STAVROS NIARCHOS FOUNDATION
364 Syggrou Avenue, Kallithea
+30 213 0885700
Box Office email:
B. F. Pinkerton
Prince Yamadori / Imperial commissioner
With the Orchestra and Chorus of the Greek National Opera
Ticket prices: €25, €45, €55, €60, €85, €100
Disabled seats: €15
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center
Tel. +30 2130885700
Syntagma Square (City of Athens info point)
Monday-Friday 9.00-20.00 & Saturday 10.00-18.00
Tel. +30 2118008181, +30 2103225109
Opera • New production
Starts at: 21.00 |
Lead Donor of the GNO & Production donor
The Greek National Opera is opening the Athens Epidaurus Festival with a new production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, presented for four performances at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus on 1, 4, 7 and 10 June 2023. Directing is the eminent French opera and theatre director Olivier Py, here tackling Puccini’s masterpiece for the first time. Conducting is Vassilis Christopoulos. This production is made possible by a grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) to enhance the GNO’s artistic outreach.
Madama Butterfly is one of the most popular operas in the repertoire. Giacomo Puccini’s “Japanese tragedy” is famous for its wonderful arias, strikingly melodic music, and dramatic theatricality.
The opera tells the story of the star-crossed love harboured by the fifteen-year-old geisha Cio-Cio-San for Pinkerton, a lieutenant in the United States Navy. Following a three-year absence, the officer returns to Japan with his American wife and learns that Butterfly has given birth to his son. Cio-Cio-San agrees to give the child up but only if Pinkerton comes to see her himself – she commits suicide shortly afterwards.
For this new production of Madama Butterfly, the Greek National Opera commissioned the leading French director Olivier Py to stage the work following his enormously successful Wozzek presented inside the Stavros Niarchos Hall in 2020, and he is now returning to Greece to stage Puccini’s masterpiece, this time at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. Py –who was recently appointed Artistic Director of Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris following his much-admired nine-year stint as director of the Festival d’Avignon– has put on more than forty works of opera around the world. Now, tackling Madama Butterfly –indeed, any work of Puccini– for the first time, he is bringing the orchestra up onto the Odeon of Herodes Atticus stage and the political dimensions of Puccini’s work right to the fore, in his signature directorial style. “We hope that the power of Puccini’s political message shall be apparent in our staging, and that this incongruous work shall no longer be considered some sad and sentimental story in a saccharine setting, but rather a powerful piece of political discourse that portends the death of a world,” notes the director. The production’s impressive sets and costumes are designed by Py’s longstanding associate, Pierre-André Weitz.
Madama Butterfly never strays from the principles of verismo, with its intense clashes and love of theatrical flourishes. In this vein, the score carefully selects how best to embellish each and every moment. Orchestral influences drawn from the musical universes of Debussy and Ravel, singular elements taken from the Japanese musical tradition, striking escalations, chamber music aspects, and eruptions featuring the entire orchestra charge the opera with its particular pulsating exuberance, its unique vivacity.
An American officer acquired the services of the young geisha Miss Butterfly at an expense of 39 dollars per month. Four dollars of this bought the license that entitled her to be his mistress, and to a daily bath in the public bathhouse. He paid her 25 dollars a month and hired a room and a servant for her, which cost another ten dollars. For this sum, he enjoyed all the comforts of a married man for a set time, and she had a roof over her head and a servant at her command. On leaving for America, he promised he would return to her when the robins nest again but in fact deserted her, leaving her desperately poor, with babe in arms. The author John Luther Long was inspired by this account of a real-life young geisha called Cio-Cio-San –recounted to him by his sister, who had lived in Nagasaki– to start writing his own short story of the tale, which formed the basis for a theatre play and, subsequently, Puccini’s opera.
The production is conducted by the acclaimed Greek maestro Vassilis Christopoulos, who was recently appointed Chief Conductor at Oper Gratz in Austria.
The title role is to be performed by the up-and-coming Korean soprano Anna Sohn. Sohn completed her studies in Milan and went on to train with Mirella Freni, Renata Scotto, and Olaf Bär. Having worked closely with the Korea National Opera in Seoul, she has appeared at Italian opera houses, and has performed at venues in Rome, Paris, Avignon, Luxembourg, Zurich, and elsewhere. In recent years she has also been a member of the Theater Dortmund Oper Ensemble, where she has performed –among others– the roles of Madama Butterfly, and Liù from Turandot.
Starring as Pinkerton is the acclaimed Italian tenor Andrea Carè, who has triumphed in the role at the Metropolitan Opera, as well as in Vienna, Madrid, Toronto, Torino, and elsewhere. In the role of Suzuki is the eminent mezzo-soprano Alisa Kolosova, while performing Sharpless is the exceptional GNO baritone Dionysios Sourbis. Performing with them on stage are the GNO soloists Diamanti Kritsotaki, Yannis Kalyvas, Haris Andrianos, Petros Magoulas, Petros Salatas, Christos Lazos, Vassiliki Petroyanni, Vaia Kofou, and Vicky Athanassiou.
With the Orchestra and Chorus of the Greek National Opera.
Director’s note by Olivier Py
Madama Butterfly is generally considered a melodrama lacking in political depth, set in a fantastical Japan. Since the 19th century, librettists and composers have tended to shift contemporary societal problems to other, faraway places. Bizet’s Carmen speaks not of Spain but rather of post-Revolutionary France, just as Verdi’s Aida speaks not of ancient Egypt but of Italy during the course of its unification – the Risorgimento. Such shifts are a way of circumventing censorship on such deviatory issues as prostitution, state-sanctioned violence, or the power inherent in money. In one sense, Butterfly is no exception. Once stripped of its “local colour”, we are left with the story of an American utterly lacking in morals who buys himself –and destroys– a child of fifteen. Set under the flowering cherry trees, the true driving forces of this work are baseness, violence, a negation of Japanese culture, lust, and alcoholism.
What we are dealing with here, then, is not melodrama but rather a descent into hell – that is, with something less sentimental than it might first seem. Perhaps our own time will prove more sensitive to the unbridled sexist violence espoused by the Yankee Pinkerton, for whom whiskey and the dollar bill are the only true gods. This is what, on a psychological level, renders the work much deeper than one might comprehend on first exposure to it. In this instance, the politics of human relationships governed by money takes on the role played by destiny in tragedy – a heedless god in a world devoid of free will. This fateful god of money is a true god through and through, not just some myth.
If, as noted above, the cultural appropriation of all these exoticisms was used as a mask of sorts in the operas of that time, here we find ourselves facing a special case. Puccini did not know Japan well (indeed, no Westerner knew Japan well) but he did know America well – that America of the revolver found in his La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the West), a place that so charmed and terrified the composer. For him, it is a world in which humaneness and moral values are in decline.
Cio-Cio-San is undoubtedly more like a naïve young sex worker living in a major Western city than a true Geiko, but her predator is downright real, incarnated here in all his poisonous power.
By the 1920s, Japan was already facing a wave of violent Westernisation. In the space of just half a century, the country went from being a medieval society to an industrial one. And at this time, there already lurked the danger of Japanese culture tipping into a kind of folkloric kitschness. In Praise of Shadows –that excellent book by Tanizaki– speaks of this vanishing. The emergence of electricity will lead to the disappearance of traditional Japan, of which nothing shall remain bar the memory of its traditional forms. Something of the Japanese spirit is debased on the road to progress imposed by the West as an absolute virtue.
But how can one not marvel at the unbelievable prescience of Puccini, who could never have imagined the atomic bomb and the destruction of an entire city by American forces (without this ever having been –let us remember– a strategic necessity). How can one not feel a frisson at the thought that he sets his action in Nagasaki, a city that witnessed nuclear annihilation. That –without the benefit of foresight– he makes his Butterfly the very embodiment of a Japan that has no chance of survival.
But the destruction of Japan in terms of its cultural identity, its transformation into an American colony, is not a development limited to the Japanese Archipelago. On the contrary, it is something of concern to the entire world at a moment when globalisation is effacing local cultures and encasing all populations within capitalist and consumerist structures manifested in the American mode. Everything can be bought, and everything is destroyed in the process – this is what Puccini understood about American expansionism, without sensing the broader repercussions of this catastrophe. Today, it is not just Cio-Cio-San that has been sold out and humiliated, demeaned and annihilated – it is the world entire too. As such, the work takes on a universal dimension without ever losing its significance regarding the specific fate of Japan.
Some are shocked by the awful complicity shown by the heroine, who yields to her misery. But in the final scene, she is to find that which Jankélévitch calls the “only freedom” – the freedom of suicide. The seppuku committed by Mishima was no different: it signified a denial of the American way of life and a reappropriation of Japanese culture as a kind of inalienable freedom.
All that remains is to hope that the power of Puccini’s political message shall be apparent in our staging, and that this incongruous work shall no longer be considered some sad and sentimental story in a saccharine setting, but rather a powerful piece of political discourse that portends the death of a world.
Madama Butterfly at a glance
The composer / Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca, Tuscany, on 22 December 1858. Not only was he the fifth of seven children, he was also a fifth-generation musician to spring from a dynasty of local cathedral organists, conductors, and composers (in the main of church music). Puccini remains, to this day, one of the most successful Italian opera composers, since the majority of his works are still performed in repertory at opera houses across the world. His signature sound had been recognisably forged by just his third opera, Manon Lescaut (1893), while his next three works –La bohème (1896), Tosca (1900), and Madama Butterfly (1904)– saw him celebrated as the most important successor to Giuseppe Verdi. Puccini died in 1924, leaving his final opera –Turandot (1926)– unfinished.
The work / Madama Butterfly is a tragedia giapponese (“Japanese tragedy”) with a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa inspired by the American play of the same title written in 1900 by David Belasco, itself based on an 1898 short story by John Luther Long. A number of plot details are drawn from the 1887 novel Madame Chrysanthème by Pierre Loti.
Premieres / Madama Butterfly was first presented as a two-act opera at La Scala in Milan on 17 February 1904. A revised version, now in three acts, was presented at the Teatro Grande in Brescia on 28 May 1904. The form of the work presented today is based on the version Puccini prepared for the Opéra Comique in Paris, where it was staged on 28 December 1906.
Act I / Nagasaki at the turn of the 20th century. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, a lieutenant in the United States Navy, is with Goro, a Japanese marriage broker, arranging the final details of his upcoming marriage to the fifteen-year-old geisha Cio-Cio-San, also known as Butterfly. Pinkerton informs Sharpless, the United States consul, that –as per Japanese law– this union is not binding and can be broken off easily at any time. Sharpless tries, in vain, to warn the lieutenant that the teenage Cio-Cio-San is bound to take their marriage most seriously.
The bride arrives with her friends and relatives. She shows Pinkerton her scant belongings, including the dagger with which her father killed himself. After the wedding ceremony, the Bonze –Butterfly’s uncle– arrives to denounce her for having forsworn her faith, and urges the rest of her relatives to do the same. Cio-Cio-San is left alone with Pinkerton, who tries to comfort her. Suzuki, her maid, helps the young Geisha dress for her wedding night. Butterfly then goes to join Pinkerton in the garden.
Act II / Three years later, at the same residence, Cio-Cio-San is talking alone with Suzuki. Even though Pinkerton left for his home country shortly after the wedding and never returned, Cio-Cio-San remains faithful to him and dreams of the day she will see him again. Sharpless arrives: he wants to prepare Cio-Cio-San for Pinkerton’s return accompanied by his American wife, but she refuses to listen and presents Sharpless with her son by Pinkerton. She decorates the house for his arrival and settles down with Suzuki and the child to wait for him, sleepless, all night. As morning breaks, Cio-Cio-San takes her son to another room and sings him to sleep. Pinkerton and Sharpless enter and ask Suzuki to go speak with the American wife of the former, who is waiting outside the house. Pinkerton reminisces about the past. Overcome with remorse, he decides not to face Cio-Cio-San, and leaves. Butterfly appears, in search of her husband. Much to her dismay, she sees the strange woman in the garden and is informed by Sharpless and Suzuki that Pinkerton will never return to her. She seems to accept this development and even agrees to hand Pinkerton their son, but only if he comes to take the boy himself. Cio-Cio-San then asks to be left alone and decides to put an end to her life. In an effort to stop this, Suzuki sends in her son. Butterfly bids him farewell and blindfolds the boy before committing suicide, moments before Pinkerton arrives.
STAVROS NIARCHOS FOUNDATION
364 Syggrou Avenue, Kallithea
+30 213 0885700
Box Office email: