Butterflies in the stomach time

Wow. Isn’t Copenhagen lucky?! Madame Butterfly, one of the best loved operas of all time, is being staged in this city for the second year in a row. This is pretty much the most visually beautiful opera you can witness – but that’s only if you’re able  to see anything through the countless tears you’re sure to be shedding. Yes, Puccini’s opera contains everything: love, betrayal and suicide. It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted.

Madame Butterfly’s undisputed position among the all-time favourites didn’t seem a realistic prospect right from the start. Its composer, Giacamo Puccini, had successfully completed Manon Lescaut, La Bohème and Tosca, and was on the look-out for ideas for his next project. On a trip to London he happened upon a theatrical performance called Madame Butterfly. Although he didn’t understand a word of English, Puccini fell in love with the Japanese themes of the play and instantly planned to base his next opera on the story.

He rushed home to Italy, quill in hand, and set about putting notes to paper. The celebrated composer  Giuseppe Verdi died in 1901, so the throne as ‘Italy’s top opera man’ was there for the taking. Unfortunately, when Madame Butterfly opened at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala in 1904, it was met with a great deal of booing. Confused by its failure, but sure that he had a potential success in his hands, Puccini tootled home and made a few crucial changes to his work. The ‘new’ opera was performed to rave reviews later that year, and the rest is history.

The narrative of the opera begins with the marriage of an American naval officer, Lieutenant Pinkerton, to a young Japanese girl, Cio-Cio San (nicknamed Butterfly). For Pinkerton the marriage is a farce, a marriage “in the Japanese style; for 999 years but with the right to cancel the marriage each month”. It is a marriage borne out of boredom, something to fill in the time before he can have a “real wedding and marry an American bride”. For the young Japanese protagonist, however, the marriage is very real. She gives herself completely to her husband, including renouncing her ancestral religion, which in turn leads to her family renouncing her.

When Pinkerton leaves Japan for America, promising to return soon, his young wife eagerly awaits his return, even more so after giving birth to his son following his departure. But it isn’t until the final act that Pinkerton returns to Japan, this time bringing with him his new American wife.

The opera reaches its emotional crescendo when Butterfly realises that she has been deserted by Pinkerton. When his new wife tries to claim the baby so that she can raise it as her own, Butterfly tells her that she will only give up her son if Pinkerton asks her in person.

In the most pivotal scene of the opera, Butterfly tells her son not to feel sorrow at his mother’s leaving and to only keep a faint memory of her face. After blindfolding the child, she picks up her father’s knife, which bears the inscription “whoever cannot live with honour must die with honour” and prepares to take her own life. Pinkerton arrives right at the last moment, but it is too late. Madame Butterfly is dead.

Dealing with the themes of ritual suicide and intercultural love, Madame Butterfly was written during a period when interest in Japan, only recently opened to the West, was at its highest. With its touching storyline and intense emotional use of music, Madame Butterfly will transport the audience not just to the Japan of the late 1890s, but take them to a different place altogether.

The scenography, provided by Christian Friedländer, is inspired by the Japanese artist Hokusais. The costume designer Pernille Egesko has elected to dress the actors in both beautiful and simple clothes, and we’re guaranteed metres and metres of silk – surely a sight to behold. The title role will be played by, amongst others,  Italy’s Maria Luigia Borsi and China’s Hui He, while Mexican tenor Héctor Sandoval will play the American rogue, Lieutenant Pinkerton. Director, Lars Kaalund has been helped by US conductor and voice specialist Steven Sloane to provide what we are promised will be a “musical experience of extraordinarily high quality”. A trip to Copenhagen’s opera house is always a special occasion, but this Madame Butterfly promises to be extra special.

Madame Butterfly
Store Scene, Operaen, Ekvipagemestervej 10, 1438 Cph K; starts Sun, ends Dec 4, performances at 20:00 (unless stated) on Sun (15:00), Oct 20 (19:30), Oct 22 (19:30), Oct 25 (19:30), Oct 27 (19:30), Oct 29 (19:30), Oct 31, Nov 3, Nov 5, Nov  7 , Nov 9 (19:30), Nov  11 (15:00), Nov  13 , Nov  18 (15:00), Nov 23 (19:30), Nov  27, Nov  29, Dec 4; tickets 125-895kr; in Italian with Danish subtitles; duration 160 minutes including intermission; www.kgl-teater.dk