Now, with the premiere on Saturday right here at Santa Fe Opera of an adaptation by the composer Huang Ruo, with a libretto by David Henry Hwang, the play’s writer, the butterfly has returned to its operatic chrysalis.
It was inevitable, actually. Hwang’s Tony Award-winning script, from 1988, got here to him when he noticed that he may use the Orientalist stereotypes of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” as a mirror to discover how, for 20 years, the French diplomat Bernard Boursicot (renamed Rene Gallimard within the play) carried on an affair with the Chinese language opera singer and spy Shi Pei Pu (renamed Music Liling), solely to find, amid a lurid espionage case, that “she” had been a “he” all alongside.
Hwang’s smash exposé of empire and race, gender and domination, may at all times be learn as a mirrored image on the Puccini and the biases it nonetheless perpetuates in addition to a gloss on the real-life story. Discover the correct composer who may mix its parts with metatheatrical aptitude whereas sustaining the elusive high quality that so marks the play, and the chance was apparent.
Huang, a Chinese language-born professor on the Mannes Faculty of Music, whose works have typically built-in Japanese and Western influences into a particular private type, was nearly definitely the perfect wager to be that composer.
However the alternative is missed.
“M. Butterfly” had loads of potential to fly at Santa Fe. Delayed for 2 years on account of the pandemic, James Robinson’s manufacturing is easy however telling, making clear use of smart projections, by Greg Emetaz, and transferring simply between the non-public and the geopolitical, as Gallimard’s destiny entwines with that of the imperial pretensions of the French and Individuals in Vietnam, and Music’s shifts with that of the Chinese language Communist Get together. Carolyn Kuan conducts with empathy, if not the rhythmic precision that the thudding rating wants.
The solid is an exemplary one, too. Mark Stone makes for a suitably worn, confused Gallimard, and he sings his thorny vocal traces with spectacular form. The extra minor components are neatly delivered, particularly Hongni Wu’s amused Comrade Chin and Kevin Burdette’s connivingly bureaucratic ambassador to China.
All should bow to Kangmin Justin Kim, whose drag performances as Kimchilia Bartoli should have helped him painting Music with the extraordinary conviction he shows right here. Greater than credible singing Cio-Cio-San’s “Un bel dì” and different soprano excerpts from the Puccini, this astonishing countertenor’s alluring, ringing tone, and the sensitivity as an actor that he exhibits in toying with Gallimard’s delusions and exploring Music’s personal sexuality, introduced an artist to observe carefully.
The issue with “M. Butterfly” is a deeper one, and it’s the identical issue that Hwang grappled with when he rewrote the script for its return to Broadway in 2017: As occasions change, can “M. Butterfly” change with them and nonetheless be true to itself?
That’s to not say that Hwang’s earlier themes are irrelevant now; removed from it. Violence towards girls of Asian descent stays outrageously persistent, and there’s nonetheless appreciable worth in confronting the Butterfly stereotypes that maintain it, particularly in an opera world that is still stubbornly — no, offensively — reluctant to reckon with its many racisms, together with in “Madama Butterfly” and “Turandot.”
However the play itself helped to show associated intricacies of sexism, racism and imperialism which have since change into acquainted, and the story has worn. Gender norms, for one factor, have shifted dramatically sufficient that the outdated query of whether or not Gallimard knew that Music was a person is barely titillating in any respect. By now we must also know that Gallimard’s needs are problematic; if we don’t, “M. Butterfly” nonetheless achieves its objective of exhibiting us that we should always. Both manner, it’s arduous to interact a lot with the bumbling, repressed central character, and the opera barely asks us to.
So what’s left? “M. Butterfly,” the play, at all times had ambiguity and phantasm at its core, and this operatic model tries to interrupt down binaries nonetheless additional, particularly by means of Music’s character. Fluidity washes; energy blurs as East meets West; metaphor piles onto metaphor. There’s a distance from the unique materials right here, and the opera takes on a sort of knowingly analytical air.
It’s extra of a disquisition than a drama, and nowhere is that extra obvious than in a giant third-act aria for Music, “Awoke as a Butterfly.” She sings it because the Get together tries to ship her to France to spy on a lover she thinks has lengthy forgotten her, and because the stage turns to black, you hope that her motivations are eventually about to change into greater than dimly obvious. Is she only a Get together stooge? Is she in love? What does she need from him?
“I fake to know, fake to know the reality,” she sings. “I do know the reality and so I fake.”
Alas, no luck.
Huang Ruo’s music affords few such subtleties, although not like in his earlier opera for Santa Fe, “Dr. Solar Yat-sen,” it declines to weave Chinese language devices into the orchestra. The intrigue right here lies in how he offers with the musical legacy of “Madama Butterfly,” and, correctly, he has been cautious with it.
There’s no sense of pastiche, no resort to parody; direct citation is proscribed to the few moments when Music is performing as Cio-Cio-San. When there are references, they’re indirect or distorted, and so they are inclined to observe Hwang’s story in inverting the unique materials, asking us who the Butterfly within the story actually is. There’s a buzzing refrain, for example, or at the least a refrain that hums, nevertheless it intends to evoke Gallimard’s reminiscences, not these of his lover.
However a lot of the rating in any other case tires as its pounding chords and thumping cross-rhythms alternate and overlap with extra static, suspended passages. If there’s loads of pressure, there’s little selection, and this arid music not often offers us insights that the phrases don’t. It wanted to; for with out them, this Butterfly is misplaced.
Via Aug. 24 at Santa Fe Opera, New Mexico; santafeopera.org.