This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
Puccini's “Madame Butterfly” is one of the cruelest stories ever told. In 19th century Japan, an American Navy officer named Pinkerton marries a 15-year-old girl named Cio-Cio-San, never intending to take his vows seriously. He leaves this Butterfly behind, promising to return. When he does finally return, it is to discover his bride has borne him a child. The officer has in the meantime married “a real American bride,” and visits Butterfly *with his new wife* so that they can take her child from her and raise him as an American. *And* Pinkerton gets to sing a sad song at the end.
This is such heartlessness that my eyes are more likely to well up with anger than with the sorrow, which is the approved emotion while attending “Madame Butterfly.” I would like, just once, to hear Pinkerton's toadying friend clear his throat and ask, “Ah, excuse me, old man, but wouldn't it be rather easier on Butterfly if you left your new wife behind on the ship?” The moral imbalance in the opera is so extreme that it provides a way to measure racial attitudes, for there was once a time when some audiences felt sorry for Butterfly, yes, but felt that Pinkerton was, after all, really only doing the right thing.
This beautiful new film version of “Madame Butterfly” is not a revisionist approach; it films Puccini's opera more or less as it was intended to be seen, and of course that is what we want (I am not looking forward to the Baz Luhrmann version, with Pinkerton as the leader of a motorcycle gang, and Butterfly as the daughter of a Korean grocer in the Bronx). The approach is traditional, the pace is attentive, and yet the emotion is still all there, and when Pinkerton's carriage comes rolling up with his new family inside, my blood boils.
The key casting decision is Butterfly, and the filmmakers have discovered a new face for Cio-Cio-San, a 27-year-old Chinese singer named Ying Huang. She has said in interviews that she will never sing the role on the stage, because her voice is not big enough, but in the intimate spaces of this film, it fills all the corners. She may not look 15, but she does look young and defenseless, and as the depth of Pinkerton's betrayal sinks in, she exhibits true pathos.