San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

“Butterfly” Skirts Language Barriers to Become Hit

AN ambitious and beautifully wroughtpresentation of Giacomo Puccini’s opera“Madama Butterfly” opened at San José’sNational Theater last week.Two casts, one a mixed internationaland Costa Rican conglomeration, theother entirely Costa Rican, perform thetragic drama on alternating nights. Theinternational cast somehow fuses its necessarilydiverse talents into a seamlessproduction, though its members speakthree different native languages and arefrom four countries.Visiting Japanese opera veterans, sopranoMami Koshigoe, as Cio-Cio-San, a.k.a.Madama Butterfly, and mezzo-sopranoKazuko Nagai, as the faithful handmaidSuzuki, both deliver stellar, believable performances.Scott Piper, a naturalized U.S.citizen born in Costa Rica, plays the ignorantplayboy Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton,and Puerto Rican-born Guido LeBrón portraysPinkerton’s friend and Butterfly’sanguished counselor, the U.S. ConsulSharpless. Both performers bring naturalpostures and full-bodied vocals to the stage.Piper, with his black hair and darkcomplexion, was an odd pick for Pinkerton,a character who has a blond, blue-eyedchild with a Japanese woman. He mightneed a wig.U.S. stage director Matthew Lata spokewith the Japanese singers in Italian, and asmall crew of Japanese, English andSpanish interpreters eased communicationsonstage and off.Executive producer Christine Komatsu,a U.S. citizen who worked for the lastyear to bring the production here, steppedover bureaucratic hurdles, bought secondhandkimonos in Tokyo, and surroundedherself with a technical crew she knowsfrom the United States.“We brought three cultures and threelanguages together, so that made it harder,but it was so enriching to everyone,”she said.In the absence of a pit, the NationalSymphony, directed (in English) byJapanese director Chosei Komatsu,Christine’s husband, is seated below thestage and overflows into the first-floorboxes on both sides. All of the performancesare exemplary.U.S. set designer Gary Eckhart optedfor a traditional Asian nature-scene paintingas the backdrop – trees, mountains anda lake – set off with a detailed, one-roomhouse of sliding paper-screened panels anda hardwood raised floor, flanked on oneside by two- and three-dimensional rocks,grasses and flowers, and an elaborate treeof white and pink blossoms.THIS is the two-act version of theopera, the original version popular inEurope. A three-act version that splits thesecond act into two parts is more commonlyseen in the United States.Subtitles to the Italian lyrics are projectedonto a screen high above the stage inSpanish, so non-Spanish or -Italian speakerswho are unfamiliar with the operamight consider hunting down a plot summary,perhaps online.Briefly, it is the story of the geishaMadama Butterfly’s marriage to Pinkerton,a U.S. naval officer stationed in Japan, andher faithful, naïve wait for his return afterhe goes home.The first version premiered in 1904 inMilan, Italy. The story landed in movietheaters in 1915, and had two stints on thebillboard music scene, one in 1984 whenMalcolm Lauren based a U.K. top-20 singleon the opera and another in 1996 whenthe garage band Weezer named their secondalbum “Pinkerton” and outlined theopera’s plot in the album’s final song,“Butterfly.” If the story reminds operagoersof the 1989 Broadway musical “MissSaigon,” that’s because the musical wasbased, in part, on “Madama Butterfly.”Asian-American playwright DavidHenry Hwang’s 1984 play “M. Butterfly,”based on the allegedly true story of aFrench diplomat who carries on a 20-yearaffair with a Chinese transvestite withoutrealizing his fling was a man, parallels theopera’s plot and artistically criticizes it forits Western conception of a stereotypicallysubmissive Asian heroine.CRITICS have suggested the operafeminizes Asia and unfairly paints theUnited States as a colonial power – whichwas a stretch at the turn of the 20th century,when the piece was written – penetratinga weak Japan, which is equally hard toswallow for that time period.“A good stage director like MatthewLata and good actresses and actors are ableto transcend some of that stereotyping,”Christine Komatsu said. “And it’s morethan that; it’s about love and despair andhope and betrayal and life and death. Thereare transcendent themes this opera dealswith; it is beyond the more mundaneaspects of the plot, so it will speak to anyculture. These are experiences any humanbeing faces.”Focusing on the mundane plot pointsonce more, Cio-Cio-San is unhealthilydependent on her husband, he is melodramaticallyinsensitive until his too-laterepentance, and the story wallows in theheroine’s despair longer than merited by itslack of complexity. It could be shorterwithout losing force. One scene in particularin which Cio-Cio-San waits, peeringout a hole in one of her house’s paper panels,for her husband to climb the hill fromthe port runs painfully long.Visually and audibly bold and sorrowful,the production is well recommendedfor the power of its stars’ voices and thesymphony’s excellent accompaniment.“Madama Butterfly” will be performedthrough Aug. 12 at the NationalTheater. For information and reservations,call 221-5341.

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