Madama Butterfly: exquisite, but problematic

The stage curtain lifted to reveal exquisite scenery. Producer Ellen Kent is well known for her spectacularly designed operas, and this performance of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly didn’t fail to reach those standards. The whole stage was framed by Japanese trees and flowers with fountains on either side creating the background sound of running water throughout the opera. In the centre, there was the house that would later come to be shared by Madama Butterfly (Maria Heejung Kim) and Pinkerton (Giorgio Meladze), which was a vital element of the set in adding to the drama. Much like the scenery, the music and the voices were a pleasure to experience. I’m no expert in opera myself, but it was obvious that this cast and orchestra, audibly, were extremely talented.

However, the acting left a little to be desired. Perhaps it was because of the English surtitles above the stage, which divided attention between reading and watching, but much of the tragedy of the story just didn’t appear to be reflected in the faces and actions of the actors. In fact, to no fault of the cast, the actual narrative of Madama Butterfly made it incredibly hard to engage with as a performance.

Pinkerton, for want of a better word, buys Butterfly, expressing how he must “possess her,” careless of “crushing her fragile wings,” when he marries her knowing he will later abandon her for a wife from his home country, America. The language used to describe Butterfly reeks of that used by the husband character in Ibsen’s play, The Doll’s House, to describe his wife Norma, constantly infantilising and belittling her. Only, where Norma eventually leaves her husband and frees herself from his possession, Butterfly shows herself to be utterly devoted to Pinkerton, and therefore kills herself rather than live “without honour.”

I mention The Doll’s House here as the plots drew multiple parallels that rose many questions – it would be interesting to see a new adaptation of Madama Butterfly that addresses some of the more problematic elements and language of the storyline in order to present a more relevant narrative. While it is difficult to make this case without extensively quoting the opera or recounting the entire plot, some questions do need to be risen: just because something is old and has a score created by somebody famous, does it mean it is good, or worthy of still telling?

The opera tells a story entrenched in orientalism, sexism and exoticisation – and that would just be a starting point. Pinkerton’s initial obsession with owning Butterfly is indeed partly due to him exoticising her, as Japanese culture is generally exoticised throughout the opera. Yet, Pinkerton is portrayed largely as the innocent! Jokes are made at the expense of the Japanese, trivialising cultural traditions, while America is depicted as strong and omnipotent, with its citizens exerting their power over the naïve, ‘modest and quiet’, in Butterfly’s words.

The Opera and Ballet international presented a musically brilliant evening of entertainment, I have no doubts about that. Yet, it lacked life, and it lacked vitality. I can’t help but wonder if, whilst maybe being musically outstanding, the lacklustre performance could perhaps owe itself to the opera’s own should-be redundant narrative.


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March 2021
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