By David Dixon
Garnett Bruce — director of the famed Opera de Montreal — returns to Downtown San Diego later this month to present Giacomo Puccini’s Italian opera, “Madama Butterfly.”
This will be the fourth time Bruce has staged the tragic story for the San Diego Opera and its fans.
Set in Nagasaki, Japan, in the early 20th century, a geisha, Cio-Cio-San (Latonia Moore) falls for an American Naval officer, B.F. Pinkerton (Teodor Ilincai).
Though the couple weds, the union is bittersweet, because while Cio-Cio-San believes she has found true love, Pinkerton does not take their arranged overseas vows seriously.
Bruce said he has read the original short story, “Madame Butterfly,” and seen the David Belasco play, “Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan.” Both the tale and the drama enhanced his appreciation of Puccini’s music and the libretto written by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.
“Belasco’s script is not a kind portrayal of either Asians or Americans,” he said. “Puccini softened these characters and believed in them with the help of glorious music.”
The singer who gets to perform some of Puccini’s most unforgettable melodies is J’nai Bridges, who plays Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San’s maid. Suzuki does what she can to remain loyal as her employer goes through challenging times.
The mezzo-soprano said she doesn’t wish her portrayal of Suzuki to be viewed as merely that of a “simple domestic.”
“It’s really easy to play this [role] just like a servant who follows instructions,” she said. “I think she’s deeper than just a woman who runs errands.”
In the upcoming production at the San Diego Civic Theatre, the bond between Cio-Cio-San and Suzuki will be an important part of the narrative.
“I feel like they are sisters in a way,” Bridges said. “Suzuki cares a lot about Cio-Cio-San and does not want her to get hurt.”
An aspect of Puccini’s music that continues to fascinate Bruce is the composer’s meticulous artistry.
“Puccini is very structured,” he said. “He knows how to hold the attention of an audience and how to take them on an unforgettable journey.”
Bridges acknowledges the beauty of Puccini’s compositions.
“His music feeds the soul,” she said. “Puccini’s music is really relatable and accessible to people’s emotions.”
Even though the interpretation is going to be traditional, Bruce said in-house technology will keep each scene visually fresh.
“We’re trying to enhance people’s mood and experience through lighting,” Bruce said. “We have strong reactions to different uses of color.”
While Moore has played Cio-Cio-San for both Germany’s Hamburg State Opera (Hamburgische Staatsoper) and New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Bruce hopes that San Diego theatergoers do not compare her upcoming performance to her previous portrayals of the central character.
“Everybody who comes needs to have an open mind,” he said. “They need to be ready to hear and see a new side of a familiar role.”
According to Bruce, one of the biggest reasons the intense plot continues to make an impact with audiences is the depth of the Cio-Cio-San character.
“She is very naïve, pragmatic, and trusting,” he said. “We all want to be as good as she is throughout the opera. We want to believe the way she believes and if we can, we’re open to joy.”
Similarly to Bruce, Bridges said she feels that the plot has a heart-rending quality.
“It is a very humanistic story,” she said. “There are real human emotions from everyone.”
With Bruce at the helm, it seems like audiences are in for a grand and passionate rendition of the monumental tale. His version appears to contain all the necessary ingredients to comprise a stirring evening.
“Madama Butterfly” will be performed Apr. 16 – 24, at the San Diego Civic Theatre, located at 1100 Third Ave., Downtown. For tickets or more information, visit sdopera.org or call 619-232-7636.
—David Dixon has been a fan of film and theater from a very young age, and has written reviews and features for various print and online publications. Reach him at email@example.com.