Every time soprano Maria Luigia Borsi sings the title role of “Madama Butterfly,” it is a dream come true for her because she fell in love with the opera when she was 7.
She even memorized the second act as a child.
“I like this opera because it has every aspect of life in it — love, intimate dreams, marriage, motherhood, betrayal, abandonment, death, dignity and desolation,” she says. “For that reason, I have the possibility to use my voice in different ways in the same scene, sometimes a sweet color, sometimes like a baby, sometimes sharp as a knife.”
The qualities that Borsi identifies are expressed with unforgettable power and beauty by composer Giacomo Puccini’s music, which have made it one of the most popular operas in the repertoire.
Pittsburgh Opera will present Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” on March 16, 19, 22 and 24 at the Benedum Center, Downtown. The cast stars Borsi as Cio-Cio San and Bryan Hymel as her American husband Lt. B.F. Pinkerton. Jean-Luc Tingaud will conduct. Crystal Manich is stage director.
Although “Madama Butterfly” had a problematic debut at Italy’s premiere opera house, La Scala in Milan, in 1904 and was revised several times, it became Puccini’s third consecutive big hit — following “La Boheme” and “Tosca.”
The libretto was based on a story by John Luther Long and the subsequent play by Long and David Belasco. The Japanese tragedy is set in Nagasaki in the 19th century. Cio-Cio San, the title role, is a young woman who had been raised in a respectable family which lost its standing when her father committed suicide. She meets Pinkerton through the marriage broker Goro. Cio-Cio San forsakes her culture and family to marry him. Their love scene is the culmination of Act 1.
When the curtain rises again, Pinkerton has been gone for three years. Cio-Cio San is raising their son with the assistance of her servant, Suzuki, while she awaits his return. But he’s been back home and married an American woman. When he returns to Nagasaki, it’s not to rejoin Cio-Cio San, as she hopes. He’s back to take his son, whom his new wife has agreed to raise. Madama Butterfly’s hopes are crushed. She takes her own life.
Pittsburgh Opera’s production will use a set by John Conklin that was built for Boston Lyric Opera in the fall of 2012, a production for which Manich was assistant stage director. It features shojis, Japanese movable panels of translucent material (such as rice paper or, in this set, cotton) on a wooden frame that can serve as walls or doors.
“We have the opportunity to light them from different angles, which allows us to create a world that is beautiful and magical at the same time,” Manich says. That flexibility emphasizes the surreal or realistic character of the moment.
Although, in many respects, “Butterfly” exemplifies the late 19th-century literary and musical style called “verismo,” which aims for unvarnished truthfulness, Manich emphasizes there are many nonverismo moments in the opera. She mentions the love duet at the end of Act 1 as an example when time stops and the rest of the world is shut out, as well as the Flower Duet and Humming Chorus in Act 2.
Conductor Tingaud says “Butterfly” is one of Puccini’s “most poetic scores, even more poetic than realistic.” He’s returning for his second production at Pittsburgh Opera, after a very impressive debut in May 2011 with “Dialogue of the Carmelites.”
He enjoys the colors and details of the score, which he says is very efficient, dramatically.
“What is amazing is how he managed to be, at the same time, very realistic about the atmosphere and the context, which is exotic, and also psychologically inside his characters,” the conductor says. “He gives the orchestra the function of a Greek chorus, because the orchestra plays a very important role, a character itself.”
Moreover, Tingaud says that the Japanese aspects of the music are thoroughly integrated in a very human story told in an Italian opera.
“We enjoy the Italian moments a lot — the love duet and the tenor aria in the third act are almost purely Italian,” Tingaud says. “Puccini writes with such great sensibility and is so smart that we should just be completely captured by every moment of this wonderful opera. That’s my goal.”
American tenor Bryan Hymel, who will portray Pinkerton, has been making the most of recent opportunities. He substituted with only three hours rehearsal in Hector Berlioz’s opera “Les Troyens” for his debut in January at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City — a performance which was transmitted in HD to movie theaters across the United States.
After his Pittsburgh performances of “Butterfly,” he’ll repeat his role in his native New Orleans. Next season, he’ll perform it at the Met.
“It’s funny. With Pinkerton in ‘Madama Butterfly’ you get to be an American, which is a foreign concept in opera, because most of the repertoire is European,” he says. “To hear ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ (which Puccini quotes), even if it’s a little vilified, I enjoy. You can be yourself, a young American guy on vacation for four months off in a foreign place. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to many places and see foreign cultures, so I can identify.”
Hymel, 33, has been singing a lot of French repertoire in the past few seasons, which makes him happy to return Italian to his mix.
“French is a wonderful language to sing because of the colors and shading of words. Italian is more straightforward,” he says. “The singing pours out. It’s fun to be singing in Italian.”
Italian is Borsi’s mother tongue. She found her perspective on “Madama Butterfly” acquired new depth when she had the opportunity to sing it with her daughter portraying Cio-Cio San’s child in a production in Italy.
“I understood many things I didn’t when studying at home, because on the stage, everything is alive,” she says.
“What I really love is the intensity and simplicity of ‘Madama Butterfly.’ It is always very interesting to sing this role, because, every time ,I search for the truth and humanity behind the words and music,” Borsi says. “I think Butterfly speaks of the strength of many women because she follows her own destiny with courage.”
Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.