A heartbreaking timeless Japanese tragedy in Liège. Set in Nagasaki in the 1900s, a time of expanding American international presence,  Puccini’s  Madama Butterfly is now set a few decades later, in post-war sixties, still in the horrendous aftermath of the Big Blaze in Nagasaki.    This is how  Stefano Mazzonis Di Palafera and Speranza Scappucci open the new season at the Opera Royal Liège-Wallonie. Set designed by  Jean-Guy Lecat, costumes by Fernand Ruiz and lightings by Franco Marri.  With a dedicated cultural consultant, Misaya Iodice-Fujie, and the dozens of hand-painted kimonos specially created for the show.

Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège,  de Madama Butterfly

“Everywhere in the world
the roving Yankee
takes his pleasure and his profit,
indifferent to all risks.
He drops anchor
at random…
(He breaks off to offer a drink to Sharpless.)
Milk punch or whisky?
…He drops anchor
at random
till a sudden squall wrecks
the ship, hawsers rigging and all…
He’s not satisfied with life
unless he makes his own
the flowers of every shore…”

 Beautiful and naïve, Butterfly is alone in the world and little more than a child when she is forced to turn to the geisha house, following the tragic death of her father. A Lieutenant in the US NavyPinkerton is looking for a distraction from warfare. Culture shock!  Cio-Cio-San, by her real name, could be anyone in Asia. She is just a normal girl who wants both love and freedom.  But girls who get married to Western boys are often rejected by their family, even nowadays.  A marriage broker, Goro has arranged for Pinkerton to marry Butterfly. The young girl’s love is genuine and passionate and all-consuming. But the boy’s love is fleeting – a  mere infatuation, a passing fancy.

 “Love or passing fancy –
I couldn’t say.
She’s certainly bewitched me
with her innocent arts.
Delicate and fragile as blown glass,
in stature, in bearing
she resembles some figure on a painted screen,
but as, from her background of glossy lacquer,
with a sudden movement
she frees herself; like a butterfly
she flutters and settles
with such quiet grace
that a madness seizes me
to pursue her,
even though I might
damage her wings.”

He has bought a lovely traditional Japanese house up on the hill for nine hundred and ninety-nine years, with the right, every month, to cancel the agreement. The same goes for the young geisha, he gathers.  And when Butterfly and her bridesmaids climb the hill to the wedding, all dressed in silken gowns and carrying delicate parasols, we get the perfect vision of Japanese beauty. But one hears strains of the Star-Spangled Banner  playing in the wind, whilst Pinkerton  bluntly declares his intention to one day take “a real American wife.”

Thereupon, Butterfly’s uncle, Bonze, the Japanese holy man, interrupts Butterfly’s wedding in a beautiful orchestral explosion. He denounces her for converting to Christianity and declares her an outcast. She has betrayed both her ancestors and her religion.  Sharpless, The American Consulate in Nagasaki, is however sympathetic to Butterfly’s plight and urges Pinkerton to act with caution. Puccini’s own voice of reason?  The first act ends with the beautiful duet in which Pinkerton is but an impatient lover eager to rape her!

Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège,  de Madama Butterfly

The second act comes as a shock. The beautifully tiled Japanese house with its paper walls has turned to an ugly apartment in a Western blockhouse. The property is sealed by a concrete wall.” America for ever!”   The girl has been faithfully awaiting her lover and husband for three years. She is now dressed in dull grey Western clothes and fancies a short haircut to look like a  real American wife. How pathetic!  Meanwhile, Suzuki, her faithful maid has not stopped praying the traditional gods. She begs them to stop Butterfly’s tears. Goro (Saverio Fiore, a real “commediante!”), both greedy and corrupt,  keeps proposing further husbands, like the rich Yamadori ( Patrick Delcourt). But Butterfly, now a Westerner, is appalled by the idea.

Sharpless comes to tell her that Pinkerton is finally on his way to Nagasaki, on the Abraham Lincoln warship (2019?), but without the intention to visit her. In the third act, appears what seems to be a baby boy in a perambulator (1960?) supposed to be 3 years old ( ? ), and whose father should be  Pinkerton.  Is this innocent stage prop, a figment of imagination made up by the stage director to emphasize the human tragedy? Or, is it a bad joke of the two Japanese accomplices, who could have plotted the worst scenario for revenge? For sure, Stefano Mazzonis Di Palafera has construed herewith a rather bold and open ending…    Indeed, taking up once again his nasty predatory ways, Pinkerton and his new wife Kate are now keen to adopt the child. They have landed by helicopter on the rooftop. Danger always comes from the sky in Nagasaki! Alexise Yerna portrays the elegant American wife.  

L’image contient peut-être : une personne ou plus et plein air

Thus, despairing Butterfly,  accepts the worst thing ever: giving up her son, in an act of selflessness … But she  ferociously defends her own respectability and dignity  by committing suicide with the very blade inherited  from her father, that reads; « He dies with honour, who cannot live with honour »    

Butterfly is about to die…
so that you may go
away beyond the sea
without being subject to remorse in later years for your mother’s desertion.
Oh, you who have come down to me
from high heaven,
look well, well
on your mother’s face,
that you may keep a faint memory of it,
look well!
Little love, farewell!
Farewell, my little love!
Go and play.

Directing this tear moving opera in Liège Royal Opera, we have fabulous Speranza Scappucci, who has been its musical director since 2017. But on September 22nd, she kindly lent her passionate baton to young Belgian Ayrton Desimpelaere, the talented assistant conductor at the Royal Opera of Wallonia-Liège. He is also a young professor at the IMEP and a fine musicologist. While his impressive career started about 15 years ago, and he has just been awarded the 2019 Walloon Merit Medal.

Given the golden opportunity to display his flourishing talent in Puccini’s fantastic opera,  Ayrton Desimpelaere directed a particularly emotional Madama Butterfly. He demonstrated his perfect knowledge of the masterwork, igniting a wide range of feelings among the cast and the audience. All themes were clearly highlighted with dense expressiveness. One could easily recognize the various moods, either identical or developed with delicate changes of orchestration according to the careful dramatic advance. His lyrical dedication outlined each character very accurately. The presence of Pinkerton, who broadly represents the colonialism of the Western world and the superiority of dominant white males, came up with ironic strains of the American hymn and some jazzy zest. It offered a vivid contrast with the numerous oriental elements seasoned in Puccini’s score that embody the Japanese soul.

Pinkerton’s role was in the best hands with Dominick Chenès. Recently reviewed in the Huffington Post as a “breakout star” and “powerhouse lyric tenor”, young tenor Dominick Chenès was both lyrical and powerful.  The recurrent American theme also accompanied Mrs. Butterfly reaffirming her new nationality following her marriage,  and also when she believed in the imminent return of her husband.  At every entry and exit of Sharpless, the Consul, Ayrton Desimpelaere shaped a recognizable beautiful melody revealing, through its legato phrasing, the benevolence of the character, the Consul’s conscience and compassion.This role was taken by brilliant and round Baritone, Mario Cassi, so robust and limpid, who sung the magnificent King of Ethiopia, Amonasro, in recent “Aida” not so long ago in Liège too.

The ensemble perfectly outlined the lovely dreams and hopes of Mrs. Butterfly wading in subtle colours of the Japanese garden and tea ceremony, awaiting rhe delightful song of the red robin. Notwithstanding the real beauty of it all, the dreaded theme of death, finally surged with ominous power when Mrs. Butterfly would announce to Sharpless that she preferred to die rather than becoming a geisha again.  Ending with a “tutta forza” irrevocable death sentence. 

Undoubtedly, the most beautiful voice of the afternoon was the flawless Japanese soprano Yasko Sato. Nearly everything the audience heard was seen through the eyes of Cio-Cio-San, the would-be Mrs. Butterfly. The refined way she moved, every step she took, the flowing grace of all her gesture epitomized the traditional Japanese culture. Her outstanding vocal ability, mixed with cultural heritage produced a mesmerizing blend of music and soul. At her side, the faithful Suzuki, portrayed by Sabina Willeit, reflected the eternity of the Japanese values both in her acting and her lovely and homogeneous singing.

L’image contient peut-être : une personne ou plus et nuit

Dominique-Hélène Lemaire  Arts et Lettres

Online, Saturday 21th of september, on France TV platform at 8PM 👘 Madama Butterfly (Puccini) 🗓 13 > 28 SEPT. 2019 📍 Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège ➡ Infos & réservation : bit.ly/2Lww3IO