Thursday, 28 June 2012

Madame Butterfly - let's discuss the crime of not living up to expectations

Yesterday it was opera at Grange Park: Puccini's Madama Butterfly no less.

I was there with two friends, a really dressy occasion, as is usual in the summer. With the champagne picnic, naturally.

But the focus was on the production itself, which starred the soprano Claire Rutter as Butterfly, Marco Panuccio as Lieutenant Pinkerton (who 'marries' her and makes her pregnant), Sara Fulgoni as Butterfly's confidential maid Suzuki (one of the important roles in this opera), and Stephen Gadd as Sharpless, the American Consul at Nagasaki. Claire Rutter and Stephen Gadd are real-life husband and wife, living in nearby Winchester, and they frequently perform together. He does other things too: I thought I'd seen him elsewhere, but I couldn't remember where.

If you don't know the story, it runs like this. The opera is set in Nagasaki in Japan, around 1900. Japan is emerging from its isolation from the Western World, and American ships make courtesy visits to foster diplomatic ties and trade and so on. Daughter of a Japanese nobleman who has died, young Butterfly is striving to maintain her honour and dignity, but her slender circumstances have forced her to become a geisha (i.e. a prostitute working within a traditional set of rules), which she is not happy about, even though in Japan it is a recognised and regulated profession. Enter the personable Lieutenant Pinkerton off an American ship, anchored in harbour for some months. Pinkerton is looking for a house ashore, finds one, and then hears that in Japan one can take a 'wife' who can be divorced on one month's notice. The man who controls the local geishas puts Butterfly before him, and he is instantly attracted, glad to 'marry' her, but seeing it mainly as a pleasant arrangement for the duration of his stay. But she, being so young and naive, and unused to the ways of Western men, falls deeply in love with him. The American Consul contratulates Pinkerton, but warns him that for Butterfly this is clearly no light thing, and that he should conduct himself with care.

Well, it's the old story. He has his way with her, on her side very willingly (she loves him), and then duty calls him back to sea, and to far-off America. She finds she is pregnant, gives birth to a Japanese baby (played on stage by what seemed to be a real little Japanese boy in sailor suit and lace-up boots, a competent little actor in his own right, even though he only had to be a quiet, well-behaved child all the time. A rising star, clearly). She waits three long years without Pinkerton returning or sending any word.  

We perceive at once that he considers himself free, and it's no surprise that when he does come back, it's with an American lady as his proper wife. But meanwhile Butterfly cherishes dreams of a beautiful reunion, and refuses all offers of marriage from other suitors. For she is convinced that Pinkerton loves her, and will come back to take her off to America. It's agonising to see her so hopeful. The Consul visits her with a letter from Pinkerton in which he explains that he has married someone else. But the Consul, a man of understanding and sensitivity, cannot bring himself to break Butterfly's heart.

Events move rapidly forward now to their tragic conclusion. Pinkerton comes visiting with his new wife. They learn about the child. His wife, to her credit, offers to bring the child up as her own. But this means that Butterfly will lose both husband and child, and have nothing left, as her own people have disowned her for 'marrying' Pinkerton in the first place. Realising now the consequences of his too-playful dalliance with Butterfly, Pinkerton is filled with remorse. But this cannot undo the dreadful situation. Too late, Butterfly's eyes are opened. She accepts the new wife's offer to care for her child. But her personal honour, and her overwhelming distress, demand that for herself there is now only one way out. And so she stabs herself and dies. All of this is related, of course, with passionate singing and surging music. I confess that I wept at the end. So would you, if you had any heart at all.

Pinkerton's part was a difficult one. By the conclusion of the opera he seemed like a villian, albeit one who had realised his error. And yet he had really done nothing with cruel intent. Certainly nothing that the law of Japan, or the law of America, did not allow.

Butterfly did not know the law, nor would she heed it. She believed he loved her. Nothing else mattered; and she built her entire future on that. So it was death to her when he did not come up to expectations.

How many echoes this has with my own life, not as Butterfly, but cast in the role of Pinkerton. M--- was my Butterfly. The parallels are not quite exact, but I think M--- would say that for fifteen years and more I led her to believe in a future that my transition snatched away, taking with it (although it was not my intention) the entire relationship and all it seemed to stand for. I 'did' nothing. I simply had to 'be' something else. But the net effect was the same as a stab to the heart, just another way of killing something that had seemed so permanent.

Was it a crime? Pinkerton's I mean, but my own if you like. He was extremely contrite. But it could not mend the damage done.

In my own case, I feel that I have nothing to apologise for, but there was destruction and catastrophe - plenty that I wish could be mended, so that my own Butterfly might feel better. But it can't be put back together.

Was it all a crime, though, implying due punishment? And was it a crime that can never be atoned for, where the punishment cannot end? Questions to ponder.

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