In the early years of the 20th century Puccini was a very happy man. His most recent opera, Tosca, was proving as successful as La Bohème, and the lucky composer was being summoned to opera houses throughout Europe for its premières. In the summer of 1900 Puccini attended the première performance of Tosca in London, and soaked in the atmosphere of Europe’s largest city. It was here that he attended a performance of David Belasco’s Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan.
Belasco’s play, itself based on a short story by John Luther Long, tells the story of a beautiful, young Japanese girl, Cio-Cio, who is married to the callous and imperialistic American lieutenant, B.F. Pinkerton. While the poor young girl is deeply in love with her new husband, Pinkerton sees her merely as a plaything to be discarded after use, and soon after the wedding night leaves his now pregnant young wife. When he returns three years later, his new American wife in tow, Cio-Cio is distraught, having waited so painfully long, and chooses death.
In spite of his poor English, Puccini was deeply moved and went straight backstage to congratulate the playwright and to ask for permission to write an opera based on the play. The result has become one of the most beloved operas in history. Cio-Cio’s aria “Un bel dì vedremo” is one of the most celebrated arias of all time, and the opera itself is among the most performed anywhere in the world.
The current production at the Semperoper is already almost ten years old, but it is still fresh and engaging. The odd rake of the stage, peaking very high in the rear left-hand corner, and the permanent walls on all three sides of the stage give the whole production an air of instability and claustrophobia, reflecting Cio-Cio’s uncertainties and feelings of imprisonment during he lover’s long absence. However, it is the production’s general cleanness and simplicity that is most appealing. This is a simple story of love and pain, and the set reflects that. There is nothing to distract from the powerful purity of the human emotions projected by the singers.
And the singers do a wonderful job. As Pinkerton, Zoran Todorovich uses his powerful tenor voice to great effect, and though his voice lacks some warmth, this reflects his character’s cold attitude towards his young bride. Christoph Pohl, with his rich and warm baritone, was wonderful as the American consul, Sharpless, both as a singer and as an actor, capturing his character’s emotions of uncertainty and concern for Pinkerton’s amorality and for Cio-Cio’s pain. Marjorie Owens is surely one of the Semperoper’s greatest assets, and she was as impressive as ever as Cio-Cio. From her first notes in Act I through to her final, dying breath she was enrapturing. The famous aria in Act II was really the musical highlight of the evening, while her last moments drew you into Cio-Cio’s suffering.
In the pit, Henrik Nánási lead the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden with a great sense of drama and sweep, and the players played as ever with verve and passion. It was perhaps this very passion that sometimes left the singers drowned in the orchestral sound, and thus inaudible, a regrettable result of the orchestra’s very engaging performance.
While many opera productions dwindle over time, this production of Madama Butterfly still bursts with as much energy as the opera it brings to life. This production is a credit to the director, Annette Jahns, and the designer, Hartmut Schörghofer, and the fantastic team at the Semperoper.