Have you ever dreamed of immersing yourself in the world of traditional Japan? Although set closer to our modern age at the start of the twentieth century, the Welsh National Opera’s Madam Butterfly (also known as Cio-Cio-san) is an opera that captures the spirit of Japan on stage with a touch of Puccini, from the smallest details of the set design. The small townhouses at the front, which you can see even with the curtain down, to the cut-outs as stand-ins for trees around the main stage, create a simple yet elegant setting. The main stage throughout the play has a traditional Japanese house as its setting, with its sliding doors used to create open as well as intimate spaces for the characters.
Madam Butterfly starts off in the port town of Nagasaki (famous for its trade and international relations during the set period) with Lieutenant Pinkerton (played by Adriano Graziani) of the United States Navy preparing for his arranged marriage with the title character – the geisha Cio-Cio-san (played by Karah Son). It is an arranged marriage, which Pinkerton has no intention of taking seriously due to the Japanese laws: as short a time as a month of leaving a wife, it is seen the same as a divorce. The attitude of Pinkerton towards the house, the servants and his future marriage already prepare the audience for what will unfold. From the audience, you already begin to harbour a negative outlook on the character.
Madam Butterfly is an opera full of hope and dreams for a better life
The rest of the first act contains Cio-Cio-san arriving with her friends and family for the official ceremony. Straight away you are able to spot her elegance, her dress standing out among her group of friends. The first impression comes from their song – sung with their voices light and clear as those of birds. You could imagine the scene of spring blooming in front of you.
The scene becomes very busy once everyone has gathered and it is all the small details that make this scene so lively and slightly comic. From the drunk uncle (George Newton-Fitzgerald), to Cio-Cio-san’s cousin’s child trying to also get some alcohol from him, to the chatter of the other geishas. The audience reacted to these small details with laughter and amusement. The marriage would have ended on a happy note if it were not for the plot twist involving Cio-Cio-san’s uncle, who is a priest known as a Bonze (Richard Wiegold), leaving Cio-Cio-san an outcast.
For the first time we see the gentler side of Pinkerton as he tries to soothe Cio-Cio-san, their duet powerful and memorable. It is however noticeable that Karah Son’s voice is much stronger, therefore dominating Adriano Graziani’s in this duet.
It is amazing the extent to which we begin to sympathise with Cio-Cio-san – her love is innocent, yet strong. Enduring even throughout the second act where all seems hopeless, when everyone else has lost faith in Pinkerton’s return. Yet even in this time of everyone abandoning her, the bond she has with her servant Suzuki (Rebecca Afolwy-Jones) is very touching. She gives up all – her family and identity – in the hopes of being ‘suitable’ as Pinkerton’s wife. Her hope burns strong as she reaches out towards the horizon (or in this case, the audience), her will seemingly unbreakable. It is therefore with shock and regret we see how the rest of the events unfold, leading to an inevitable and dramatic conclusion.
Overall, Madam Butterfly is an opera full of hope and dreams for a better life. As a geisha, Cio-Cio-san had to entertain others for money. An arranged marriage would have provided her a happy life in her position, yet it was one built on an unsteady ground. Just as we hear the opening of the acts with unsettling music, despite the short intervals of bliss, it ends in the same way.