Revival premiere 1 September 2018
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Madama Butterfly

Revival premiere for Puccinis excruciatingly beautiful opera, directed by Yoshi Oïda. A heart-rending tragedy about cultural clashes and human relationships. 

A three-act opera by Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924). Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.

Performed in Italian with Swedish surtitles.

Trailer from the 2016 production
“An absolutely astonishing performance”GP
”Yoshi Oïdas direction is magnificent”Radio p4 Sjuhärad
Puccini’s achingly beautiful opera is a tragedy of human relationships and international power play. Standing at the centre of this struggle is Cio-Cio-San, known as Butterfly, a strong young woman who risks the chance for a better life.

While stationed in Japan, the American naval officer Pinkerton buys himself a young wife – the geisha Madame Butterfly. For Pinkerton it is all a game, but Butterfly commits entirely to her new role as an American wife, cutting all ties to her culture and family. After their child is born, the relationship becomes a matter of life and death.

This acclaimed 2016 production has great authenticity, thanks to its director Yoshi Oïdawho grew up during the post-war colonisation of Japan by the USA. Like many others, Oïda looked up to the American soldiers and was attracted by the Western lifestyle, but had too much pride to show it, unlike his young friends.

Yoshi Oïda talks about the inspiration behind his direction (Recorded in 2015)
Madama Butterfly is a masterful study of the beauty and pain of being human, where the Puccini’s music matches the emotions of the supremely tragic story. A line runs from Puccini’s music straight into our hearts.

We have chosen to present an earlier version of the work (Brescia) than the version which is more usually performed. The Brescia version is a less polite narrative that is more critical of colonialism and exoticism. The South Korean soprano Karah Sonreappears in the title role, while Irish tenor Aaron Cawley is new to the role of Pinkerton. Conducted by Henrik SchaeferMusical Director for the Göteborg Opera Orchestra.

Japanese cliché or the real thing?

Listen to the panel discussion introducing the 2016 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Participants: director Yoshi Oïda, conductor Manlio Benzi and soloist Jung Nan Yoon (Butterfly). Our invited guest was Yael Feiler, PhD – expert on post-colonial theory.

Göran Gademan (dramaturge) chairs the panel and the discussion is in English.

Puccini’s fiasco which became a triumph

Article by Göran Gademan, dramaturge

Following successes with Manon Lescaut, La Bohème and Tosca, there could no longer be any doubt about who was Verdi’s rightful successor on the opera throne: Giacomo Puccini. Which is why it is so odd that Puccini’s next work Madame Butterfly turned out to be one of the biggest fiascos in the history of opera at La Scala in 1904. But the opera’s poor reception may have been prearranged and due largely to the demonstrations organised by Puccini’s opponents. Four years previously, he had been in London and watched a performance of David Belasco’s American melodrama Madame Butterfly, about an American soldier who marries a Japanese woman but later abandons her. The melodrama genre was born as a form of popular drama in Paris and had since spread to the US, where it spawned the silent movie after the turn of the century. Belasco was one of the most popular writers, and although Puccini didn’t understand a word of English, he was gripped. He planned a libretto together with Illica that would also be based on John Luther Long’s short story, the inspiration for Belasco’s play. Initially the plan was to create an opera in two acts, with the first act set in the US and the second in Japan. He eventually decided to set the first act in Japan as well, with Butterfly and Pinkerton’s marriage ceremony and wedding night. A scene at the US consulate in Nagasaki was also cut. This meant that the roles of Pinkerton and consul Sharpless shrank considerably, while Butterfly’s lead role became huge.

Following the fiasco with the phenomenal Rosina Storchio in the lead role, the irate Puccini immediately withdrew Madame Butterfly for revision.
Giacomo Puccini

Compared to Tosca, in Madame Butterfly Puccini shows a return to the intimate depiction of everyday life that was a theme throughout La Bohème. However, his level of technical skill is now higher and more developed: the melodics flow flawlessly, the harmonies are more complex and the leitmotif is used with a deeper meaning as the drama progresses. Puccini learned about Japanese customs and even studied the timbre of the Japanese female voice with the help of an actress who was touring Europe at the time. He managed to weave all of this organically into his music with authentic Japanese melodies, pentatonic scales and a degree of exoticism in the orchestration. The Japanese elements are placed in stark contrast to the American, partly through the quote from The Star-spangled Banner (“America forever”) in Pinkerton’s introductory scene. Puccini came to love his Butterfly like no other heroine, and the mental torture he subjects her to in the opera’s lengthy final act is almost unbearable, from the aria “Un bel dì vedremo” (One beautiful day), as she waits for Pinkerton’s return, to the final suicide aria and farewell to her child, “Tu? Tu? Piccolo iddio?” (You my dearest?). Her dead father’s theme floats eerily as she lifts the dagger one final time, but almost more distressing is Sharpless’ attempt to tell her the truth earlier on in the act. Her enthusiasm and inability to grasp the truth mean his warning goes unheeded.

Poster from the premiere at La Scala (1904)

Following the fiasco with the phenomenal Rosina Storchio in the lead role, the irate Puccini immediately withdrew Madame Butterfly for revision. He reluctantly agreed to divide the second act into two, adding an intermezzo for Butterfly’s nightly vigil, waiting for Pinkerton’s return. The first act of the original version is more sprawling, featuring a throng of irrelevant minor characters, but it is also more caustic and more exciting in its social criticism. One reason for the original fiasco could also be the characterisation of Pinkerton, which probably sparked some confusion. People were after all fairly used to the idea of Puccini’s tenor roles being the characters that fell in love with the heroine, but here he makes an interesting exception as the tenor becomes the one who destroys her. Usually the part that subjects her to torture, mental or physical, is taken by the baritone and indirectly, the friendly Sharpless does this. But as the audience, you are consumed with hatred for Pinkerton, which is the most likely explanation for Puccini’s decision to add the aria “Addio fiorato asil” (Farewell flowery refuge) to the final act of his second version. 

Puccini and his librettists Giacosa and Illica completed the revision within a week, and the new premiere took place in Brescia, just three months after the disaster at La Scala. It was a huge success, with 32 curtain calls and seven encores, which should confirm that the booing in Milan was prearranged. But Puccini was not satisfied and went on to produce another version for Paris in 1907. This is the version that is always performed around the world today. At the Göteborg Opera we have decided to return to Puccini’s “middle version” for Brescia. Our Artistic Director for Opera/Drama, Stephen Langridge, directed this version a few years ago for the Norwegian National Opera in Oslo, and was keen for it to be performed it here. As director he chose Yoshi Oida, who was born in Japan in 1933. Yoshi Oida began his career working as an actor in his homeland, moving to Paris in 1968 to work as a choreographer and movement assistant on many of director Peter Brook’s world-famous productions. Oida then began directing spoken plays as well as operas, including Nabucco and Don Giovanni.

Oida has an unswerving skill for differentiating between what is authentically Japanese and what is simply a cliché.

Yoshi Oïda

As a teenager, Oida observed the American soldiers and the Western lifestyle, which at the time had a considerable influence in Japan. In Tom Schenk’s set design and Thibault Vancraenenbroeck’s costume design we will see how westerners form their image of what is Japanese through the characters first building a set on stage. Oida has an unswerving skill for differentiating between what is authentically Japanese and what is simply a cliché. His many years in Paris also enabled him to piece together how the typical Western image of all things Japanese has come about. Puccini’s opera is also in itself such a creation. For Pinkerton, Butterfly becomes the phantasm of the ideal Japanese woman, but also conversely, for her, he becomes a fantasy of the American officer. According to Oida, for Butterfly it is not just about love, but also an attraction to the American culture and breaking with traditions.  The production is set in the 1920s, although not rigidly. This was a period in Japan when several American elements came to be embedded in Japanese culture. It is the decade before Oida’s birth, and several images and portraits from his childhood have served as sources of inspiration for the set design and costumes.

#GObutterfly

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