hurt like a ‘Butterfly’

Washington National Opera's 'Butterfly'

Today I’m seeing WNO’s Madama Butterfly at the Kennedy Center, my first time visiting the venue. If all goes as planned, I’ll be seeing Ana María Martínez sing Cio-Cio-San and Plácido Domingo conducting, who is amazing. (What doesn’t the man do?)

Following the performance, there is an artist Q&A–a nice value add for the audience.

While the reviews have been glowing (look for my own later today or tomorrow) and Martinez singled out for her performance, it is such a sad story. Even all the beautiful music can’t disguise a tragic tale of rape and abandonment.

While I love Puccini‘s music, I have found his heroines to be problematic characters. Puccini was a man of his time and place, and his female leads are too often VICTIMIZED and preyed upon and spend too much time portraying victims. I’ve found Puccini’s women to be somewhat two-dimensional. Not nearly as interesting as Shakespeare’s female protagonists, who can be as flawed and evil as any man or worse–think Lady MacBeth–and who deserve their tragic ends.

So, today when I watch the production, I’ll be considering what makes this opera so popular–and it’s wildly popular in the United States, eclipsed  only in popularity by La Bohème.

While I expect the music to float to the rafters, I already know I’ll have a hard time processing why such an innocent woman will be not only hurt but ruined in the course of this opera–a fate she scarcely deserves.


Filed under Classic Opera, North American Opera

3 Responses to float like a ‘Butterfly,’ hurt like a ‘Butterfly’

  1. You know, Lucy–I spoke too soon. I ended up loving Butterfly–the character and the opera. It was beautifully done and Ana Maria Martinez as Butterfly was as strong as she was graceful. It does shine a light on a time when women were treated like chattel but at the same time, it affirmed women’s essential dignity. Pinkerton was booed at the curtain call for being such a louse. Now, that was taking it too far–booing him at curtain call–but the audience was so moved by the production–that’s what they did. I still am not fond of Mimi’s character, but this Butterfly made me convert.

    • Thanks for being gracious about my small novel of a comment. I’m very glad you liked it! and that the production allowed Butterfly’s backbone to be apparent. I know that “strong” and “complex” are not the same thing, but I really do think that Butterfly is both; great to hear that it was a moving performance. (Maybe the Puccini heroines deserve a post! I’ve shamefully shirked dragging Liu into this because I find her character so difficult.)

  2. Ooh, a debate! Absolutely agree with you that the victim status of Puccini’s heroines is painful from an intellectual point of view as well as because of emotional sympathy. But… are they two-dimensional? This could be a long discussion, and obviously a lot of how they are perceived depends on the singer-actress in the role. I might grant you Lauretta. 😉 But I’d defend Mimi and Minnie, and the lesser-known Magda, from the charge. (I’m presuming Tosca is not in the running here, as she is so delightfully assertive and complex… though she does do a lot of suffering for love.)

    I’d defend Butterfly too: her point of view shapes the music itself, and I think we do get to see her as an intelligent woman in an impossible situation. A series of impossible situations, really. And yes, her tragedy is created by a male-dominated society; father dies, she becomes a geisha; she marries an outsider and is rejected by her family; she is abandoned… but she has incredible emotional and psychological strength. Although the dramatic economy of the opera does focus us on her waiting for the unworthy man she adores (sigh) I think there’s plenty of material–in the Act I scene with Pinkerton, in her interactions with Suzuki, Sharpless, Yamadori–to show us different facets of her character, to show us who she is (not just in relation to Pinkerton or anyone else) and why. Debate, anyone? 🙂