MET Opera House building–Lincoln Center/Wednesday March 23rd, 2022.
Welcome back friends, and welcome this week, once again, to the wonderful world of opera!
And this week, welcome to one of the most beloved operas ever, from the entire repertoire, a truly lauded 20th century “verismo” (everyday topic) opera, from the iconic and immensely popular Italian composer, Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), based on the play “Madame Butterfly”, from highly acclaimed American playwright and producer, David Belasco (1853-1931). An artist, Belasco, with whom Puccini will also collaborate further, on a later opera, his 1910 “La Fanciulla del West”/ “The Girl from the Golden West”.
Wow! and yay! yay! yay!
For now, welcome to Puccini’s 1904 “Madama Butterfly”!
A composer, Puccini, particularly admired, during his time, and still today, for his choice often, of everyday/ mundane/”verismo” opera storylines (temporary marriage contracts for foreigners to geishas, which were unremarkable, in early 20th century Japan, in this instance), vs more “escapist” choices (such as mythology, or royal, or biblical intrigues).
Puccini was also equally, and particularly revered, for his soaring, emotionally lush, and expressive melodies, and in “Madama Butterfly”, Puccini was especially admired, for his subtle and incredible mix of Eastern and Western musical styles, (including of an excerpt of the iconic Star-Spangled Banner).
Wow! wow! wow!
And also, Puccini was highly praised as well, in “Madama Butterfly”, for his subtle, and yet relentless, use of a powerful harmonic device, called “ostinato” (obsessive repeating of a note or a rhythm), to add to the dramatic quality of the story, as for Puccini’s unusual use of a beautiful, sweeping, subtle “humming”, almost “hushed”, chorus.
Wow! and yay! yay! yay!
Finally, Puccini’s choice for “Madama Butterfly” of wonderful librettists Giuseppe Giacosa (1847-1906) and Luigi Illica (1857-1919), the former, being a gifted storyteller, while the latter, was a wonderful poet, with whom Puccini collaborated as well, a few years earlier, on two other iconic operas: 1896 “La Bohème” and 1900 “Tosca”, say much about Puccini’s incredible sensitivity, collaborative style, and unique, limitless talent.
Wow! wow! wow!
Considered a mature opera, Puccini’s music for “Madama Butterfly”, as for his two previous iconic works, always emerges from the words, indissolubly bound to their meaning, and the images they evoke, and is always refined and limpid.
A true joy for the audience.
Wow! wow! wow! and yay! yay! yay!
So, in a nutshell, what is three act “Madama Butterfly” opera plot, about?
“Madama Butterfly” takes place at the turn of the 20th century, in Nagasaki, Japan, during a time of expanding American presence, and is about a temporary marriage agreement, between an American sailor (Pinkerton), and a young geisha (Cio-Cio-San a.k.a. Madam Butterfly), which will ultimately lead to great tragedy, to her committing suicide, once she discovers that her temporary “husband”, who has quickly abandoned her, his geisha, has returned home, where he has remarried an American woman.
And thus, her temporary “husband’ will never be hers, despite having a child together, she never told him about, even though, once he is informed of this, he will eventually come back to Japan, to reclaim his son.
Let’s get into more details:
Specifically in Act I, we are quickly introduced to the American sailor, Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. He is looking to lease a house overlooking the Nagasaki harbor, subject to monthly renewal, which includes servants and a geisha “wife” called Cio-Cio-San a.k.a. (Madam) Butterfly, whom Pinkerton finds extremely attractive and pretty, and can’t wait to “marry”.
Pinkerton explains to the American Consul who has joined him for the ceremony, that he does not know if his feelings for “Butterfly” are simple lust, or true love, and tells him that he, (Pinkerton), will someday get married to an American wife, and for now, just wants to enjoy himself, and simply, fully enjoy this “agreement”.
Sharpless warns Pinkerton that “Butterfly” might view the “marriage” differently, but Pinkerton brushes off these concerns.
Young, white wedding clad, “Butterfly”, arrives then, and looks equally happy, and eager, to get “married” to Pinkerton. A “temporary” contract is signed between them, in front of the geisha’s family.
Cio-Cio-San, a.k.a. Butterfly (which Pinkerton could legally abandon without any consequences for himself, in that time), is a young naive, smitten, 15 year old, orphan, from a good, but recently impoverished family, and therefore, a recent geisha. Butterfly shows Pinkerton her few possessions, in front of a few family members, and tells him privately, that she has renounced (out of love and to honor him) her religion, to embrace Christianity.
Butterfly will soon discover, that she is disowned by her family, once they are informed of this, by an uncle, arriving late at the ceremony.
As the guests leave the wedding “ceremony”, Pinkerton and his “Butterfly”, who are both wildly bewitched by each other, are thrilled to finally be able to enjoy each other’s company, privately.
In Act II, three years have passed, and we learn that Lieutenant Pinkerton has sailed back to the U.S., (he has officially married there, an American woman, but we learn that a bit later); and before leaving, has promised Cio-Cio-San a. k.a. Butterfly, to return one day to Japan, sometime in the spring, as robins reappear.
While Cio-Cio-San a.k.a Butterfly, awaits three years for Pinkerton’s return, having had a son, from Pinkerton, in the meantime (which the Lieutenant is unaware of, and Cio-Cio-San a. k. a Butterfly having not written, to tell him the news), so, believe it or not, but, Cio-Cio-San a. k.a. Butterfly, as she awaits Pinkerton’s return, and still, only 18 years old by then, will get another “wedding proposal” from a Japanese prince, Prince Yamadori, which she refuses, still certain, is she, that Pinkerton will return to her.
Sharpless, the American Consul, arrives then at Butterfly’s home, with a letter from Pinkerton, which he attempts to read to her, and tells Butterfly, that she should consider Yamadori’s offer.
Yet, Butterfly, introduces then, her young son to Sharpless, and is overjoyed (Butterfly), that Pinkerton has given news to the American Consul (even if Sharpless can’t read her the entire letter, when he meets Butterfly and Pinkerton’s young son).
Sharpless promises Butterfly to tell Pinkerton of the child.
A cannon shot is heard in the Nagasaki harbor, and it is Pinkerton’s ship.
It is spring, filled with robins, and Butterfly joins her servant, Suzuki, to decorate the house with flowers.
By Act 3, dawn breaks, Butterfly has awaited all night, for Pinkerton, and tries to get some sleep.
Sharpless appears with Pinkerton, accompanied by his American wife, to his Nagasaki house.
Suzuki, once she realizes who this American woman is, agrees to break the news to Butterfly.
Pinkerton, overcome with guilt, flees the house.
Butterfly awakes, appears, and agrees to give up her son to Pinkerton, at the condition that Pinkerton recuperates their son, himself.
And after saying goodbye to her son, Butterfly kills herself with her father’s dagger (who died by taking also, his own life with it), as Pinkerton arrives.
What to say of the production and the singers?
This awesome Minghella production, initially from the 2006-2007 season, is still, and I have seen it many times, absolutely stunning, in its use of highly symbolic, exotic, colorful Japanese costumes, and Japanese Bunraku puppetry (to represent Butterfly’s son, and Butterfly herself, in a dream sequence), and abstract staging of landscapes, wedding ceremony (including beautiful tea ceremony), love and death scenes, and wonderful discreet, almost “ballet” moves, from highly trained puppeteers, as they animate the puppets, or actual dancers dressed as puppeteers, twirling away as well, beautifully.
Wow! wow! wow!
And the singers?
All were perfectly conducted, as was the orchestra, under the baton of highly vital, Alexander Soddy.
Wow! and yay!
Eleonora Burrato, the Italian soprano, as “Butterfly”, and whose voice is incredibly powerful, was particularly moving in Act 2 and 3, as the drama unfolds.
I was less convinced, by her depiction of a young 15 year old, head over heels in love, or by the sparks between her, and the terrific American tenor, Brian Jagde, as the immature and irresponsible Pinkerton, in Act 1, even if they sang beautifully together.
And I was also moved by American mezzo soprano, Elizabeth DeShong, as the warm and caring (servant) Suzuki, especially her duet with Butterfly, as they decorate the house while awaiting for Pinkerton, at the end of Act 2.
And my favorite aria, by far, is of course, the poetic love duet at the end of Act I, between Butterfly and Pinkerton, when everything is wonderful between them.
Enjoy this amazing and moving version, from a 1995 film by Frédéric Mitterand:
So incredibly romantic.
And of course, I also absolutely adore this other illustrious aria, from Act 2, about Butterfly, imagining Pinkerton returning to her, and here, sang a few years ago, by the wonderfully talented Angela Gheorghiu.
Such a dazzling melody as well.
So, to sum up my feelings about this breathtakingly beautiful “Madama Butterfly” opera by Puccini, admired last Wednesday, in great company: what a powerful depiction of a tragedy, linked to a lack of maturity from two lovebirds, confusing lust with love, and not understanding either, what a temporary “arrangement” is, and exploring as well, conflicting social obligations. And what gorgeous arias, wonderful poetic writing, and terrific choruses throughout.
And despite its sadness, always deeply moving, and spectacularly glorious.
Therefore, always a treat.
And wow! wow! wow!
Until next time friends!
Eternal butterflies 😊