This is the November 2019 edition of the
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Madama Butterfly is one of the most popular operas, and the crowded theater (both locally & in NYC) reflected it. The plot is trivial to summarize: in Act 1, Butterfly shows up and is married and bedded by a caddish American naval officer who bluntly admits he intends to abandon her; in Act 2, she denies that she has been abandoned and awaits her husband; in Act 3, she commits suicide upon realizing she has been abandoned. Even compared to some operas, this is remarkably simple: a handful of characters, a single setting, and scenes set on just 3 days.
It’s interesting to contrast it to the two operas I watched last month, Turandot & Manon: all 3 share the same theme of a female protagonist who risks ruin in love, but the ruin is different each time—in Turandot, Turandot ruins countless men by refusing all of them in a particularly vicious way and nearly dooms herself to spinsterhood, and in Manon, Manon is ruined because she accepts a worthy man but spurns him for a brief but glorious life as a courtesan only to realize too late that she made the wrong choice, while in Madama Butterfly, Butterfly is ruined because she accepts an unworthy man but refuses to spurn him when she finally realizes her mistake. (To make this list exhaustive, we’d need an opera in which a woman accepted a worthy man and was then faithful to him as they lived happily ever after. But what fun would that be?)
Turandot was unsatisfactory in examining Turandot’s psychology and motivation, but Madama Butterfly is more unsatisfactory, because its length gives it less excuse for providing less. Why is Butterfly so in love with a cad? What causes such fidelity? For that matter, why is the cad such a cad? He rather cheerfully plans his exploitation of Butterfly, and only in Act 3 experiences any remorse (far too late of course), and is too much of a coward to even see Butterfly again, depriving the opera of a potentially insightful scene. (Compare, say, Carmen, where the characters are almost too believable.) The characters are as thin as the paper of a shōji wall. Certainly, Butterfly is tragic, but it is the tragedy of watching a cartoon villain kick a puppy and not a person. The suffering of a dog like Hachikō is particularly pure, but if Puccini wished to compose an opera on that theme, he should’ve done so on Hachikō.
And also like Turandot, it seems Madama Butterfly rises on the strength of its music and scenery rather than plot or psychological insight or realism. Here it is excellent. A mirror across the roof of the stage emphasized dramatic single-color lighting and characters mounting up steps to come onto stage, or hanging rope curtains of cherry blossoms. The production makes striking use of black-clad kuroko stagehands & puppeteers on stage to slide shōji walls to rearrange the stage and assist entrances/exits, or to carry paper globes or cranes, or to manipulate a bunraku-style puppet (used for Butterfly’s son in Act 2–3, and a dream sequence). As strange as it sounds to have 3 men clad in black hunched over a puppet of a little boy with a permanently surprised expression dressed in a sailor outfit as a major character, the puppet & Butterfly are entirely credible a pair—perhaps more so than Butterfly and her cad (the latter played by a last-minute substitution performing for the first time, interestingly). The 3 acts all end on visual high notes: surrounded by stars, kneeling into the sunset, and at the center of a cross of red silk. (I did notice that the Met HD production people screwed up the camera placements a few times, obstructing the view of one camera with another, which was odd given how simple this opera is.)
If opera is “poster art”, then Madama Butterfly succeeds splendidly and deserves its popularity.
- Belladonna of Sadness (ANN review. A relatively-recently rediscovered anime movie, this is an Artistic Movie. The overall impression it gives is someone watched Disney’s Fantasia and decided that what was necessary was to increase the psychedelia rate by 1000%, and increase the nipple rate by ∞% while moving towards a heavily Art Deco/Klimt-like aesthetic; but, unfortunately, their budget was wildly inadequate to the vision, and so a bunch of students from the local art school were hired to animate segments, given vague instructions, and told to come back with 20s of finished animation or else. So the film lurches from slow static pans to brief (often repetitive) animated segments of every kind. Also, the writer had a bad LSD trip and disappeared before the script was finished, so the plot hardly makes sense. (Something about oppression of peasantry leading the titular Jeanne—who may or may not have anything to do with Joan of Arc?—to make a deal with the Devil and then many sex scenes and orgies later, somehow, the French Revolution is involved…? The ANN reviewer is generous in interpreting this mishmash as a coherent feminist manifesto, and probably wrong in interpreting the Devil as a good guy. Both Jeanne and the Devil have too inconsistent motivation to be interpreted meaningfully: why, for example, does a powerful witch allow herself to be burned if she really wanted to rule the world?) Belladonna is ambitious, and the art is sometimes great, but its failures severely try the viewer’s patience. Like HELLS or Tamala 2010: A Punk Cat in Space, I can recommend it to those willing to put up with severe flaws for the sake of seeing something rather different from the norm.)