Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "A Kind of Turandot" (on Puccini's Madama Butterfly)


a kind of turandot
by Douglas Messerli


Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa (libretto, based on the play by David Belasto cand the story by John Luther Long), Giacomo Puccini (composter) Madama Butterfly / the production I saw with Howard Fox was the live HD broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera production on April 2, 2016

    What I did notice, however, was that when I last wrote this production in 2009, I seemed to put as much blame on Cio-Cio-San’s refusal to perceive the truth of her situation as upon the behavior of the heartless American Lieutenant Pinkerton. But this time, struck with the handsome Roberto Alagna’s posturing, I grew even more disgusted by the ugly American character, feeling that even the morally-grounded Sharpless (performed again by Dwayne Croft) did not do enough to stop his countryman’s cruel behavior.

      Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton—named perhaps for Franklin’s reportedly licentious behavior in his Paris days—has arranged his marriage with Cio-Cio-San with the same bemusement that he has arranged for the 999-year rental of their Nagasaki home. From the very beginning this barbarian, it is clear, has utterly no intention of keeping his marriage contract with the 15-year old girl. At least Humbert Humbert stayed with his Lolita as long as he was permitted to. Pinkerton openly jokes about having a woman in every port and “dropping his anchor” around the world, using the words obviously as a metaphor for sexual dalliance. 
      Pinkerton not only makes it clear that someday he will break the marriage contract with Cio-Cio-San by marrying an American woman, but he does not even attempt to hide the fact his interest in the young innocent (played this time round by a rather robust adult beauty, Kristine Opolais) is a product of simple lust. Perhaps I missed it in the early Met production, but this time I was struck by how clearly that lust was expressed as he sneaks a view through the Japanese screens of his young bride getting undressed. Even though he already possesses her, it is clear that his interest in the underage beauty is the product merely of, as my companion Howard honestly expressed it, a hard-on.
      During an intermission, Alagna described his character in less negative terms, arguing that he perceives him as simply a young sailor who has made a terrible mistake, and commends his later admission to his American wife and decision to adopt the child. “Think of him as a young soldier in Afghanistan,” he suggested, a lonely boy who finds pleasure in the beautiful local. 
      The problem with such a forgiving view, however, is that, although Pinkerton may have regrets, he is not honest enough to openly express them to his former lover; upon his return to Nagasaki with his new wife, Pinkerton has no intent upon even seeing Cio-Cio-San, and only when Sharpless reports to him that she has had the lieutenant’s baby does he bother to make a visit—with the express purpose of taking away the only thing she has to give her solace. And even then, the small band of greedy Americans plans their visit early in the morning so that they might not have to face Cio-Cio-San but merely convince her faithful Suzuki (Maria Zifchak) to tell her of their plans.
     Opolais described her character as representing the highest attainment of womanhood: a woman who is beautiful, loving, passionate, loyal, forgiving. Cio-Cio-San does not even put blame on Pinkerton’s wife, but suggests that she should be the happiest of all beings, since she will now have everything, while Cio-Cio-San will have nothing. 
     In the end, it appeared to me, seeing the opera again, that if Cio-Cio-San remains an innocent, by opera’s end she has also become a kind of Turnadot.

Los Angeles, April 4, 2016

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