Part of the reason Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is the most frequently performed opera in North America is because it includes a supposedly superbad bad guy character: Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton.
He’s the young American naval officer who famously abandons his pregnant wife in feudal Japan. But Toronto tenor David Pomeroy, who will be singing the role of Pinkerton in the Canadian Opera Company’s season starter this Saturday, says this character is more complex than that.
“Pinkerton can be played as an arrogant sexual rogue, or as a carefree and elegant officer,” says Pomeroy, who is a veteran of this role. “It depends on the director.”
For people who don’t know the plot of Butterfly, Pinkerton’s ship is stationed off the coast of Nagasaki in the 1890s. He marries Cio-Cio San (Butterfly) before he returns to duty at sea. He’s gone for three years.
Butterfly alienates herself from her family, becomes more and more unstable and commits suicide.
Cultural misunderstandings kill her.
“Christianity is the wedge,” explains Pomeroy, “Butterfly rejects traditional Buddhism for Christianity to demonstrate her love for Pinkerton, and to honour American culture. This is totally unnecessary, but she loses her grip on reality.
“He’s unaware of how this decision will affect her.”
As Butterfly suffers the life of a social outcast, Pinkerton gets married again, this time taking an American wife. Butterfly insists Pinkerton will return; Puccini’s tender and erotic love songs portray a spell that binds her naïve young heart to the dashing lieutenant, whose romantic ardor is only temporary, just lust.
“This was not an unusual arrangement,” says Pomeroy, “it was customary for naval officers to get married in Japan. The local families encouraged it. It brought in (dowry) money.”
So is Pinkerton evil or is Butterfly crazy? Maybe both, or neither. It partly depends on which version of the opera you’re watching. The original two-act version from 1904 was a disaster. “It’s easy to blame Pinkerton in the first version,” says Pomeroy. “He uses racist language and is more of a spoilt brat. That original is still performed occasionally, and audiences boo him.”
Puccini reworked Madama Butterfly until he arrived at the standard version in 1907, which the COC will perform this weekend. In it, Pomeroy’s Pinkerton may be performed as a sinister sailor, or as a clueless free spirit. To find out how director Brian Macdonald casts Pinkerton’s temperament, Saturday’s curtain goes up 7:30 p.m.
If you go
Madama Butterfly opens Saturday at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Tickets $31-$321. Performances on Sept. 26, 29, 30 Oct. 8, 10, 14, 16 21, 23, 27, 29, Nov. 3, 5 @ 7:30 p.m., Oct. 18 & 25 @ 2p.m., and Oct. 31 @ 4:30 p.m.