For the first time in 25 years, Giacomo Puccini’s grand opera “Madama Butterfly” will be staged in Baton Rouge.
Opéra Louisiane will stage the performance Sunday, March 8, in the Baton Rouge River Center Theatre for the Performing Arts. The production, performed in Italian with English subtitles, will be the company’s first grand opera since its 2013 performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s “Elixir of Love.”
“It was performed by the Baton Rouge Opera,” says Leanne Clement, Opéra Louisiane’s general director. “It’s also our first time to perform ‘Butterfly.’”
The company will stage a cast of 12 and a 30-member chorus to tell the story of a Japanese teen’s arranged marriage to young American naval officer, B.F. Pinkerton, serving on the USS Abraham Lincoln.
Pinkerton buys a house overlooking Nagasaki’s harbor, where he and Cio-Cio San, nicknamed Butterfly, are wed. Butterfly takes her vows seriously. Pinkerton is simply marrying in the Japanese tradition: 999 years, but with the right to cancel the marriage each month.
“Sharpless tells him that Butterfly is a teenager, and this arrangement is going to come to no good,” says Dennis Jesse, the baritone who plays the Sharpless, the American consul at Nagasaki. “He’s a politician, and his name purposely reflects that.”
Jesse is an Opéra Louisiane veteran as both performer and director, and has played Sharpless in other productions.
New to the opera is Hope Briggs as Butterfly. The soprano traveled here from her home in San Francisco for rehearsals.
“I worked with Maestro Borowitz in the past, and he called me about this production,” Briggs says. “I’ve always loved ‘Butterfly,’ but I never thought I would have a chance to play the role. And now, here I am.”
Borowitz is Opéra Louisiane’s music director and will be directing the show’s 33-piece orchestra. The show is directed by Dugg McDonough, who also is director of LSU Opera.
“This is a busy time for both Dugg and Michael,” Clement says. “They’ll have to turn around and stage LSU’s opera ‘Beatrice et Benedict’ after this.”
Puccini based his three-act opera on John Luther Long’s 1898 short story, “Madame Butterfly.” David Belasco adapted the story into the one-act drama, “Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan,” in 1900. Puccini saw it in London later that year.
Puccini’s opera premiered on May 28, 1904, in Brescia, Italy, exploring this young woman’s undying faith in her husband, even when he leaves shortly after their wedding. But Butterfly’s maid, Suzuki, knows Pinkerton isn’t coming back.
“Suzuki tries to make a good impression on everyone at the beginning, and tries to stay out of the way,” says Gwendolyn Jones, who plays the maid. “But after Pinkerton leaves, Suzuki knows he isn’t going to return. Then Butterfly discovers that she’s going to have his baby, so Suzuki takes care of her.”
This is Jones’ third time performing in “Madama Butterfly,” an opera she first attended while in grammar school.
“I was one of those children who was bused in to see ‘Madame Butterfly,’” she says. “It was performed by the Tulsa Opera, and it was the first live opera I’d ever seen.”
Playing the lead was legendary Italian soprano Renata Scotto.
“Her impassioned, fragile performance of Butterfly made a deep impression on me,” Jones says. “And later, I played Pinkerton’s American wife, Kate Pinkerton, in a production of ‘Madame Butterfly’ in San Francisco. And Madame Scotto was in the lead, and I remember seeing many of the same things I saw in that first production, the way she moved and related to the character. It was so beautiful.”
Suzuki stands by Butterfly’s side when three years later Pinkerton returns to Japan with his American wife and learns he and Butterfly have a son.
“He’s returning to take the child so he and his wife can give him a proper upbringing,” Jesse says, making air quotes around “proper.” “But he’s not brave enough to break the news to Butterfly, so he sends Sharpless.”
Butterfly, unaware of his plans, is ecstatic at her husband’s return.
“I wasn’t empathetic with Madame Butterfly before playing her,” Briggs says. “Then, when I studied the role, I realized how strong she is. She puts her faith and trust in someone who is not worthy, but her faith is so strong.”
After “Butterfly,” Briggs returns to San Francisco to perform in “Knoxville Summer of 1919.” For now, she’s making the most of being Madame Butterfly.
“I love playing her because she’s optimistic and has hope, and that’s my name,” Briggs says. “Hope.”