Giacomo Puccini presents a paradox insofar as this resolutely non-political composer wrote two operas—Madam Butterfly and Tosca—with strong political themes. Madam Butterfly, one of the most popular operas in the repertory, tells a powerful, tragic story in which the issues of colonialism, racism and sexism are closely interwoven.
At the end of the 19th century, the US is emerging as the world’s dominant power whereas Japan remains a backward, developing country desperately trying to catch up. The US is able to bully Japan and this inequality between colonial power and colonised is reflected in the sexual exploitation of Japanese women by American men.
American naval officer Pinkerton is attracted to a young geisha woman Cio-Cio-San whom he likens to a butterfly—he must chase her even if her wings get damaged in the process. He goes through a wedding ceremony, which he refuses to take seriously, at one point toasting the day when he will marry a “real American wife”.
But Cio-Cio-San cannot accept that he has simply used and discarded her—treating her as a colonial inferior. She has taken the marriage in deadly earnest and after he leaves, refers to the US as her country.
Three years later, Pinkerton returns to Cio-Cio San and their son born after his departure. He is accompanied by his new American wife. In a naked display of colonial arrogance declare that they will take the child back to the US “for his own good”.
Madam Butterfly was not a success at its first performance in 1906, and afterwards Puccini revised the score, adding an aria for Pinkerton to make him slightly less unsympathetic—in it he expresses remorse for his heartless treatment of Butterfly.
This ENO version of Madam Butterfly, directed by Carolyn Choa, is a revival of the production by the late film-maker Anthony Minghella. It is beautifully staged with a highly imaginative set design and lighting. The singing is good all round, with a particularly strong performance by Judith Howarth in the title role. The orchestra under Edward Gardner also perform well.
Madam Butterfly by the English National Opera at the Coliseum in London is on until 10 July