When Stanton Welch adapted Puccini's opera to the ballet 16 years ago it was his first full length work. He is now head of the Houston Ballet, and meanwhile Butterfly has played around the globe and of course has stuck in the Australian Ballet's repertoire. The ballet is neoclassical, or more accurately neo-romantic: it uses the classical ballet forms and also visions and fantastic ethereal imagery, at times within worldly and concrete settings, something ballet in particular does so well, and really is its major strength as an art form, contributing to its appealing free and unique method of story-telling. It doesn't really make sense to compare ballet to opera, I think Madame Butterfly shows why this comparison is false as it is very different from the opera, but it does seem to gain something in being a ballet — it at least becomes more refined and concentrated and, for me, Mr Welch's lyrical flowing dances add a je ne sais quoi missing from the music, but moreover it opens up possibilities in the depths of the very difficult characters.
One could say that Madama Butterfly is a distilled and simplified presentation of the stereotypical opera plot. It is a romance told very straight with spurning, madness leading to the female lead's suicide with good songs and a bit of exoticism, but it lacks the twists in the plot which Mozart's operas have (at least Donna Elvira tries to chase down Don Giovanni) to deepen the characters' relationships. This leaves all the characterization to the music and I don't think Puccini's is up to it. Cio-Cio-San is too pathetic and doormat-ish and it's hard to feel into her character when the music doesn't sink deeply enough into the listener to help them understand her or link her into the greater universe. Perhaps that is unfair to the music since the libretto and story itself doesn't give much to go on to divine her motivations, but Puccini did choose the story. Pinkerton too isn't exactly 4-dimensional. He is a cad with neither redeeming qualities, magnetism nor charm. Having said that, the opera can be enjoyable at some level if, as in this case, the music is well played and sung, making the more dragging parts of Act II bearable, though this enjoyment was marred by a certain noisy leading tenor.