When something is as familiar was “Madama Butterfly”, the challenge lies in presenting the work in a contemporary, relevant way that still brings freshness to a deeply known text. Given that guideline, the Canadian Opera Company knocked it out of the park with “Madama Butterfly”, which opened on October 10. It also helped they were using Puccini at one of his finest moments, making it one of the most-performed operas in the world.
To the uninitiated, Cio-Cio San, aka Butterfly (Kelly Kaduce on October 11, alternating with Patricia Racette throughout), is a 15-year-old geisha who’s being brokered into marriage by Goro (Michael Colvin on October 11, alternating with Julius Ahn) to the American Naval officer B.F. Pinkerton (Andrea Carè on October 11, alternating with Stefano Secco). What she doesn’t know is Pinkerton has other plans, chiefly, to marry a real American girl. He boasts, to U.S. Consul Sharpless (Gregory Dahl on October 11, alternating with Dwayne Croft), about how his marriage is a contract that can be canceled at any time, and indeed it can be: when the husband is gone for a long enough period, as Pinkerton will be, the couple is considered divorced.
To her initial credit and eventual downfall, Butterfly treats the marriage with utmost seriousness, converting to Christianity — at the cost of being disowned by her family, who’d already suffered a little dishonour when Butterfly’s father killed himself —berating her maid, Suzuki (Elizabeth DeShong), for not believing her husband will come back, and refusing to be married off to Prince Yamadori (Clarence Frazer). And when she sings her signature aria, “Un bel dì, vedremo”, it’s almost impossible not to side with Butterfly, Kaduce sings with so much pure-hearted emotion, faith and innocence.
But to anyone who’s the least bit familiar with “Madama Butterfly”, things will go downhill stunningly fast, and it’s a huge credit to the cast, as well as director Brian Macdonald, that a large degree of suspense is kept intact. Though we know what a dastardly coward Pinkerton is (and Carè plays him with just the right mixture of arrogance and regretful sorrow), seeing how he casts Butterfly aside is still no less of an arrow to the heart. Remembering that this is old-world Japan (and not present-day Canada, where a divorced single mother would simply pick up and carry on), Butterfly has little recourse, despite the steadiness of Suzuki, who DeShong plays with a clear, solid voice and even stronger presence.
The staging of this production of “Madama Butterfly” is somewhat restrained, from Susan Benson’s minimalist set design of Shōji doors that hardly changes to conductor Patrick Lange’s handling of the music. At times, it works very well, such as not overwhelming the performers, but at other times, it’s not strong enough to stand as its own performer. It would have been nice to see a little more forcefulness from both, particularly with the raw emotion that Puccini wrote in his score, but for whatever reason, director Macdonald opted to go a different route.
Regardless, it’s a beautiful production of a gorgeous opera, and heralds a strong start to the Canadian Opera Company’s 2014/2015 season. And really, the biggest challenge attendees will have is not shedding a tear or two over the sheer heartbreak in “Madama Butterfly”.
“Madama Butterfly” runs through October 31 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, with a double cast alternating the roles of Butterfly, Pinkerton, Sharpless and Goro. For tickets and more information, visit the Canadian Opera Company’s website.