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Unrequited love and tragedy in Lyric Opera's Madama Butterfly.

Byline: Natalia Dagenhart

"I see when men love women. They give them but a little of their lives. But women when they love give everything," said Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde. It's so true! However, even if a woman gives everything to her man, stays devoted and trusts him, it doesn't necessarily mean that their love story will end well. Sometimes, it has a bad and even tragic ending, especially if the woman is young and poor and doesn't understand that the man is openly lying to her with only one purpose -- to use her.

Lyric Opera of Chicago, one of the best-known opera theaters in the world, invites you to witness the tragic love story of the 15 year old Japanese geisha Cio-Cio-San in Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Nine more performances are left, at 7 p.m. on Friday, February 14; at 7 p.m. on Monday, February 17; at 7 p.m. on Friday, February 21; at 7 p.m. on Monday, February 24; at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, February 29; at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, March 4; at 2 p.m. on Thursday, March 5; at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 7; and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 8.

It might seem that this opera that tells the story of the unrequited love of Cio-Cio-San, also known as Madame Butterfly, to American naval officer Pinkerton is sad from the beginning to the end, but it's not true. It is filled with Cio-Cio-San's love, belief, trust, devotion and inner strength, and Puccini didn't have a choice but had to reflect the light and the beauty of this woman's personality in his music. Young and poor, she might seem powerless in the beginning, but over the course of the opera the audience understands that Madame Butterfly, not her lover, is the central character of the opera. She is a symbol of true love, indomitable and conquering. She sacrifices her life at the end, not being able to overcome a betrayal, but she dies as a winner; a Japanese samurai winner in a small woman's body.

One question that a reader might have is how did an Italian composer come up with the idea of writing an opera about an Asian girl who falls in love with an American? It all started in 1900 in London, when Puccini attended a performance of a one-act play Madame Butterfly by American theatrical producer and playwright David Belasco. Based on a short story of the same name by American author John Luther Long, this tale impressed the composer so much that in early 1901 Puccini in collaboration with librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica started working on his opera Madama Butterfly.

To make his music as close as possible to reality and to reflect the unique Japanese culture, Puccini actively researched Japanese music, mostly with the help of the wife of Japan's ambassador, while Illica traveled to Nagasaki to learn more about Japan and its customs, mentality and distinctiveness. As a result, Puccini's operatic masterpiece Madama Butterfly accurately reflects Japanese culture and music and even has a few direct references to some Japanese songs. The leitmotiv of the American naval officer Pinkerton in this opera is the melody from "The Star-Spangled Banner." No mistake can be made that he is American and she is Japanese, while the opera is sung in Italian!

Although the premiere that took place at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan on February 17, 1904 was a disaster and the audience was booing during the whole performance alleging that Puccini borrowed music from his own La Boheme and that Cio-Cio-San is a copy of Mim, the composer didn't get upset and enthusiastically started revising his opera. Soon, after a few major revisions, including the division of the long second act into two acts, Madama Butterfly was performed with great success. Later on, the composer made a few more revisions, and now this operatic work is considered to be one of the most frequently performed of all operas.

How did it happen that this opera has been so popular for such a long period of time? What attracts audiences from all over the world to this simple, yet deep and touching story? "Indeed, over the past 116 years Madama Butterfly has become one of the best-loved operas in the repertoire," wrote Lyric Opera's Chairman David T. Ormesher and Lyric Opera's General Director, President and CEO Anthony Freud in the Lyric Opera's Notes. " And yet, in today's world, this work prompts a range of issues and questions, to which any company producing the opera must respond."

Mr. Ormesher and Mr. Freud strongly encourage the Lyric Opera's audience members to read in the opera's program book the articles by Professor Martha C. Nussbaum of the University of Chicago and soprano Ana Mara Martnez who share their views on Madama Butterfly and look at it with today's lens.

So, what exactly happens in this opera? It opens in Nagasaki at the turn of the 20th century. Pinkerton is leasing a house from Goro, a marriage broker who has also arranged for him a "marriage" with young and attractive Madame Butterfly. Sharpless, an American consul, tells Pinkerton that the young girl might take this marriage seriously, but Pinkerton doesn't care about her love to him and wants to "marry" her based on his mere feeling of lust. He knows that at some point he will leave Japan and will have a "real" marriage with an American wife.

He goes back to America while Cio-Cio-San is left alone with her maid Suzuki, who is the only one who didn't abandon her after she gave up her religion for her American husband's Christianity. Madame Butterfly gives birth to a son from Pinkerton and raises him hoping that his father will return soon from America. She is viewed now as a divorced woman because abandonment equates to divorce in Japan. Prince Yamadori proposes to Cio-Cio-San but she rejects him. She waits for three long years, and finally Pinkerton comes back but with his American wife Kate. They have heard about Pinkerton's son and want to take the boy and raise him themselves. Madame Butterfly agrees, but instead of living her life being betrayed and without her child, she chooses to die with honor.

Besides the fact that this opera tells an extremely touching story and is based on Puccini's tremendous music, Lyric Opera's production also features an outstanding cast.

"It's a pleasure to welcome two remarkable singing actresses, Lyric favorite Ana Mara Martnez and, in the March 4 and 7 performances, Lianna Haroutounian in her Lyric debut," noted Mr. Ormesher and Mr. Freud in the Lyric Opera's Notes. "They've both triumphed repeatedly in major houses portraying Cio-Cio-San, one of the most formidably challenging of all leading soprano roles. Each soprano will be partnered at Lyric by an exceptional tenor portraying Lt. B. F. Pinkerton, with Ana Mara appearing opposite Brian Jagde and Lianna opposite Brandon Jovanovich."

With the interpretive insights of world-renowned Hungarian conductor Henrik Nanasi, the exquisitely sensitive production of Michael Grandage revived at Lyric by Louisa Muller, colorful costumes and impressive set by Christopher Oram, dramatic lighting by Neil Austin revived at Lyric by Chris Maravich, tremendous input of movement director August Tye, and outstanding work by Chorus Master Michael Black, Lyric's production of Madama Butterfly is a must-see operatic masterpiece.

During the February 9th performance, there were some cast changes made due to illness. Here are the changes in order of appearance: singing the role of Sharpless was Ricardo Jose Rivera, replacing Anthony Clark Evans; singing the role of the Imperial Commissioner was Ronald Watkins, replacing Christopher Kenney; singing the role of Yamadori was Christopher Kenney, replacing Ricardo Jose Rivera; and singing the role of Kate Pinkerton was Marianna Kulikova, replacing Kayleigh Decker. It is particularly delightful that Ms. Kulikova, Mr. Rivera, Mr. Watkins, and Mr. Kenney assumed these roles at short notice.

This opera is full of wonderful arias, duets and ensembles, and Un bel d vedremo ("One fine day we shall see"), one of the best-known arias in the soprano repertoire, was greeted with a round of applause. Ana Mara Martnez, who portrayed Madame Butterfly, performed this aria with such passion, inner strength and sensitivity, that her brilliant presentation impressed every audience member. Beautiful passages, crystal clear high notes, excellent breathing technique and overall excellent artistic presentation -- these are just a few terms that characterize her presentation of this breathtaking aria, and they apply to Ana Mara's entire performance of the vulnerable, yet strong heroine.

The role of Pinkerton was brilliantly presented by world-renowned American tenor Brian Jagde, who has scored many major successes singing in Puccini's works and is famous for his superb vocal skills and beautiful timbre. Jagde has earned acclaim in Italian spinto and dramatic-tenor repertoire, as his voice is able to handle large musical climaxes and possesses both lyric and dramatic qualities, which he brilliantly demonstrated portraying Pinkerton. Jagde has performed at leading opera houses throughout the world, and his return to Lyric Opera of Chicago was greatly anticipated by the lovers of his tremendous talent.

Another role that impressed the audience was the role of Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San's maid, which was masterfully presented by talented American mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel. Her warm and deep voice with colorful timbre and overall touching artistic presentation helped her to brilliantly portray Suzuki, a kind woman with a big heart. And, certainly, the audience greeted with great enthusiasm and tenderness Graham Macfarlane, a child actor who portrayed Sorrow, Cio-Cio-San's son. With unbelievable artistry and talent Graham demonstrated Sorrow's innocence, vulnerability and love to his mother, and the audience immediately fell in love with this bright and brilliant boy. This role is Graham's Lyric debut.

The role of Goro was fantastically presented by Filipino-American tenor Rodell Rosel, who has performed 22 roles at Lyric Opera of Chicago since the 2005-2006 season and is a Ryan Opera Center alumnus. The role of The Bonze, Cio-Cio-San's uncle, was energetically performed by American bass-baritone David Weigel, a second-year Ryan Center member who is gaining wide recognition around the US. The role of Imperial Commissioner was performed by American bass Anthony Reed, a first-year member of the Ryan Center. Certainly, this production wouldn't happen without the talented members of Lyric Opera Orchestra and Lyric Opera Chorus. Their work is the basis of every operatic work, and everything that happens on stage is built around their tremendous talent and mastery.

With all due respect to the composer and to the librettists, I would like to finish this review by saying this. Men are great, but not even one man in the world deserves a woman to kill herself for him. Men come and go, but we, women, will forever stay wonderful, powerful and great; even if men understand it too late.

Natalia Dagenhart
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Title Annotation:Submitted Content
Author:Natalia Dagenhart
Publication:Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Feb 13, 2020
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