Opera for the #Me Too generation

Art July 23, 2018 01:00

By Sirilaksana Khoman
Special to The Nation

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Opera Siam’s “Madama Butterfly” does complete justice to Puccini’s score and libretto

SURPRISE is rarely an emotion associated with a production of such a popular opera as Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”, a staple of the operatic repertoire around the world. But many delightful surprises were in store last week for those who attended Opera Siam’s Butterfly at the Thailand Cultural Center. 

The first of those was Siam Sinfonietta’s debut in undertaking an opera. Under Maestro Somtow Sucharitkul’s tutelage, the young musicians displayed unexpected musical prowess that was both ravishing and alluring. The texture and phrasing sounded fresh and new, whether in the restrained delicate sounds or the climactic crescendo. The music, with a slow-burning intensity, flowed flawlessly throughout the evening. 

This is an amazing accomplishment for a youth orchestra whose first concert together was only less than a year ago. The contribution of Maestro Somtow to classical music education in Thailand cannot be overstated, Young musicians audition to be part of Siam Sinfonietta every single year, and once they reach their mid-twenties, they have to leave. Each year sees a gaggle of new members, and each year, the orchestra’s composition is unique.

Singaporean diva Nancy Yuen was exquisite in her signature role as the ill-fated heroine Cio-Cio-San. Her angelic tone and charming mannerisms allowed her to communicate raw emotions with ease, from the initial girlish naivete to the emotional tsunami that was to come. Her powerful spinto quality brought an electric vibrancy to the spine-tingling “One Fine Day” (“Un bel di vedremo”), one of opera’s most beautiful arias.

Israel Lozano’s performance as the American naval officer Pinkerton was also sterling. He made a convincing foil, wonderfully portraying the callous libertine, first regarding the affair as a casual fling, then becoming completely enchanted, and finally evading all responsibility. He does manage however to elicit some sympathy in the gentle love duet with Butterfly, “Sweetheart, with eyes...” (“Bimba dagli occhi”), displaying along with Yuen, sonorous, contemplative vocal control and synergy. Covent Garden star Phillip Joll as the American consul Sharpless), Italian mezzo-soprano Emanuela Barazia as Butterfly’s maid, Suzuki), Australian bass Damian Whiteley as Butterfly’s uncle, the bonze), and Thailand’s Chaiporn Phuangmalee as the devious marriage broker cum trafficker, Goro were all superb in their roles.

But it was the adorable James Triyanon as Butterfly’s son, Dolore or Trouble, at barely three years old, who stole every scene he was in.

The set was a triumph of simplicity, with Japanese shoji screens and sliding doors and a few cherry trees, and drew the audience y into the opera’s unsettling world, making this production extremely intimate and profoundly moving.

Great operas often start discussions and debate, encouraging interpretations of what the composer intended. Some critics have been harsh in saying that this opera, about a Caucasian man sexually exploiting a gullible Asian woman, is an iconic example of Orientalism by a composer who never set foot in Japan. However, careful reading of the libretto suggests that it was Puccini’s intention to draw attention to these unpalatable realities.

In fact, what is clear in this opera is the exploitation of women by men in general, whether Western or Oriental. Even the despicable practice of selling young girls was more or less accepted in male-dominated Japan, as well as the loose marriage contract.

The seduction and abandonment of young women by male predators was a well-known plot line in late 18th century literature. In America, Pinkerton would have been exposed to the ideological forces of moral philosophy, evangelism, and sentimental literature, that conspired to characterise womanhood as pure and chaste, while removing any requirement of virtue from the male and the male-dominated public sphere. To create a structural cultural dichotomy with males and females as polar opposites, tales of predation were crucial to allow the non-virtuous man to be neither culpable nor accountable for his actions. This gender dichotomy made it possible for predatory behaviour to exist and persist. And women’s only recourse would be to protect themselves.

And that is exactly what Butterfly attempted to do. She firmly believed that she had done everything possible to earn Pinkerton’s love and devotion, turning down the wealthy suitor Yamadori, embracing American culture by wearing Western clothes, converting to Christianity, hoping that the more Americanised she became, the chances of American law applying to her and her marriage would be greater. 

Puccini does not paint a shy, diminutive Butterfly. She is strong-willed and full of conviction. He tries to move away from the Western notion that madness and suicide are natural consequences of seduction, abandonment and betrayal, and focuses instead on the Japanese sense of honour. 

A streak of pride is ever present under Butterfly’s vulnerability, and her son’s wellbeing is her overriding concern. There is no lamenting or self-pity in the actual words that are sung. Opera Siam conveyed these nuances perfectly.