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Review: ‘M. Butterfly’ Metamorphoses Again, as an Opera

Review: ‘M.  Butterfly’ Metamorphoses Again, as an Opera

SANTA FE, NM — “M. Butterfly” has been a Broadway hit, a watershed moment in Asian American representation, a film and recently a revised version of the original play.

Now, with the premiere Saturday here at the Santa Fe Opera of an adaptation by composer Huang Ruo, with a libretto by David Henry Hwang, the play’s author, the butterfly has returned to its operatic chrysalis.

It was inevitable, really. Hwang’s Tony Award-winning screenplay, from 1988, came to him when he saw that he could use the Orientalist stereotypes of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” as a mirror to explore how French diplomat Bernard Boursicot (renamed Rene Gallimard for two decades) the play) continued an affair with Chinese opera singer and spy Shi Pei Pu (renamed Song Liling), only to discover, in the middle of a sinister espionage case, that “she” had been a “he” all along.

Hwang’s blistering exposition of empire and race, gender and domination, can always be read as a reflection on Puccini and the biases it still perpetuates, as well as a gloss on the real story. Find the right composer who could blend the elements with meta-theatrical style while maintaining the elusive quality that so characterizes the play, and the opportunity was obvious.

Huang, a Chinese-born professor at the Mannes School of Music whose works often integrate Eastern and Western influences in a distinctive personal style, was almost certainly the best choice to be that composer.

But the opportunity is missed.

“M. Butterfly” had a lot of potential to fly on the Santa Fe. Delayed for two years by the pandemic, James Robinson’s production is simple but eloquent, and uses judicious projections, by Greg Emetaz, moving easily between the personal and the geopolitical, as Gallimard’s fate intertwines with the imperial pretensions of the French and the Americans in Vietnam, and Song’s shift with the Chinese Communist Party. Carolyn Kuan conducts with empathy, if not the rhythmic precision that the thundering score needs.

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The cast is also exemplary. Mark Stone provides a suitably worn, confused Gallimard, and he sings his thorny vocal lines with impressive form. The smaller parts are nicely delivered, especially Hongni Wu’s amused comrade Chin and Kevin Burdette’s bureaucratic ambassador to China.

Everyone has to bow down to Kangmin Justin Kim, whose drag performances as Kimchilia Bartoli must have helped him portray Song with the extraordinary conviction he shows here. More than believable to sing Cio-Cio-San’s “Un bel dì” and other soprano excerpts from Puccini, this astonishing countertenor’s alluring ring and the sensitivity as an actor he shows in playing with Gallimard’s delusions and exploring Song’s own sexuality announced an artist to follow careful with.

The problem with “M. Butterfly” is a deeper one, and it’s the same difficulty Hwang struggled with when he rewrote the script for its 2017 Broadway return: As times change, “M. Butterfly” can change with them and still be true to yourself?

That’s not to say that Hwang’s earlier themes are irrelevant now; far from. Violence against women of Asian descent remains egregiously persistent, and there is still considerable value in confronting the Butterfly stereotypes that perpetuate it, especially in an opera world that remains stubbornly—nay, offensively—reluctant to reckon with its many racisms, including in “Madama” Butterfly” and “Turandot.”

But the play itself helped reveal related entanglements of sexism, racism, and imperialism that have since become familiar, and history has struggled. For one thing, gender norms have changed dramatically enough that the old question of whether Gallimard knew Song was a man barely tingles at all. By now we should also know that Gallimard’s wishes are problematic; if we don’t, “M. Butterfly” still achieves its goal of showing us that we should. Regardless, it’s hard to engage much with the bumbling, displaced central character, and the opera hardly asks us to.

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So what’s left? “M. Butterfly,” the play, always had ambiguity and illusion at its core, and this operatic version tries to break down the binaries further, especially through Song’s character. liquid washers; power blurred when east meets west; the metaphor piles on the metaphor. Here there is a distance from the original material, and the opera takes on a kind of consciously analytical air.

It’s more a disquisition than a drama, and nowhere is that more evident than in a big third-act aria for Song, “Awoke as a Butterfly.” She sings it as the party tries to send her to France to spy on a lover she believes has long since forgotten her, and when the scene fades to black, you hope her motivations are finally becoming more than faintly clear. Is she just a party girl? Is she in love? What does she want from him?

“I pretend to know, pretend to know the truth,” she sings. “I know the truth, and therefore I pretend.”

Alas, no luck.

Huang Ruo’s music offers few such subtleties, but unlike in his previous opera for Santa Fe, “Dr. Sun Yat-sen,” it refuses to weave Chinese instruments into the orchestra. The intrigue here lies in how he handles the musical heritage from “Madama Butterfly,” and wisely he’s been careful with it.

There is no sense of pastiche, no recourse to parody; direct quotation is limited to the few moments when Song acts as Cio-Cio-San. When there are references, they are oblique or distorted, and they tend to follow Hwang’s story by inverting the original material, asking us who the butterfly in the story really is. There is a humming chorus, for example, or at least a humming chorus, but it is intended to evoke the memories of Gallimard, not the memories of his lover.

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But much of the score otherwise wears as the throbbing chords and throbbing cross-rhythms alternate and overlap with more static, suspended passages. If there is much tension, there is little variety, and this dry music rarely gives us insights that the words do not. It had to; for without them this butterfly is lost.

M. Butterfly

Through Aug. 24 at Santa Fe Opera, New Mexico; santafeopera.org.

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