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Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio San and Stefano Secco as Pinkerton in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of Madama Butterfly.

Michael Cooper/COC

Title
Madama Butterfly
Company
Canadian Opera Company
Conductor
Patrick Lange
Director
Brian Macdonald
Venue
Four Seasons Centre
City
Toronto

At the very end of Madama Butterfly, after the heroine has just killed herself, Giacomo Puccini, its composer, follows the hyper-Romantic music of her death scene with a faux Japanese coda, full of pentatonic scales and octave unisons. The music is there to remind us that this has been the story not of a woman, but of a Japanese woman, or at least a Japanese woman as Puccini and his Eurocentric, imperialist colleagues in 1904 imagined her – a superstitious child, a sexual exotic wrapped in a kimono, the ultimate Other to be derided, manipulated, eventually pitied.

One can argue that it is foolish to expect anything but beautiful music and great singing when we attend the opera, and that Butterfly's inherent racism is no worse in its cultural manipulation than the Egypt of Verdi's Aida or the Roma culture of his Il Trovatore.

But that's not true. Butterfly's stereotypes and distortions – both on stage and in its score – have the power to deflect our attention from the essence of the opera – the tragic story of a Japanese woman "married," and then abandoned by her cynical American lieutenant husband. Instead of feeling the emotional heft of this story, we keep getting stopped short by women parading around in whiteface and kimonos, men with top-knots, and fake Japanese music. It's why completely successful productions of Butterfly, despite its immense popularity, are hard to come by. You can choose to ignore Butterfly's questionable pedigree, but that's to dull the keenness of its artistic presence. But paying it the close attention it deserves makes it harder to ignore its problematic, even offensive, features.

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The current COC production of Butterfly, a revival of a 1990 Brian Macdonald production, struggles with these issues, and, interestingly, its two casts of principals, who are will alternate performances during the opera's engagement, answer the questions that Butterfly poses in two quite different ways.

Patricia Racette, an American soprano who has performed the role many, many times in her career, stressed the inherent tragedy of Butterfly from her first appearance. Racette's beautifully-sung Butterfly is proud, even in her servility to her Pinkerton, and her powerful demeanour increases as the opera progresses. Her steadfast, almost absurd devotion to her absconded lieutenant, when all around her recognize the true nature of his cynical manipulation of her, is both touching and enraging, human and playing to the stereotype of the Asian woman at the same time.

Racette's tragic interpretation is aided immeasurably, paradoxically, by a somewhat cold and emotionless Pinkerton, as sung by Stefano Secco, as well as a wonderful turn by Dwayne Croft as Sharpless, the US Consul in Butterfly's Nagasaki. Sharpless is the voice of conscience in Butterfly, the character who warns Pinkerton against his emotional adventurism and Croft's austere, restrained Sharpless created the moral heart of the work, prefiguring its tragic outcome. However, oddly enough, Racette's powerful interpretation of Butterfly as a real woman also increased the stereotypical nature of her character. It's as though the clearer we see Butterfly, the more we realize how artificial and unlikely a creation she is.

Kelly Kaduce, on the other hand, presents Butterfly as a much younger, much livelier, much more animated and childish heroine (Butterfly is 15 when the opera begins, 18 when it ends). Kaduce plays up the comedy in Butterfly (and there is some), and presents a much more animalistic, red-blooded persona on stage. Her Pinkerton, Andrea Care, is on the same page – full of loving tenderness in Act 1, head-grasping despair in Act 3. Problem is, Pinkerton's not a likeable character, despite the beautiful music Puccini has written for him, and to present him as one displaces the tragedy of the work. Gregory Dahl's Sharpless completed the draining away of dramatic tension in this Butterfly – the moral probity of Dwayne Croft was replaced by a hearty, cynical realism. Kaduce's Butterfly offended our cultural sensibilities less, but was also less tragic, and less affecting. It sounded wonderful – both Butterflys sang their roles beautifully – because it depended more on Puccini's amazing score to carry it along. It was a lovely evening at the opera, but questions that the work should have raised were left unasked.

Brian Macdonald and Susan Benson's now almost 25-year old production of Butterfly stresses a simple set and restrained lighting, actually reducing the size of the Four Seasons playing area to produce an almost claustrophobic effect in some places. It plays down some of the more excessive Japonnaisserie of other productions and restrains some of the all-too-melodramatic aspects of the work (Butterfly's child is not blindfolded and handed an American flag as she commits suicide in this production, as the original stage directions demand). There are fine touches throughout if the overall effect is somewhat restrained. Patrick Lange conducted the COC Orchestra in a lively, and well-paced accompaniment.

Madama Butterfly is too popular and too much part of our cultural fabric to simply ignore or retire. It is problematic, however, and visiting either or both of the current COC productions, both of which have considerable strengths, will allow you to come face to face with cultural questions and cultural conundrums. That's the point of great art – making us think. Simply being beautiful isn't enough.

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