The second week of October 2021 saw the release of an Opera Hong Kong/Slovene National Theater Maribor co-production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Among the top ten of most produced operas of all time, Artistic Director Warren Mok, production director Pier Francesco Maestrini and company did manage some strikingly novel elements. A transporting video-visual projection screen throughout turned the lone set piece of Butterfly's house into, alternatively, a moving art work of calligraphy, a lifeboat on the sea and a traditional document contract.
Of particular interest was the subtle but decisive shift of the action to one generation than normally depicted, eg away from the fin-de-siecle and rather lodged firmly within the era of the Last Samurai, approximately 1867-77. This move takes the classic psychosexual orientalist fantasy of the opera canon and makes it instead a story about modernization and the loss of traditions, particularly fitting for Asia's hybrid trade portal city. This provides some means of correction to the long recognized essentialist trap of the story. Rather than a passive victim of a 'love it and leave it' American cowboy of the waves, Cio-Cio-san is an active risk taker, seduced and then betrayed by American notions of the rule of law, the modern state and monogamy.
The commanding vocal presence of Bing Bing Wang, the first Chinese soprano signed with Sony for an album of Italian arias, fully supports the dramatic arc, well overshadowing others on stage, especially her putative replacement, Pinkerton's American wife. Her ultimate demise is depicted in front of a mammoth samurai statue, with a visual field of a traditional Japanese contract projected in the background. Rather than a first modern woman, she is a last of the samurai.
Copyright © 20 October 2021
Adam J Sacks,
Hong Kong, China