Wept throught Madama Butterfly on the Med radio broadcast this morning. One of the saddest opera plots in the whole repertoire. The soprano/heroine was Liping Zhang, a gorgeous Chinese/Canadian singer who specializes in this role.
Read a fairly snarky article about her in the LA Times in 2008, but we recalled that much opera criticism is snarky. The author, also Chinese, said she had made “a career out of playing submissive, self-negating heroines in the operas “Madame Butterfly” and “Turandot,” both by Giacomo Puccini.”
This got us to thinking. Actually Cio-Cio-San is not so much submissive or self-negating, as she is young and shy Japanese girl at the beginning of the opera. She matures significantly throughout the plot, standing strong against family pressures to marry a pretty nice Japanese guy, converting to Christianity so her husband, the extremely unlikeable, crass Lieut. Pinkerton, would feel more comfortable with her, and finally facing the reality that he was never going to come back to her.
She even agrees to give up their little boy to him and his American wife. Ugh. He – coward! – runs away from facing her when he comes back to Japan after many years absence, but leaves his wife(!) to do it. She gets the last ‘laugh’ though when she kills herself with her dad’s sword, engraved, “To die with honor when one can no longer live with honor.” That’s not submissive, it is defiant and honorable (under the circumstances).
But what about Liu in Turandot? She dies before she will reveal her master’s son’s name (Calaf) to the Princess Turandot’s agents who are torturing her (on stage(!) in many productions). She is usually portrayed as a young girl and slave, who is taking care of Calaf’s dad, an aged king who is now blind.
But what if she is played as almost as old as the dad and was a nurse to Calaf from his babyhood? And bravely, defiantly, gives up her life for the man she loves like a son? That would make more sense and would not make Calaf seem like such a cavalier oaf for going off and leaving her for the icy, cold Princess. That’s not how Puccini wrote it, of course, but he died before he finished the opera, so some alterations have already been made just to get the piece done. Why not change Liu?
Just a thought.