Madama Butterfly is an opera fraught with social and political baggage. Yet the more troubling aspects of this 1904 work are frequently ignored, swept aside, or overlooked, in favor of emphasizing the romance that colors Puccini’s vivid score.

Patricia Racette (Cio-Cio San) © Michael Cooper
Patricia Racette (Cio-Cio San)
© Michael Cooper

Based on a short story by American writer John Luther Long and later adapted to the stage by theatre producer David Belasco, Madama Butterfly tells the story of young Cio-Cio San, who marries American naval officer Pinkerton in an arranged ceremony. After one night together, he leaves, and the impoverished Japanese girl spurns other marriage offers, firmly believing her officer will return. Three years later, Pinkerton does come back (with his so-called “real, American wife”) and discovers Cio-Cio (or “Butterfly”) has had his child. Already well-acquainted with the practise of hara-kiri (or ritual suicide) because of her father’s fate, Butterfly makes a fateful choice, giving her child what she hopes will be a better life.

The Canadian Opera Company’s current production underlines the romance, while emphasizing the strength of its title character. This is the sixth revival of Brian Macdonald’s popular production, which debuted in 1990. There have been many Butterflys since, but perhaps none have so deeply possessed the dignity and depth of character as American soprano Patricia Racette who, making her COC debut, gives a moving, heartfelt performance. Her interpretation offers a clear-eyed vision of infallible faith, and balances resplendent singing with solid acting. Backed up by a passionate reading of the score (thanks to German conductor Patrick Lange) and Susan Benson’s elegant, spare designs, this is a Madama for both the heart and the mind.

Director Brian Macdonald places the figure of Goro (Julius Ahn), the marriage broker, at centre stage at the start of the opera. Standing solo onstage as he pulls out his wallet, his presence sets the tone for the intersection between romance and money, an intersection that powers much of the ensuing drama. The “moving walls” Pinkerton refers to are brought in and arranged, underlining the illusory nature of both connection and separation. These twin themes – of relationships as transactions, and cultural polarities, real or not – are ones Benson’s designs are constantly emphasizing and playing with. From careful shifts in lighting (by Michael Whitfield) to Macdonald’s smart character blocking, one is constantly being forced to consider the nature of networks, intimacy, deception, finance and the youthful passion that colors all of them. In Act III, Suzuki (Elizabeth DeShong), Butterfly’s servant, assaults Goro, slapping him and throwing him out of their humble abode; this interaction not only underlines the work’s subtexts, but provides a refreshing female-first approach. The current production emphasizes Butterfly is survivor, not victim – quite a shift for an opera that’s been accused of sexism and misogyny.

Elizabeth DeShong (Suzuki), Patricia Racette (Cio-Cio San) and Dwayne Croft (Sharpless) © Michael Cooper
Elizabeth DeShong (Suzuki), Patricia Racette (Cio-Cio San) and Dwayne Croft (Sharpless)
© Michael Cooper

Thankfully, sexual and social politics mingle easily with beauty. From Benson’s flowing costumes (which frequently drape over or across the edges of the tiered set), to the choreography of the female members of the chorus in the first act, this production is colored by a marked sensuality. Members of the chorus dressed as geishas are a stunning sight, with head tilted, arm positioned just so, shoulder angled, and hands gesturing. Just as affecting is the scene in the third act, when, anticipating Pinkerton’s arrival, Cio-Cio San and Suzuki swirl in a storm of cherry blossoms as Sorrow, Cio-Cio’s son (Ella Larivière) adorably balances the bowl of blossoms on his head. Between this sight and the three awaiting Pinkerton’s arrival, there is, complementing the visual poetry, a strong thread of family and interconnectedness. This presentation of beauty makes the loneliness of Cio-Cio San’s later death all the more affecting, her solitary position a terrible, tragic contrast, if also a full choice, one that again, emphasizes the production’s female-first approach.

 Racette channels an excited, bold, teenage energy; her geisha is less a simpering victim than a steely survivor, one who embraces her fate with clear-eyed resolution. Her performance of “Un bel dì” is a strong, clear expression of faith, with compelling vocal nuance and powerful physicality taking the place of mellifluous fireworks. This Butterfly may be delicate, but she is hardly weak. Complementing Racette is Italian tenor tenor Stefano Secco as Pinkerton, who deftly moves from suave and charming to tender and sensitive when he learns Butterfly’s relatives have disowned her, and then to horrified when he learns of her bearing him a son. Having previously sung the role together (including at Lyric Opera Chicago and Seattle Opera), Secco and Racette have a noticeable, lovely chemistry, one that touches on excited teenage energy and touching youthful awkwardness in their love duets. Secco’s reading of “Addio, fiorito asil” in the final act is shot through with a gorgeously rich, Italianate tone that in no way undermines its guilt-drenched content. Elizabeth DeShong, as Suzuki, is a powerful, protective presence, while bass Robert Gleadow is an imposing figure as Cio-Cio San’s outraged uncle. The COC chorus gives a wonderfully modulated performances and Patrick Lange offers a dramatic, loving reading of Puccini’s score. Whether you’re a newbie to opera or an old hand, the music and images from this production are sure to stay, Leviathan-like, long after the curtain has come down.