Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly is the most performed opera in America, and while the music is undeniably beautiful, it is somewhat curious, considering how very poorly Americans come off in this heartbreaking story. Beginning with Pinkerton strutting about and proclaiming how it is practically a birthright for "yankees" to sail around the world, taking what they want and then leaving when they want, there is also the wince-inducing picture of this cynical, full-grown naval officer taking, and then abandoning, a fifteen-year-old bride. Since I first saw this opera performed close to twenty years ago, and in a much bigger house, no doubt the weary world of politics and shipwrecked foreign policy have made a stronger imprint on my mind. I am unable to watch it now without a rather queasy feeling of unease, seeing in this romantic tragedy, a ready symbol for our country's unfortunate adventures in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. But...let's leave aside my dreary socio-political brooding and consider Kentucky Opera's intimately staged production at the Brown Theater.
Butterfly lends itself to simple staging, and the set is very pretty indeed, with a square, raked platform creating the limited confines of the sparsely furnished house and a beautifully painted backdrop of cherry blossoms and then flowers in bloom to show the subtle changes of season. Sue Sitko Schaefer's hair and makeup look authentic and natural and the costumes are sumptuously beautiful, from Pinkerton's gold-buttoned white naval uniform to the lovely kimonos of the women. Nothing in the look of the characters seemed out of place for 1890's Nagasaki, Japan (another grimly ironic detail that can't help but evoke a shudder in a modern audience; of course, the opera originally premiered in 1904, almost exactly forty years before the city's destruction during WW II).
I was struck many times by the pictures "painted" on stage for which I credit the eye of Director David Roth. Lee's pretty, Geisha-like poses present fleeting images of the sometimes fluttering but also pinned butterfly. The costume design beautifully accented these moments with the angelic "winged" sleeves of her bridal robe and then the robin's egg blue of Butterfly's kimono in Act II when she sings sweetly of her husband returning when the robin builds its nest. (I could not, for the life of me, find the costume designer's name in the program, or anywhere else, but I'll be happy to update the omission).
From the moment Yunah Lee emerges on to the stage as Cio-Cio San, nicknamed Butterfly, the production belongs to her. She is so natural and graceful in her movements and expression that even when Lee is not actually singing, your eyes are drawn to her. In the marriage scene, she perfectly performs that blend of innocence and preening that seems so natural in a young girl, proud of her newfound status as "Madama Pinkerton" but also pathetically childlike in her starry vision of love. It is Lee's ability to bring out those contradictions and embody such hopeless fantasies, that gives the story its emotional wallop when it all unravels in Act II.
John Fanning as Sharpless, the sympathetic American consul who warns Pinkerton that he is behaving recklessly with Butterfly, achieves the right degree of writhing discomfort as he tries to intercede in a bad situation, and Mika Shigematsu is affecting as Butterfly's stalwart servant Suzuki. Tenor Adam Diegel gets the rather thankless task of portraying the smugly, self-satisfied Pinkerton who wrecks poor Butterfly's life, but he does manage to show the final pinch of guilt and remorse at the end, after a very realistic shove from Fanning sends him skidding across the floor.
What makes this opera beloved by audiences is its exquisite melodies. There is comparatively little chorus singing, but it isn't really needed as most of the story gets carried along by that of the main characters. The extended love duet between Butterfly and Pinkerton closes out the first act, and it is very delicately wrought, highlighting her simple devotion and his unthinking infatuation. I thought the flower duet between Suzuki and Butterfly was particularly lovely, and Lee handles the famous aria "Un bel dì" with the real feeling that springs naturally from truly inhabiting her character.
I have to say I'm not the most sentimental of beings -- you'll rarely catch me blubbering in the audience over heartbreaks and dramatic suicides. And yet, I felt strangely verklempt more than once or twice during the evening. Arm yourself with hankies if you must, but snap up the last available seats for this weekend's performances. This is a very strong production of Madama Butterfly, marked by a shining turn from Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio San.
Madame Butterfly , with Joseph Mechavich conducting, can be seen Friday, November 19 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, November 21 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $35 - $95 online from Kentucky Center  or by calling 562-0100 -- while they last.
(Photo Credit: Kentucky Opera, J. David Levy)