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Madama Butterfly
June 25, 2006 (Final Show) - War Memorial Opera House - San Francisco, CA

I had never been much of an opera fan myself, save for the time that I saw "Barber Of Seville" as a elementary school student on a field trip, and a half-decent performance of "Faust" at a later date. But I have always been willing to give it chances. I had often heard great things about "Madama Butterfly," especially about the run in San Francisco this particular time. Many reviewers had praised diva Patricia Racette's performance as the title character in this Puccini classic. It was time for me to see this spectacle for myself.

There was a pre-show lecture discussing this particular opera and it's beginnings. Not known to many, this was based on an assumed true story. In fact, the story was based on a tale less interesting. The navy man, Pinkerton, was in fact a merchant marine as opposed to a military officer. Cio-Cio San, otherwise known as Madama Butterfly, in fact survived her suicide attempt and lived on as her son grew to be a man. But then it turns out that this tale may have been told to the creator decades after the piece had been written. As it is, to go to the very beginnings, Madama Butterfly was based actually on an 18-page short story, which had then been made into a play. When Puccini saw the play, he was inspired to rework it into an opera - which he did, and it in turn became one of the most famous failures in opera history. The piece was reworked several times until it became the classic that it has been known for.

Before the performance began, it was announced that the scheduled star, Racette, was down with laryngitis and would not be seen. This was particularly disappointing as this was the final showing in this run. Replacing her was (as announced) a "well rehearsed understudy" by the name of Marie Plette. Since I had heard neither one before, all was fine as I didn't know what to expect from either one.

As the first act opened, it became apparent that this production, although interesting, was definitely done on a budget and its workings were created to be minimalist at best. It was set in primary Kabuki style with sliding screens to create rooms and areas. There were basic background lighting effects to showcase the arriving warship (by showing a stationary shadow of said ship), as well as the infamous 10 minute long dusk until dawn "vigil scene" where M. Butterfly awaits her husband's return, as seen in the second act. The ambiance of the entire production was a bit dark and gloomy, as opposed to the more uplifting productions of past which left the imagination a bit more open as to what would come later. In previous productions, there were usually some signs of potential happiness (orange blossoms noticeable in every seen, etc), and the performances gave subtler hints rather than the ominous foretelling that set up the ending too early, as seen in this production.

The story itself, I had always been told, was magnificent. I did not see it. In fact, although the piece is set in early 20th century, there were some disturbing aspects that appeared as timely today. Some may see this tale as one of a wide-eyed young girl in love filled with hope and steadfastness, whose life ends in passion and sadness. I would say a quicker summary of this story is one of betrayal, denial, delusion, and pedophilia. Early on in the story, it was suggested that Pinkerton's bride-for-pay may have been around 10 years old, as she appeared to look, but in fact was "15 exactly." Granted that those were different times, but the idea of a 30 to 40-ish military man marrying what is essentially a "time-share" child (under contract), just seemed wrong. The rest of the tale - primarily in Butterfly's delusional faith in her husband's return - reeked with personality issues that all too many people suffer with these days. Denial is a growing popular trait, and "Madama Butterfly" exemplifies drama as seen through the young Cio-Cio San (as example, any potentially hurtful or overly exhilarating emotion could make her just "die" on the spot, as she liked to spout).

The performance as a whole left a bit to be desired. The sets were sparse in comparison to what they could have been. The performances were good, although the characters could have been played out a bit more to an edge. I am still trying to comprehend how and why a veritable short story (under 20 pages) could and should have been made into a played-out 3 hour long opera. This was almost a tale written for an After School Special warning young girls about the dangers of falling in love with deceptive middle-aged men, as well as the dangers of teen pregnancies.

Decent, but not at all what I expected or hoped for.

Written by Philip Anderson

Philip Anderson is a musician, in addition to being a writer/photographer. He has performed as a guitarist/vocalist, as well as songwriter, in several bands over the past 20 years. As a writer and photographer, he has been published by several magazines and in several books, and had his works appear on television.

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