By Alan Schuster
Today, Madama Butterfly is one of the most frequently performed works in the opera world. Not only did Giacomo Puccini create a title role of a young geisha that arouses true compassion, but he did it with the support of his highest level of opera orchestration.
Such a combination prompted opera historian Denis Forman to label the work as “having listener-friendly music.”
Making that music at the USC Beaufort Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday afternoon will be soprano Hui He in the heart-breaking role of Butterfly (Cio-cio-san); tenor Andrea Care singing Pinkerton; Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot, performing as Sharpless, and American mezzo Elizabeth DeShong will sing the role of Butterfly’s maid Suzuki. Piero Giorgio Morandi conducts.
Act I: The action takes place in the early 20th century in and around Butterfly’s house on a hill overlooking Nagasaki. Goro, a marriage broker, is showing Pinkerton, a US naval officer, a home which he will buy after his marriage to Butterfly (Cio-cio-san), a young geisha, later that day.
U.S. consul Sharpless arrives. Learning of Pinkerton’s intention to leave his “poor wife” when his tour expires, he tries to convince him not to abandon her, but fails. Butterfly and friends enter. To the dismay of her relatives, she is renounced for having deserted the family religion when the wedding ceremony takes place.
They all depart, leaving her in tears. Pinkerton comforts her, and then they enter their home.
The music: Three extraordinary numbers define the act. Pinkerton’s arietta (All over the world the Yankee travels) is a boastful claim made to Sharpless, ending with their rousing toast to “America forever.”
This leads to Butterfly’s entrance from a distance, her voice rising above a brilliant chorus. In a word, dreamy. Finally alone after taking their vows, the couple engage in a rapturous duet, ending the act.
Act II: It’s three years later and Butterfly – now with a little boy – waits for Pinkerton’s return with her devoted servant Suzuki at her side. Sharpless arrives, telling Suzuki alone that Pinkerton has an American wife.
But before Butterfly learns of this, Goro enters with a wealthy prince who is eager to marry her – which she curtly rejects. Soon after, a harbor cannon announces the arrival of Pinkerton’s ship. Butterly and Suzuki joyfully prepare for his return.
The music: Butterfly’s aria (One fine day) is one of the composer’s most famous songs, as she convinces herself that he will come back to her. After dismissing the prince, the cannon sound leads to the wonderful harmonies of her “Flower duet” with Suzuki. As darkness nears, they take up a vigil, awaiting his return.
In the background, a melancholy humming chorus can be heard, ending the act on a highly emotional scene.
Act III: In Butterfly’s absence, Sharpless arrives with Pinkerton and his wife Kate, informing Suzuki that they come to arrange for the care of the child. He tells Pinkerton to leave rather than witness Butterfly’s reaction to such tragic news.
When she enters and sees Kate, she realizes her dreadful situation and asks Kate to have Pinkerton return later to receive the child. Alone, she blindfolds her son and then stabs herself with a dagger as Pinkerton arrives too late.
The music: The humming chorus continues from the ending of Act II, a clever linking of the two acts together between nightfall and dawn. Another prime moment follows as the trio grapples with the dilemma of comforting Butterfly.
Pinkerton, now aware of the heartbreaking situation, sings a poignant farewell. (Farewell, home of love). In the final moments, Butterfly sings a sad farewell to her son, and then kills herself in a highly melodramatic finale.
Cast: The heartbreaking role of Butterfly will be sung by soprano Hui He, with tenor Andrea Care as the American naval officer, Pinkerton. Baritone Paolo Szot performs as Sharpless, and mezzo Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki. Pier Giorgio Morandi will conduct Anthony Minghella’s stunning production.
WANT TO GO?
What: Madama Butterfly
When: 12:55 p.m., Nov. 9
Where: USC Beaufort Center for the Performing Arts, 801 Carteret St, Beaufort.
Tickets: All seats are general admission. Adults cost $20, OLLI members $18, students $10. Tickets are available at the USCB Center for the Performing Arts box office, order on-line at www.centerforthearts.com or call 843-521-4145.