Enjoying Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" is, like other pleasure that usually transpire at night, something that can make looking in the mirror the next morning difficult.
In "Butterfly," Puccini manipulates his audience down the well-trodden paths of sexism, racism and even pornography. He makes listeners feel (while the work is in progress) that their capacity for tears validates their goodness as human beings.
This is not to deny that "Madame Butterfly" is a great work. It is only to say that what the Marquis de Sade was to pain and what Hugh Hefner was to the pinup, Puccini -- never more triumphantly than in "Butterfly" -- was to operatic sentimentality.
Not everyone may agree, but newcomers to the opera can judge for themselves this Saturday and the following Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, when the Baltimore Opera Company performs the work at the Lyric Opera House.
The tale of an innocent, trusting geisha who gives herself to a sexually adventuring American naval officer in a wedding ceremony that she doesn't know is a sham, and who then kills herself for him, has become part of popular culture. One need look no farther than the hit film "Fatal Attraction," David Henry Hwang's acclaimed play "M. Butterfly" and the musical "Miss Saigon," a modern retelling of the opera that was an enormous success in London and that opened on Broadway last Thursday.
"Butterfly" can be said to be sexist because it is a male fantasy about female "perfection." The title character is what some feminists despairingly believe every man secretly desires: an experienced (she is a geisha) child (she is only 15). It can be said to be racist because it embodies the notion that "Orientals" do not mind -- in fact, enjoy -- domination by "Westerners." (The racism and the sexism are united in so far as what is "Oriental" and enjoys subordination is seen as female.)
Popular art plays off "Butterfly's" themes in fascinating ways. It is the favorite opera of both the Glenn Close and the Michael Douglas characters in "Fatal Attraction." Douglas initially thinks that Close will be a Butterfly -- i.e. sleep with him but make no demands. Instead she turns out to be a counter-Butterfly -- a male nightmare, who, in her words, "won't be treated like a slut and thrown in the garbage."
Hwang's "M. Butterfly" is even more ingenious. One of the playwright's great insights is that since the character of Butterfly is indeed a male fantasy, who could better satisfy male requirements for emotional and sexual gratification than another man pretending to be a woman.
Lt. B. F. Pinkerton in Puccini's original is surely the most unlikable hero in the tenor repertory. The young man's credo is "Dovunque al mondo lo Yankee vagabondo si gode e trafica": "All over the world the Yankee wanders on business and pleasure," and Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton is seized by "a wild desire" for a girl whom he describes (and whom the music portrays) as a beautiful Japanese objet d'art, "light as a delicate piece of glass" or as "a figure on a painted screen." One can identify with Pinkerton, of course, but one cannot sympathize with him. Puccini, therefore, brilliantly supplies Sharpless, the American consul in Nagasaki, whose perspective on the action the audience is clearly meant to take as its own.
Sharpless has not yet seen Butterfly, but, he tells Pinkerton, yesterday at the consulate he heard her speak. The way her voice affected him is demonstrated by a passage, marked "dolcissimo" (or "very sweetly and softly"), in which Sharpless says it would be a "great sin to break so trusting a heart" -- and on that word the opera swells to the first of its many heart-wrenching climaxes. What is at stake is not moral truth, as it often is in the music dramas of Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi and even Wagner, but -- pure and simple -- sentimentality.
Now follows one of the greatest juxtapositions in opera. If Puccini had written nothing else he would be entitled to a position as one of history's greatest dramatists of the sentimental. Without our so much as seeing Butterfly, with less than 15 minutes of operatic time elapsed, the composer makes us weep for her.
Sharpless toasts Pinkerton's family and Pinkerton proposes a toast of his own: "to the day when in a real wedding ceremony I shall marry a real American wife!"
It is precisely at the conclusion of this toast that, from the distance, we hear Butterfly's voice, soaring over the chorus of her friends. She climbs the hill to her destiny, proclaiming herself on the day of what she believes to be a true marriage as "the happiest girl in Japan, in fact, the world!" Butterfly's song mounts to an ecstatic climax as she finally appears on stage, throwing herself on her knees before Pinkerton, genuflecting as if he were a god.
Never before and never afterward did Puccini write anything like the love duet that closes this act. It is here that the opera moves the sentimental in the direction of the pornographic. The language of the lovers, as the music urges them to their sexual union, resembles -- there is no other term for it -- baby talk. As Pinkerton's desire mounts, Butterfly becomes variously "bimba" ("baby"), "bambola" ("doll"), "my tiny plaything," "sweet scented flower" and "squirrel." Butterfly tells Pinkerton how "big and strong" he is, how he he knows "things she cannot understand," and asks him to love her gently, "like a little child." We talk like this when we address children, when we talk to our cats and -- in the most intimate situations -- when we talk to our lovers. Puccini, ever a master of emotional brinksmanship, brings us to the edge of embarrassment in what may be the most intimate moment in any opera. It approaches, without becoming, voyeurism and -- in its perfervid, superheated cuteness -- kiddie porn.
What of the rest of the opera? Imagine a "Tristan and Isolde" in which the former deserts the latter. For two-thirds of its length, "Butterfly" is devoted to the title character's betrayal, passion and death: It is a parade of sorrows. To Sharpless, Butterfly's situation is "pitiful"; to Suzuki, her loyal maid, it is as if "the sun has gone out"; to Pinkerton -- who makes a brief, remorseful reappearance -- it is "unbearable"; to Kate, Pinkerton's "real" wife, Butterfly is a "poor little thing"; and to Butterfly herself it is simply -- after a heart-rending final aria -- a matter for hara-kiri.
This is all a bit much. That we don't gag when Sharpless tells Butterfly that Kate is "the innocent cause of your suffering" or when Butterfly calls Kate "the happiest woman under the sun" is an indication of how affecting, if meretricious, Puccini's music is.
Perhaps not even Mozart, Strauss or Wagner ever used the soprano voice more feelingly to evoke the admiration and pity that operatic audiences have traditionally associated with martyrdom for love. But while "Butterfly" makes us think about injustices it is ridiculous to assume that Puccini or his librettists themselves ever thought seriously about what their more earnest Victorian contemporaries called the "woman question."
"Butterfly" -- even more than other operas in which women suffer and die -- offers an outlet whereby an audience can lament injustice without committing itself to changing it. There is nothing seriouslywrong with Puccini's guilty pleasures, but it doesn't hurt us to know what it is that we're enjoying.
Where: Lyric Opera House.
When: Saturday at 8:15 p.m.; Wednesday (April 24) at 8:15 p.m.; Friday (April 26) at 8:15 p.m.; and Sunday (April 28) at 3:15 p.m.
Tickets: $15 to $70.