Month: November 2015
‘Madama Butterfly’ — North Carolina Opera Triumphs with Puccini’s Japanese Tragedy (Part Three): Cio-Cio-San’s Clipped Wings
And Now, For Your Listening Pleasure…
Interestingly, North Carolina Opera’s November 1st presentation of Madama Butterfly was given in two acts, with the second act divided into two parts bridged by Cio-Cio-San’s night vigil, which includes the exquisite “Humming Chorus” and the orchestral Intermezzo. For all intents and purposes, this should be the preferred method of presenting the work, which as we know was the way Puccini originally envisioned his favorite opera to be performed.
That said, most opera company’s continue to stage the work with two intermissions, separating the piece into three distinct acts, but at the same time trying to respect the composer’s wishes by reminding spectators that Act II is really in two parts. Either way will work, the point being that audiences will flock to the opera no matter how it’s partitioned, as long as the lead roles are performed to the best of the artists’ abilities.
On that account, audiences in Raleigh had nothing to fear. NCO’s Artistic and Music Director, Timothy Myers, led a most revelatory reading of Puccini’s score, surely one of the composer’s most elaborately conceived creations in terms of exoticism, local ambiance and, despite the Japanese setting, quintessentially Italianate passion.
From the opening fugato to the final crashing chords, Myers was in firm command of his forces, displaying commitment and drive in conveying the primary colors of this gorgeous piece. His leadership kept the sometimes stagnant stage pictures from straying off into dull routine.
I cannot praise his efforts enough, which I first spotted with his excellent stewardship of NCO’s Don Giovanni in April. His best moments came during the dream-like night vigil and especially the affecting Intermezzo, one of Puccini’s most descriptive symphonic tone poems. The Intermezzo foreshadows Pinkerton’s return, a projection of Cio-Cio-San’s anticipation of her husband’s homecoming.
Tempos throughout were generally on the brisk side, but not so fast as to be rushed. For the depiction of dawn over Nagasaki Bay, Myers coaxed some lovely sounds from the string and woodwind sections, which made equally telling points during the marriage broker Goro’s introduction of the three servants at the start of Act I.
While the Intermezzo played in the pit, my mind wandered to inevitable comparisons with Claude Debussy’s La Mer, which Puccini must have known and surely been influenced by. This piece’s sweeping impressionistic harmonies contrasted vividly with the Tuscan composer’s more melancholy strains, which Myers dotingly brought out for our enjoyment. Overall, there wasn’t a moment of slackness anywhere in his leadership, a major accomplishment for a regional opera orchestra.
Maestro Myers is to be commended for a performance worthy of some illustrious predecessors, among them Arturo Toscanini, Oliviero de Fabritiis (who presided over the classic rendition of the opera with Dal Monte and Gigli), Tullio Serafin, Sir John Barbirolli, and the late Lorin Maazel. Myers’ guidance could also be felt in the singing, which was uniformly excellent in just about every role.
About the only things I missed were the backstage anchor noises (called for in the libretto) to supplement the sailor’s calls as Pinkerton’s ship, the Abraham Lincoln, pulls into port. In spite of that minor lapse, Myers steered the proceedings in exactly the right direction: all eyes were fixed on the stage where they belonged, while our ears made note of the superb musical accompaniment provided by the versatile NCO Orchestra. Under Myers, the music ebbed and flowed as few verismo scores of the period did.
The staging of the night vigil was preceded by the Flower Duet (so reminiscent of Delibes’ similar pairing in Lakmé, as previously noted), which featured a shower of flower petals tossed onto the stage from the overhead catwalk. I would have welcomed a more restrained hand in tossing out the petals. However, it did conjure up visions of La Bohème when, in Act III, snowflakes appear to fall on Rodolfo and Mimì as the couple agrees to part in the spring.
Since Butterfly was the natural offshoot of La Bohème, this bit of scene painting was most apropos. While it’s been said that La Fanciulla del West is basically a Tosca retread, both Butterfly and Fanciulla have profited from the melodic advances of the pentatonic and whole-tone scales that Puccini borrowed from oriental influences and from Debussy.
Butterfly Emerges from Her Chrysalis
In the title role, soprano Talise Trevigne had the toughest assignment and the biggest shoes to fill. Cio-Cio-San (or Butterfly, as she is called) has been performed by a wide variety of vocal categories: from light coloratura (Toti dal Monte) and heavier lyric (Anna Moffo, Renata Scotto and Mirella Freni), to full-blown dramatic (Maria Callas) and lirico spinto (Renata Tebaldi, Antonietta Stella, Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo and Leona Mitchell).
The projection of a smaller voice into a large auditorium, and over a full orchestra, are the main obstacles to overcome. This is what prevented Brazilian light soprano Bidu Sayão from undertaking this strenuous part, one she had long wanted to sing on the stage. For the artist who possesses a more potent instrument, the issue involves scaling the voice down so as not to overpower the other artists. We are, after all, talking about a fifteen-year-old girl. And in order to make her sound credible and lend believability to her character, a bit of vocal sleight-of-hand is called for.
Physical appearance counts for much, although Cio-Cio-San’s Japanese ancestry can be hinted at through makeup, carriage, bearing, hairstyle and gestures — in short, all significant aspects of, and tailored specifically to, her samurai lineage.
Ms. Trevigne, while sounding subdued and soft-grained at the outset, slowly but confidently eased into the part as Butterfly’s dilemma began to unfold in subsequent scenes — so much so that by the middle of Act II, I was won over by the singer’s straightforward manner. Talise gave the impression of childlike innocence, tempered with a growing maturity brought on by the troublesome aspect of her position as the abandoned wife of an American naval officer.
Her fending off of the annoying Prince Yamadori, for example, was humorously handled and elicited chuckles from the audience for her cheek in confronting the haughty aristocrat. Vocally, Trevigne opened up marvelously in the central portions of Act II, which, in the words of the late tenor Richard Tucker, is the true test of a Butterfly. Earlier, her probing account of the searing solo “Un bel di,” despite excellent delivery, felt tentative, a sensation I had picked up from the first act, where Talise employed a “little girl” demeanor. I feared for her vocal security at this juncture, thinking of the rigors to come and the dramatic demands this role places on the performer.
On that score, my fears were unfounded. Talise traversed every hurdle called for in the score. For a coloratura, she displayed ample power when called for, i.e., in particular her dismissal of the American Consul Sharpless after he urges her to accept Yamadori’s proposal of marriage. Greatly offended, Cio-Cio-San shows him the door in a scene of intense anguish. Both Trevigne and Michael Sumuel as Sharpless stayed “in character” and timed each other’s reactions to the needs of the moment. Along with the entirety of Act II, their exchanges during the letter reading episode were the highlights of the show.
At the end, Ms. Trevigne was the only singer to have received a standing ovation from the crowd. When maestro Myers came out for his bow, the soprano greeted him with a generous hug. This told me all I needed to know about who was responsible for the preparation and coaching of this grueling assignment.
Another example of her mastery of the role came with Cio-Cio-San’s farewell and suicide. In the poignant “Piccolo Iddio,” Trevigne expressed an abundance of pathos, but dialed down the mawkish elements in order to make the final scene that much more gripping. Her voice poured forth torrents of sound, all of them specifically tailored to the drama — again, surprising for a coloratura whose previous assignments included Ophélie in Thomas’ Hamlet, Mimì in La Bohème, and encounters with Mozart’s Susanna from The Marriage of Figaro and Pamina in The Mozart Flute.
The Rest is Pure Gold
But for some issues early in Act I, due mostly to faulty intonation, Michael Brandenburg’s Pinkerton was exceptionally well sung. He coped valiantly with the high tessitura, hitting and sustaining all those A’s and B’s in his melodious exchanges with Sharpless, as well as those bountiful B flats in “Amore o grillo” and a ringing, full-voiced high C at the climax of the love duet.
On the whole, Brandenburg proved his mettle as an actor. His genuine Yankee swagger at “Dovunque al mondo,” was palpable, as was his diffidence in waiving away Sharpless’ concerns about his impending marriage to Cio-Cio-San. This Pinkerton was ready for action from the get go. Brandenburg’s lyric voice blended seamlessly with those of the other singers, including a more than satisfying Goro and a remarkably personable Sharpless — more about their individual contributions in a moment.
Continuing, the Indiana-born tenor’s handling of Pinkerton’s swelling vocal lines lent plausibility to his bride’s belief that here stood the man of her dreams. He was gentleness personified at the phrase, “Bimba, bimba non piangere,” imploring his young bride not to weep after being cursed by her uncle, the Bonze, and her disapproving relatives. And he melted all hearts with his bold entreaties of “Vieni, vieni,” later in their duet. Indeed, one could almost believe that Pinkerton really was in love with Butterfly (at least, until his tour of duty was over).
During the wedding scene, although he made light of Butterfly’s relatives, Brandenburg’s Pinkerton never overstepped the boundaries of decency. Tossing one of her puppet ancestors into the air, he sensed his bride’s discomfort at this apparent act of disrespect, which he quickly recovered from. This was done in the most natural manner, a refreshing departure from past portrayals of the American naval officer as an out-and-out S.O.B.
To be honest, I was more troubled by the boos that Brandenburg received at his curtain call, which (I am told) had mostly to do with the caddish nature of his character than with his fine singing throughout. In that regard, this is a young man on the rise who bears close watching.
Tenor Ian McEuen was an outstanding Goro. He really sang the role, which was another unexpected surprise. In most productions, Goro normally comes across as a busybody, the verismo incarnation of Wagner’s Mime from Siegfried: a whining, scheming, sniveling gnome-like creature of little to no scruples. But in McEuen’s expert hands, a satisfying portrait of the manipulative marriage broker emerged. The tenor’s warm voice wrapped itself around his character’s music like a velvet glove, a most welcome departure from the norm.
Uncharacteristically, Puccini gave this “minor” player some of his most delectable tunes, something he would only deign to accomplish some twenty years later for the Trio of the Masks in his brilliant scoring of the incomplete Turandot.
I have only one objection, and that is with Goro’s reappearance towards the end of the opera, where he listened in on the maid Suzuki and Kate Pinkerton’s conversation. This was uncalled for and not at all required of the plot. When Cio-Cio-San dismisses him in Act II for his meddling and spreading of rumors about Pinkerton’s desertion (“Va via!”), it is assumed he is no longer welcome in her household. For Goro to lose face by sneaking back in and risk being seen by others goes against the very grain of Japanese custom. If I were the director, I would seriously reconsider this aspect of the production.
Michael Sumuel’s beautifully modulated and excellently articulated Sharpless was a delight throughout. His was the most consistently sympathetic portrayal of all, with marvelously shaped phrasing and deftly placed delivery, a superbly realized assumption by this amazingly pliable but no less talented bass-baritone. His American Consul was deeply felt and completely in tune with the character’s struggles to convince Butterfly of the seriousness of her situation.
Not only did Sumuel contribute to the dramatic arc of Act II, he sparked real interest in the ensuing dialogue between Sharpless and Pinkerton. Like Goro above, their scenes are usually treated in matter-of-fact fashion, with most conductors neglecting to take full advantage of the gorgeous tenor-baritone writing Puccini has provided them. For this, we have maestro Myers to thank. It’s at times like these, with a performer of the caliber of Mr. Sumuel, who is so in tune with the composer’s intent and purpose, that one laments the loss of Sharpless’ Act II aria, which Puccini cut prior to the La Scala premiere.
Lindsey Ammann’s Suzuki displayed a rich mezzo-soprano voice. This was luxury casting for this role. She, too, elicited much sympathy for Butterfly’s plight as the loyal maidservant and only companion. Her Wagnerian-sized instrument filled the auditorium with her cries lamenting Cio-Cio-San’s sad fate. Ammann has previously sung in the Metropolitan Opera’s Ring cycle production by Robert Lepage, during the 2010-2011 run of the work, as well as at Stuttgart Opera as Mary in The Flying Dutchman. Another talent to watch!
As Yamadori, baritone Jesse Malgieri drew a real flesh-and-blood individual out of this bland, self-serving and self-satisfied fop. Previously, Malgieri appeared with North Carolina Opera in Verdi’s La Traviata. Both he and conductor Myers shared a close association with Lorin Maazel, whose Decca/London recording of Traviata is a particular favorite of mine.
The Bonze was performed by Chinese bass Wei Wu, whose formidable physical size and booming voice brought a terrifying presence to Butterfly’s priestly uncle. One perceptive bit of stage business involved the Bonze’s close proximity to Pinkerton, where these two characters exchanged harsh glances at each other — a most effective moment and one endemic to the clash of cultures present in the work.
Others in the cast included mezzo-soprano Kate Farrar as Kate Pinkerton, given more to do in this production than most singers have been in the past, Charles Hyland as a clear-voiced Imperial Commissioner, Tom Keefe as the Registrar, Jacob Kato as Uncle Yakuside, Austenne Grey as the Cousin, Annette Stowe as Butterfly’s mother, Margaret Maytan as the aunt, and little Ella Fox as Butterfly’s son Sorrow (“Dolore” in Italian, but originally called “Trouble” in the Belasco play).
The lighting designer was Mark McCullough, who could have spotlighted the performers — and some of the front-stage action — a bit better. The chorus master was Scott MacLeod, and the costume coordinator was Sondra Nottingham. The atmospheric scenery was designed by David P. Gordon for the Sarasota Opera. It was constructed and painted by Center Line Studios, Cornwall, NY. The scenic backdrop was the work of Michael Hagen, Inc., of South Glens Falls, NY. The costumes were designed for the Utah Symphony and Opera by Alice Bristow. The men’s wardrobe was apt and strictly of the period (Japan, ca. 1900), while the women’s kimonos radiated authenticity without descending into parody or a road-show rip-off of The Mikado.
The opera was directed by E. Loren Meeker, who has previously worked with Washington National Opera on Carmen, Lyric Opera of Chicago on Die Fledermaus, Houston Grand Opera on Trial By Jury, the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires on Manon, and the San Diego Opera on La Bohème. As indicated above, more spotlighting of the principals might have helped to position the players better and clarify their relationships to one another.
One major faux pas that this version and far too many Madama Butterfly productions overlook is permitting the performers to enter a Japanese home without removing their footwear. Even as humble a dwelling as Cio-Cio-San’s tiny abode demands that decorum be observed.
Finally, honorable mention must go to that adorable tyke, Ella Fox, who played Sorrow. Most child actors tend to either hog the limelight or are more “trouble” than they’re worth. Not Ella. She behaved commendably in these surroundings, with poise and ease in her moments on the stage. In addition, she helped to humanize the other participants in ways that only children can: by drawing out such feelings as joy and tenderness from a bunch of grown-ups. Brava, little diva!
Butterfly’s End and Puccini’s Passing
Cio-Cio-San completes her transition from young girl to mature woman by opera’s end. She achieves the stature of a tragic heroine with the realization that Pinkerton will never return; that her little son Sorrow will no longer be a part of her life. My only qualm with the finale as staged by NCO — and this is strictly from my personal perspective, not a reflection on the positive aspects of the production as a whole — involves the ritual surrounding Butterfly’s death.
In the original stage directions, Puccini indicated that Cio-Cio-San give her son a doll and an American flag to play with while he is blindfolded. She then goes behind a screen and plunges her father’s sword into her neck. (Historical note: only men and women of samurai descent were allowed to commit seppuku, which was part of the Bushido Code of Honor; the term hara-kiri has also been used to describe ritual suicide in the form of disembowelment. Men tended to kill themselves by this method, sometimes followed by a second who completed the task with decapitation; women most often placed a sword or dagger to their throat or neck).
In this production, the child is marched off to join Suzuki in the inner room. While Sorrow is there, Pinkerton cries out Butterfly’s name repeatedly (three times, to be exact) as Butterfly had indicated to Suzuki he would in “Un bel di.” But instead of killing herself at the crash of the gongs (again, as noted in the score), here she waits for Pinkerton’s last cry before doing herself in. The opera ends with a repeat of the music that followed Cio-Cio-San’s words, “Morta, morta!” (“Death, death!”) from her later aria “Che tua madre.”
I’m all for originality in staging. And I have no objection to director Meeker for varying the formula of Butterfly’s death somewhat. I believe choices were made in the many discussions beforehand as to what needs to take place and why. Goodness knows any number of avant-garde artists have taken greater liberties with the text than were found in Meeker’s direction. Nevertheless, Puccini and his librettists were skilled men of the theater. They knew their craft and practiced it wholesale. They also knew what worked and what didn’t (or at least, they thought they knew).
Puccini, above all the verismo composers, traveled widely to oversee new productions and revivals of his work. He visited New York’s Metropolitan Opera on several occasions, in 1907 with the company premiere of Madama Butterfly and again, in 1910, with the gala premiere of La Fanciulla del West. Even after spending so many frustrating years in search of a subject and then having to put up with an infinite number of diversions (many of the feminine kind), Puccini was still able to supervise the proceedings on a first-person basis. This in itself is quite extraordinary, that he took that much interest in his oeuvre that he would travel great distances to ensure their feasibility.
This extra degree of care which the composer demonstrated spoke volumes for how he wanted his works staged. Wagner left similar mandates, as did quite a few others. I wonder, then, what Puccini would have thought of these slight modifications to his carefully considered plans. Perhaps I am being needlessly picky or just plain obstinate. Yes, I admit that I am a traditionalist at heart, but I have enough of an open mind (especially where opera is concerned) to look dispassionately at a director’s work and accept that there are other points of view.
What we do know is that Puccini had been suffering from a throat ailment for some time — possibly two decades or more. If the known facts of his smoking are correct, he was mainly a two-to-three pack a day smoker. In his youth, this habit did not prevent him from working on his scores; in his later years, however, it tended to slow him down markedly, more so than the diabetes that was detected after his 1903 auto accident.
By the time of Turandot, around the end of October 1924, Puccini was suffering such excruciating pain that he reluctantly agreed to consult with various throat specialists (some without his family’s knowledge) in order to seek relief. One specialist suggested he receive a then-revolutionary and highly experimental radium therapy treatment at the Ledoux clinic in Brussels, Belgium.
While in the city, and before his treatment began, Puccini had gone to the Téâtre de la Monnaie to see a performance of Madama Butterfly. This would be the last piece of music Puccini would ever hear. That it turned out to be the favorite from among his works proved prophetic. According to accounts of the composer’s last days, on November 24, 1924, seven radium tipped needles were inserted into an aperture in his throat. They were positioned as to destroy a tumor that had been welling up for years. Because of his weakened condition, Puccini was given only a local anesthetic.
Though outwardly successful in diminishing the tumor’s size, a few days later, on the afternoon of November 28, Puccini was said to have collapsed in his chair, his heart having given out due to the strain of the operation. He died a day later, on November 29, at 4:00 a.m.
The ironic twist of fate that led to Puccini’s untimely demise can be seen in Butterfly’s tragic death by suicide. In the samurai tradition, Butterfly had pierced her throat with her father’s sword. Puccini, whether it was known to him at the time or not, had his throat pierced not by a sword, but by seven needles — one each for the seven operatic works on which the composer’s fame rests today.
Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes
Stanley Kubrick’s timeless visionary epic, originally billed (and titled) as a “journey beyond the stars,” is a film that’s solemn and slow moving, stately and portentous to the nth degree, but a bona fide science-fiction classic nonetheless. The elegance, serenity, poetry and majesty and, above all, the mystery of outer space are preserved in all their widescreen, Cinerama-esque splendor.
Released a little over a year before NASA successfully landed two astronauts on the Moon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, while certainly not the first (nor, heaven forbid, the last) FX-laden extravaganza to depict the hazards of space travel, is considered by many followers of the form as the granddaddy of all those intergalactic sleigh rides we’ve grown accustomed to viewing throughout the years, among them the Star Trek and Star Wars series, Alien and its progeny, Outland, The Right Stuff, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, Prometheus, Gravity, Interstellar and our latest candidate for consideration, The Martian.
Now tell me: has any science-fiction feature of the last forty years or so ever been more fully realized on the screen than Kubrick’s acclaimed masterpiece? The work that went into the final product is truly breathtaking in its vastness, scale and dimension.
Filmed mostly on the soundstages of M-G-M British Studios, Ltd., in Boreham Wood, England, with an unprecedented array of special photographic elements and visual effects, the film was personally supervised by Kubrick himself, along with able assistants Wally Veevers, Douglas Trumbull, Con Pederson and Tom Howard — all of them handling such diverse aspects of the production as lighting conditions, camera movement, shutter speed, color, temperature, and so forth, with single-minded dedication and meticulous care for detail. Not surprisingly, the film took three years to complete, at a cost of almost US$12 million — and it shows.
The story: highly evolved super-beings deposit their calling card on Earth (and on the Moon), in the form of a large, rectangular-shaped black object known as the monolith. With the object’s extraordinary ability to implant suggestions into their brains, primitive man-apes are taught to use rudimentary weapons (e.g., the jawbone of a wild pig) in order to gain dominance over their foes, as well as their harsh environment. The evolution of these man-apes into Homo sapiens leads to the next phase of their development, with man literally branching out into new worlds — both physically and metaphysically — far beyond his own.
But what does it all mean? The ambiguously written screenplay by producer-writer-director Kubrick and science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, after his short story “The Sentinel” from 1948, and partially based on themes found in Clarke’s 1952 novel, Childhood’s End, explores cosmic questions of the specie’s origins, its ultimate purpose and, inevitably, its fate. The script, much expanded from the original story, takes up the premise that aliens of a higher order — with an advanced intelligence surpassing our capacity for comprehension — are “out there,” watching, waiting and guiding our planet’s destiny from an unseen corner of the universe.
Perhaps the best way to come to grips with Kubrick’s overall approach to this film is to see it in terms that relate to the context of the times in which it was planned and executed. For example, the two pictures that came immediately before and after 2001: A Space Odyssey — i.e., Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) — may provide the necessary clues toward understanding what the director had in mind for his central project.
In these films, civilization is depicted as being in three distinct stages of development (or disintegration, if you prefer): in Dr. Strangelove, mankind is perilously (albeit farcically) on the brink of nuclear annihilation; in 2001, it has left the Cold War mentality behind and instead appears to be poised for a miraculous rebirth; and in A Clockwork Orange, society is back to teetering on the edge in a fundamental collapse of the social order.
Dr. Strangelove, the first work in Kubrick’s film trilogy, has frequently been described as a satire, a tongue-in-cheek black comedy of the darkest order where man’s best laid plans for avoiding Armageddon are suddenly thwarted by renegade generals with sick minds; while the middle entry, 2001: A Space Odyssey is too often treated with an earnest solemnity bordering mysticism. Make no mistake, Kubrick did have a deadpan sense of humor; and indeed Dr. Strangelove offers viewers some rare relief from his more sedate tendencies. It, too, is a comedic masterpiece of Shakespearean dimensions, with characters that are akin to a Jack Falstaff or the doggedness of Constable Dogberry from Much Ado About Nothing.
While it does take itself seriously, 2001: A Space Odyssey also offers brief glimpses into the lighter side of life’s little inconveniences. Take, for example, Dr. Heywood Floyd’s attempts to decipher the list of instructions needed to operate the space toilet; or the manner in which the super-computer HAL 9000 reverts to a song from his “childhood” (“A Bicycle Built for Two”) when faced with termination.
By contrast, A Clockwork Orange merges the two forms of black comedy and drama, along with traditional English dance hall routines, into an overridingly pessimistic view of society; one that is both cynical and disorderly — with British society, in this instance, in desperate need of “aversion therapy” (the so-termed “Ludovico technique”) in order to purge selected subjects of their wanton aggression.
This technique forces participants to keep their eyes open as they watch scenes of untold violence, while at the same time listening to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, “Ludwig” being the German variant of Ludovico, a version of the English and French “Louis.” Why, even names have begun to lose their substance and individuality: to connect this seemingly questionable technique — and, by that connection, British society as a whole — with one of Europe’s greatest anti-war composers is an irony of titanic proportions.
Here, the general misbehavior is caused by the prevalence of street thugs (called droogs) which has given rise to a police state. The droogs have laced their drinks with a powerful stimulant that feeds their predilection for rape and violence. After a particularly perverse night of recklessness, droog leader Alex is captured by the police and sent to prison to be “rehabilitated.” It’s at the prison that many of the wickedly humorous episodes occur, among them a coldly calculated search of Alex’s body cavities by the no-nonsense chief guard Barnes.
The madness of human behavior witnessed and unleashed in Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange and the mania in these films for all-out mayhem and destruction is contrasted with the anodyne expressions of the two human astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The men appear drained of feelings, the bulk of which have been transferred onto the personality of their HAL 9000 computer with its matter-of-fact vocal inflections and paranoid, single-minded resolve for self-preservation. It’s no accident that HAL is the most human character in the story.
The lack of an emotional response can be measured by the over-abundance of emotions present in Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange. In the earlier flick, the dialogue remains fast and furious throughout; the words pouring forth in a never-ending torrent of verbal hemorrhaging and rapid-fire delivery (most notably in George C. Scott’s over-the-top performance as the bombastic General Buck Turgidson), their meaning coming through loud and clear no matter the pace. In A Clockwork Orange, the droogs speak a type of street language, a combination of Russian tinged with Cockney slang, while the rest of the population converses in standard British English. No matter how they talk, each group gets their point across; soon, even the viewer is able to make sense of the gibberish.
Compare the above scenarios to 2001, where the dialogue has been purged of all meaning and relevance. In fact, not a word is spoken (the film’s opening sequence takes place at the Dawn of Man) until a good half hour or more has transpired. When the human characters do speak, their tone and substance is devoid of clarity and lucidity. We hear the words, but they have no connection to the action at hand, their meaning having been divested of any and all emotional impact.
One excellent example comes in Dr. Floyd’s chance meeting with his Soviet counterparts aboard the floating space station. One of the scientists, Dr. Andrei Smyslov, questions him about a possible epidemic at the moon base Clavius where Floyd is scheduled to give a briefing. Their exchange is so elliptical and circuitous that absolutely nothing is learned or divulged about the matter at hand. Even more maddening is the subsequent meeting at the base, where the participants’ conversation is so completely on the surface, so to speak, that precious little is conveyed through words. It’s as if words have lost their meaning.
Another comparison can be made with two similar sequences, both having to do with the futuristic videophone technology. Back at the space station, Dr. Floyd puts in a call to Earth to wish his young daughter a happy birthday. Floyd does most of the talking, as his little girl (played by Kubrick’s daughter Vivian) responds in shy, monosyllabic fashion. Flash forward to the spaceship Discovery, where astronaut Frank Poole is about to receive an incoming video message from his parents back on Earth. They, too, want to wish him many happy returns. Frank listens stoically to their greeting in stone-cold silence, maintaining an impassive air throughout the one-sided conversation. When he does speak, it’s to ask HAL to raise the head of his cot ever-so slightly. The impression Frank gives is of conserving his words and energy for more “important” purposes than a birthday greeting. His “humanity,” if you want to call it that, has been drained from his person in preparation for the trip.
There’s one more incident involving the use of language (or meta-language, in this case) that is certainly the most “revealing” moment in the entire picture. It’s the scene where Frank Poole and Dave Bowman are inside a sound-proof space pod, discussing the problematic issue of HAL’s mistaken prediction of a failed component. Mission Control has reported back to the pair that their super computer’s findings regarding the faulty circuit are in error. When asked his opinion, HAL reiterates the mantra that human error is no doubt to blame for the misdiagnosis.
As the two astronauts continue to engage in a deadly serious conversation about the possibility of pulling the plug on their computer, the camera moves back and forth from Dave’s mouth to Frank’s lips, and so on. There is no sound except the constant low-level hum of super-computer HAL’s circuits. His unblinking, all-seeing red eye (and the audience’s as well) is alert to the astronaut’s thoughts, even though no words are forthcoming. At this point, not only are the sounds of their words unnecessary for comprehension, but their meaning can be gleaned from the context of the situation. HAL has proven, once and for all, that words can be dispensed with amid a super-computer’s need for survival.
In a space-age variant of “rehabilitation,” at the movie’s climax man must give up his humanity in order to be reborn as the Star Child. This is represented in the moving sequence whereby Dave, after rescuing his dead partner Frank from HAL’s treachery, is forced to release his colleague from the pod’s human-like appendages. Slowly and methodically, Dave gives up Frank’s lifeless body to the immensity of space itself, an offering (such as it is) to the heavens. Similarly, HAL must take on man’s humanity so as to maintain some semblance of balance in the universe: from chaos (Greek for “disorder”) to cosmos (or “order”).
Keir Dullea plays astronaut Dave Bowman, and Gary Lockwood is his colleague Frank Poole, two of the dullest space travelers this side of Jupiter. It’s left to the HAL 9000 computer to supply the missing “human” element. With William Sylvester as Dr. Floyd, Leonard Rossiter as Dr. Smyslov, Margaret Tyzack as Elena, and the flat speaking voice of Douglas Rain as HAL (no, it was not a takeoff on the acronym for IBM).
Kubrick hired composer Alex North to do the background scoring, but went with a more eclectic, pre-recorded classical soundtrack instead (Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra and Johann Strauss, Jr.’s On the Beautiful Blue Danube, are among the orchestral delights, along with works by Aram Khachaturian and Gyorgy Ligeti) to serve as a commentary on the loneliness and mysticism of space exploration; he also trimmed his epic of about twenty minutes of redundant footage due to excessive length.
While music is the focal point for many of the film’s most impressive sequences, the most moving episode of all is also the simplest: a despondent HAL intones a little song in his final moments of life: “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do… I’m half crazy… all for the… love… of… you…”
Despite the director’s penchant for authenticity, the scene of the scientists inspecting the monolith on the Moon drew criticism from, of all people, the original scenarist Clarke, who claimed the men were not bouncing around on the surface as they would normally be in life — so much for realia on the big screen.
It’s on nearly everyone’s top-ten list of the best films ever made, and continues to exude a strong influence on modern movie-makers, to include Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, and J.J. Abrams. Each successive generation finds new meaning in the work, and with reason. No matter how one feels about 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s still the ultimate trip worth taking.
Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes
‘Madama Butterfly’ — North Carolina Opera Triumphs with Puccini’s Japanese Tragedy (Part Two): Settling the ‘Score’
Lunch and Learn
I mentioned in my previous post, regarding Puccini and North Carolina Opera’s presentation of Madama Butterfly, that I attended a seminar in late October on the background of the work in question, vis-à-vis its Western representations of Japanese culture.
The seminar, held at the Research Triangle Institute, covered such wide-ranging topics as the singing and staging of the opera through the ages, presented by North Carolina Opera’s General Director, Eric Mitchko; “One Fine Day (or not): Some Problems in the Music of Madama Butterfly,” with the lively Tim Carter, Professor of Music at UNC-Chapel Hill; “Three Divas of Japan,” discussed by Jan Bardsley, Professor of Asian Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill; and “Pinning the Butterfly: Western Accounts of Madame Butterfly,” given by Inger S.B. Brodey, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature, also from UNC-Chapel Hill.
For the naturally curious opera buff among us (myself obviously included), or anyone else interested in how the story of Madama Butterfly came to light and was transformed from a one-act American play into a full-fledged operatic vehicle, the seminar provided plenty of opportunity for reflection, discussion and thought on the creative process.
Among the more fascinating aspects were Eric Mitchko’s comparisons of key scenes from the opera, using unfamiliar recordings from more-or-less the time of the opera’s premiere and after, and from live performances not commercially available elsewhere.
The live rendition of Cio-Cio-San’s spotting of Pinkerton’s ship as it pulls into port was performed by soprano Renata Tebaldi, then at the very top of her form. She gave an emotionally overwhelming interpretation of the scene, full of her trademark portamenti and rubati, as well as sure-fire vocalism. A rare video clip of Butterfly’s farewell to her son preserved one of the few live performances of the part by the legendary Leontyne Price near the end of her career. She, too, pulled out all the stops in what can only be described as an unbelievable outpouring of Price’s signature top notes and endless legato phrasing. As they say in showbiz, the crowd went wild in both excerpts, and justifiably so.
In other sections, Tim Carter’s erudite dissection of Cio-Cio-San’s Act II solo, “Un bel di” (“One fine day”), and its relationship to classical oratory (i.e., the librettists’ use of Cicero’s rhetorical devices), in addition to his bubbly discourse on the opera’s music (contrasted with excerpts from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado) and its sources in Japanese and Chinese folk melodies, were masterful in their depth and perception, and filled with the professor’s learned commentary and gushing enthusiasm for the subject.
Along similar lines, Jan Bardsley’s enlightening talk comparing “Three Divas of Japan” — specifically, the writer and Zen practitioner Hiratsuka Raicho, Japanese soprano Miura Tamaki who made a career out of performing Cio-Cio-San, and the actress Matsui Sumako — to such American practitioners as actress Blanche Bates and opera diva and Hollywood star Geraldine Farrar, proved fascinating in its glimpses of the phenomenon of traversing cross-cultural boundaries; and the effect that upper-class New Women of early twentieth-century Japan (known as the “Bluestockings”) had on such traditional elements of Japanese society as “visiting a Tokyo teahouse to be entertained by a geisha.”
Inger Brodey’s equally absorbing analysis, “Pinning the Butterfly: Western Accounts of Madame Butterfly,” in which she provided an in-depth look into the origin of the Butterfly story through real-life personages, along with marvelous period photographs (which also comprised the bulk of Professor Bardsley’s segment), segued directly into the concluding panel discussion and question-and-answer section on the topic “Engagement and Appropriation: Art, Aesthetics and the Other.”
On the whole, this was a most rewarding and pleasurable afternoon spent in pursuit of the elusive Butterfly. It not only helped with my own research regarding the composer’s music and life, but led to a better understanding of and appreciation for what went into the preparation behind one of my all-time favorite works.
Music to My Ears
Talking about Puccini, his sure hand as a musical dramatist and orchestrator came through loud and clear with Madama Butterfly, which stands as a paradigm of his mastery of dialogue, atmosphere, characterization and motivation.
Whether one describes the opera as part of the verismo movement (i.e., “realism”) or as an exemplar of naturalism, which formed the crux of Belasco’s own theatrical ambitions (one, by the way, that had a major influence on the burgeoning silent cinema), there’s little doubt that Butterfly has continued to hold its own in the opera house. Scattered about the score are literally hundreds of illustrations of Puccini’s use of leading motifs — recurring themes and melodies, along with snippets of tunes that jar the memory in ways that call to mind the innovations of Richard Wagner.
This is not to say that Puccini was the perfect Wagnerite — far from it! But that he learned from, and ultimately adhered to, many of the German master’s precepts (Manon Lescaut served this purpose quite nicely) is incontrovertible. What made Puccini stand out from his compatriots — particularly his one-time colleague Leoncavallo, as well as fellow Lucchese Alfredo Catalani, who died of tuberculosis six months after Manon Lescaut’s 1893 premiere and whose surviving work (Loreley, La Wally) paid a profound tribute to German romanticism — was the manner in which he seamlessly wove his characters’ dialogue and music into the threads of the opera’s plot.
Puccini had a way of drawing the listener into his protagonists’ world with a specificity of purpose and economy of means unmatched by his fellow countrymen. The varied exchanges between Pinkerton and Sharpless all through Madama Butterfly, while reminding audiences of Rodolfo and Marcello’s frequently recurrent ones in La Bohème, are nevertheless differentiated by the composer’s shaping of the vocal line to the needs of the libretto.
To cite only a few examples, how similar-sounding is the theme of Rodolfo’s “O Mimì, tu piu non torni,” from the start of La Bohème’s Act IV, to Pinkerton’s third-act arioso, “Addio, fiorito asil,” near the end of Madama Butterfly. Both start off low and end up high, with the baritone in each instance elucidating his point of view at defined intervals. The difference between them lies in their mood: the first one carries with it an air of nostalgia and longing for the past — a loss, if you will, of past loves, but with the hopeful expectation of moving on; the second is filled with remorse and regret, of having committed an inalterable wrong with no hope of turning back, the end result being shame and despair.
The opening dialogue between Pinkerton and Goro follows this same pattern, with short phrases and relevant banter, punctuated by lively interjections that are always lyrically based and distinctly “in character.” Natural interruptions to the flow, such as the famous one present in Pinkerton’s vigorous narrative “Dovunque al mondo,” where he poses the question to Sharpless as to whether he’d like to be served “Milk punch or whisky?” are typical of a normal, everyday conversation among friends — an extraordinary realization of opera’s aim of turning discourse into song.
No other opera composer to my knowledge, with the exception of the Russian Modest Mussorgsky in Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina, the Moravian-born Leoš Janáček in Jenůfa and The Makropoulos Case, or the Italian Verdi in his final masterwork Falstaff, has so faithfully rendered “real-life” situations in music as Puccini has done here. He continued expanding his art to the next level with La Fanciulla del West (itself based on another Belasco play), and with Il Trittico (“The Triptych”), especially the one-act opus Gianni Schicchi, a paean to maestro Verdi’s Falstaff.
Puccini returned once more to the orient with his final opera, the incomplete and grandly opulent Turandot, where much of the give-and-take between tenors and baritones can be heard in the wonderfully harmonious Trio of the Masks between the ministers Ping, Pang and Pong in the first scene of Act II.
In reading about and researching where and when the story of Madama Butterfly came into being and how its librettists, Illica and Giacosa, helped shape the opera into its present form, one of the overlooked sources I happened to have stumbled upon was a French work from two decades prior.
No longer as frequently performed as it used to be (a shame, given its many treasurable tunes), composer Léo Delibes’ three-act Lakmé (1883) is a charming opéra-comique, which musicologists have strongly indicated was a prime influence on the plot of the Puccini piece.
Delibes’ librettists, Edmond Gondinet and Philippe Gille, adapted the story from the novel Le Mariage de Loti (published in 1880) by the mysterious Pierre Loti (real name: Louis Marie-Julien Viaud). Loti, who in this novel first expanded upon his adventures in the Pacific island of Tahiti, went on to write a more widely-circulated tale, that of Madame Chrysanthème in 1887, which was a thinly veiled, semi-autobiographical account of his tour of duty as a naval officer in Japan, and his arranged marriage to a geisha in Nagasaki (sound familiar?). This, too, served as source material for Puccini and his team.
In any case, there are a multitude of resemblances between Lakmé and Butterfly, some astoundingly so. While Loti’s original story was set in the Pacific, Gondinet and Gille placed their version in British-occupied India during the Raj. Lakmé (our stand-in for Cio-Cio-San) is the daughter of a high priest of Brahma, Nilakantha (or the equivalent of Cio-Cio-San’s uncle, the Bonze), who has a fanatical hatred of foreign rulers. Lakmé has a loyal maidservant, Mallika (her Suzuki), who together with her mistress partake of their own mellifluous and thrice familiar “Flower Duet,” to the languid rhythms of a barcarolle.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Gérald (our caddish Pinkerton) is a British officer in Her Majesty’s Army who, being tall and, naturally, quite handsome, catches the eye of the Brahmin’s exotically beautiful daughter, Lakmé. She in turn falls in love at first sight with the striking Englishman. This creates the inevitable clash of cultures which will bring down the title character in the end.
The tenor Gérald has a baritone companion, Frédéric (a makeshift Mr. Sharpless, if you insist), who tries to bring his lovesick pal back down to earth. There’s even a Kate Pinkerton-type by the name of Miss Ellen, who is Gérald’s neglected fiancée, and a comic foil in the person of Mistress Bentson (either the tipsy Uncle Yakuside, or any of Cio-Cio-San’s other relatives). And finally, one other character, the slave Hadji, sung by a comprimario tenor who spills the beans about Lakmé’s affair with the Englishman to her father, Hadji can be treated as a reasonable facsimile to Goro, the slimy marriage broker.
Needless to say, by the time Act III rolls around, the lovers have undergone various trials (including Gérald’s stabbing by the disguised high priest), which leads to Lakmé’s suicide by ingesting the leaves of a poisonous lotus flower known as the Datura stramonium. Despite being informed by his librettists that Datura stramonium was not exactly poisonous, Delibes ignored their counsel, thus sparking controversy among amateur and professional botanists for his deliberate disregard of science.
In the end, Lakmé dies a musical death, expiring in the arms of her lover — which was a “better” fate than Butterfly experienced with the return of her faithless husband, Pinkerton. As a melodious period piece with spoken dialogue and colorfully alien Indian locale, Lakmé is best remembered for its faux orientalism and the gorgeous centerpiece, “The Bell Song,” which coloraturas from Lily Pons, Mado Robin, Gianna d’Angelo, and Joan Sutherland, to Mady Mesplé and Natalie Dessay have made famous.
Next to Puccini’s oriental tragedy, however, Lakmé is a second-class citizen, albeit a close cousin (operatically speaking), when compared to the grandeur attained by Cio-Cio-San’s tragic denouement.
(To be continued…)
Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes
At three hours and twenty minutes, The Godfather, Part II is almost as long as David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind, but not nearly as funny. Taking his cue from the financial juggernaut the first film went on to become, director Francis Ford Coppola decided that a sequel to Paramount’s tremendously successful The Godfather should be more of “a companion piece,” with flashbacks to the early life of young Vito Corleone and fast-forwards to the new/old godfather, i.e., his son Michael.
As a consequence, Coppola’s triumphant continuation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather saga is more than just excessive padding: it looks backward in time to the story of the orphaned Vito Andolini, who flees a violence ridden Sicily and a blood feud with the local Mafia don to come to New York City at the turn of the century. The boy Vito winds up on Ellis Island, where his surname is changed to Corleone by the immigration officers. He grows up in poverty on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and eventually settles down with a pretty Sicilian girl in order to have a family of his own.
During one of several flashback sequences, which comprise three-quarters of an hour of the movie’s total length, we learn how Vito faces down the dreaded Don Fanucci (played in oily fashion by the formidable Gaston Moschin) so as to take control of his life and neighborhood. It’s at this crucial point in the drama that Vito (as well as the viewer) realizes he is able to carry out Fanucci’s murder in methodical, calculatedly cold-blooded fashion. The hood’s death solidifies Vito’s standing in the community as a person to be feared, which ultimately leads to his becoming a “respected” member of underworld society.
We then flash forward to the dawn of a new don, Michael Corleone (an intensely driven Al Pacino, never better), and his round-the-clock efforts to salvage his family’s Nevada holdings from the clutches of a soft-spoken yet ruthless gangster named Hyman Roth (Actor’s Studio co-founder Lee Strasberg in his movie debut, and one of Pacino’s early mentors), who has one of the picture’s best remembered lines: “Michael, we’re bigger than US Steel.” At the same time, Michael has to simultaneously confront the possibility of a traitor in his midst, as well as deal with his failed marriage to perpetually skeptical wife Kay (the returning Diane Keaton).
Every scene is a comment on, and a ruminative reflection of, comparable ones to be found in The Godfather. Take, for instance, the opening first communion ceremony for Michael’s son Anthony, juxtaposed against sister Connie’s wedding in Part I — in the first film, the family has come together, whereas in Part II they are splitting apart; or how about the botched strangling of Frankie Pentangeli inside the Rosato brothers’ bar, as compared to Luca Brasi’s death by choking in the presence of Sollozzo and Bruno Tattaglia’s similar establishment.
We could go on and on, but the point has been made: this is one of Hollywood’s most provocative and, you’ll pardon the expression, best executed modern gangster epics. Among the difficulties the main characters encounter in Part II are outright lies, blatant betrayals, family treachery, duplicity and double- and triple-crossings, with enough chokings, drownings, stabbings, and garrotings to fill ten crime novels! In the end, the godfather is left alone in the garden, with nothing to do but contemplate his desultory lifestyle and lost dreams.
There is spellbinding direction by Coppola which never flags, not even for a moment. High production values are maintained from the first feature, thanks to returning production designer Dean Tavoularis, art director Angelo Graham, costume designer Theadora Van Runkle, and expert sound montage and re-recording by Walter Murch. In addition, the hiring of a supremely talented cast of actors make Part II that rarity of movie sequels — damned if it isn’t better than the original, in spite of more than a few lapses in narrative logic (what’s the story with those Rosato brothers, anyway?).
And speaking of casting, the sequel spotlights a gallery of richly detailed performances, in particular one by the dour Robert Duvall as world weary consigliere Tom Hagen, struggling to understand Michael’s secretive ways; Talia Shire (Francis Coppola’s sister in real life) as Michael’s baby sister Connie, who makes a spectacle of herself with new boyfriend Merle Johnson (the real name of actor Troy Donahue, as Merle) at her nephew Anthony’s first communion; John Cazale (suave, in a black mustache and tux) as older brother Fredo and his shady dealings with Roth’s Sicilian “messenger boy,” Johnny Ola (Dominic Chianese), receiving the kiss of death from Michael for his troubles; and the stoic Robert De Niro, excellent as young Vito Corleone, who copied Marlon Brando’s mannerisms and hoarse vocalization, while picking up an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in the process (and, no, unlike Brando he did not turn Oscar down).
Others offering huge support include playwright-turned-actor Michael V. Gazzo (A Hatful of Rain) in a standout performance as old-timer Frankie Pentangeli, whose demise in a Roman-style bathtub is just one of many so-called highlights. Gazzo’s role was “invented” by the screenwriters due to the producers dropping Richard Castellano from the film — his salary demands simply couldn’t be met and proved more of a hindrance than a benefit. Instead, we have Irish-Italian actor B. Kirby Jr. (City Slickers, Good Morning Vietnam) as a slimmed-down version of the youthful Pete Clemenza, along with G.D. Spradlin as the garrulous Senator Geary (who gets his comeuppance for badmouthing Michael’s “family”), Richard Bright returning as Al Neri, Joe Spinell as Willy Cicci, and Morgana King, Leopoldo Trieste, Amerigo Tot, Fay Spain, Abe Vigoda, Gianni Russo, James Caan, the incomparable Harry Dean Stanton as an FBI man, Danny Aiello as Tony Rosato, and Peter Donat as Senator Questadt.
Veteran director Roger Corman puts in another of his patented “guest shots” as a member of the investigating committee looking into Michael’s Cosa Nostra connections. Gordon Willis’ dark-hued photography is back, along with Nino Rota’s lush score, supplemented in part by Carmine Coppola, the director’s father, who incorporated a delightfully quaint Neapolitan light opera, Senza Mamma, into the sonic mix. This being a Coppola family gathering, the score for this little divertissement was written by (you guessed it) the director’s maternal grandfather, Francesco Pennino.
The entire Senza Mamma sequence involves a 30-something Vito Corleone enjoying a rare night on the town with best friend Genco Abbandando (Frank Sivero). They are seen watching a performance, in authentic Neapolitan dialect, of a local melodrama in a crowded theater. The part of the singer, who holds a pistol to his forehead threatening to shoot himself at the news of his mother’s passing, was sung and acted by tenor Livio Giorgi. As a footnote to this scene, the backstage manager was interpreted by none other than Metropolitan Opera basso Ezio Flagello.
A five-star family affair all the way, to be certain. Would we lie to you?
Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes
I Remember It Well…
Okay, so it wasn’t the Metropolitan Opera’s critically acclaimed, Anthony Minghella-directed production from 2006. Get over it! That detail notwithstanding, North Carolina Opera’s more traditional approach to Giacomo Puccini’s tragic story of Madama Butterfly, presented on November 1, 2015 at the Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh, came as close as any to upstaging the Met in the singing, acting and conducting departments.
With a handpicked roster of talented young performers, to include soprano Talise Trevigne in the title role, tenor Michael Brandenburg as Pinkerton, mezzo-soprano Lindsey Ammann as Suzuki, bass-baritone Michael Sumuel as Sharpless, and tenor Ian McEuen as Goro, along with NCO’s Artistic and Music Director Timothy Myers at the helm, General Director Eric Mitchko can be proud that he had another qualified hit on his hands.
But before we get down to the specifics, a little background history is in order. So let me say this at the outset: Puccini is my favorite opera composer, and Madama Butterfly is the work I heard most often as a youth. To that end, I can claim a more personal connection to the piece, for on the night before I was born my parents went to see a performance of the opera at the Teatro Colombo in São Paulo, Brazil. Afterward, my father, who was a devoted opera fanatic, made the prophetic statement that his son would simply have to grow up loving the opera.
As luck would have it, dad’s pronouncement came true. Since then, I have seen numerous productions of opera as a whole, with Madama Butterfly at or near the top of the list. I have owned, and listened to, many of its most celebrated recordings, including the classic RCA Victor version with Toti dal Monte and Beniamino Gigli as the leads. I have read about and studied the opera through the music and libretto, along with books, CDs, articles and online websites. I even attended a recent seminar about its historical and cultural context, “Madama Butterfly: Japan and Its Western Representations,” presented by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Humanities and Human Values Program.
Accordingly, I consider myself a fairly knowledgeable fan of the opera’s riches. For me, Madama Butterfly forever epitomizes the essence of Puccini’s life and art. And anything and everything connected to the piece will lead me back to the conclusion that it is a singularly unique achievement within the composer’s body of work.
With that brief introduction out of the way, let’s get on with the show.
Madama Butterfly was Puccini’s sixth work for the stage, the first performance of which took place at the Teatro alla Scala, in Milan, on February 17, 1904. Considering how poorly the opera fared on that fateful night, it behooves us to explore some of the reasons for the debacle.
The Men Behind the Curtain
Giulio Ricordi remained unconvinced. Despite repeated assertions from its composer, Ricordi, the scion of one of Europe’s leading publishing houses, simply could not grasp what Puccini had in mind with respect to a one-act play about a fifteen-year-old Japanese geisha.
Signor Giulio, as Puccini respectfully referred to him, expressed delight in taking neophytes under his wing — in particular, those few novices endowed with the gift for writing opera. He could boast of past accomplishments, among which was his outmaneuvering of Casa Lucca for the complete catalog of Wagner’s works. He had also received challenges for dominance in the field from the upstart Sonzogno firm, whose own stable of composers featured the likes of Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo.
As an experienced hand at music publishing, Ricordi had learned to deal with difficult personalities, the most inflexible of which was Verdi, the grumpy old “Bear of Busseto.” But handling a fellow such as Puccini, whose previous output included such revenue-generating gems as Manon Lescaut, La Bohème and Tosca, tried his patience beyond the norm. Getting the easily distracted composer to concentrate on his work was a chore in itself. Not only that, but it took all of Ricordi’s renowned powers of persuasion to convince Puccini to decide on a subject and get down to the business of composing.
For his part, Puccini no longer exuded the vigor of youth. By the turn of the century, he had begun to show signs of wear as he entered middle age. Puccini sensed his energies flagging, which Ricordi, in a later letter, callously attributed to sheer laziness or a possible bout with syphilis. Eventually, the cause of the composer’s malaise was diagnosed as a mild form of diabetes. But Ricordi’s rebuke left Puccini with mixed feelings about his father-son relationship to the older (and wiser) man.
Despite his concerns, Ricordi had enough faith in his meal ticket to assign his best team of librettists, the poets Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa — both of whom had worked extensively on all three of Puccini’s prior efforts — the unenviable task of turning American playwright David Belasco’s Madame Butterfly into a bona fide Italian opera.
Ever on the lookout for a good story, Puccini had the habit of falling madly in love with his female protagonists as they went through their own tribulations. The trick, as mentioned above, was to find a subject worthy of his affections. In his mind, there was little for Signor Giulio to be concerned about. Sooner or later, something would strike his fancy. Did Ricordi forget that he had three back-to-back “winners” in a row? Come to think of it, Manon Lescaut had proved a sensation in Turin, while La Bohème had taken considerably longer to find favor with the critics. The critics — hah! It was the public, he insisted, that would eventually learn to love Bohème. That’s all that mattered. On that point, Puccini was right.
Similarly, the overly melodramatic Tosca, with its murders and tortures and episode of attempted rape, had experienced a volatile first night in Rome (which an aborted bomb scare did nothing to help put aside). Yet, it too became an established favorite. Prophetically, it was a new production of Tosca that brought the composer to London. While there, by chance Puccini attended the showing of a one-act play at the Duke of York’s Theatre. It was on a July evening in the year 1900 that Madame Butterfly first came to his attention.
Although he spoke no English, Puccini was immediately taken with the strikingly attractive Evelyn Millard’s sensitive portrayal of Cho-Cho-San. But what most caught his discerning eye was a fourteen-minute interval — the night vigil, to be exact, one of those quintessential coups des théâtres that Belasco (nicknamed the “Bishop of Broadway” for his frock coat and clerical collar) was well-noted for.
As “dusk” began to settle over Nagasaki Bay, Puccini was held spellbound. The corresponding light show and exotic bird calls that transformed the Duke of York’s stage into a replica of a Japanese postcard — and that Belasco personally supervised — had absolutely enthralled him. After months of fruitless searching, Puccini had found his next opera.
The Painful Road to Nagasaki
With Verdi’s passing on January 27, 1901, Puccini began to be hailed by fellow Italians as the late master’s heir apparent. This notion terrified the composer more than it reassured him. Basically, all he wanted out of life was to hunt and fish, to tinker with his boats and motorcars, to rendezvous with the ladies and, most significantly of all, to be left alone at the piano — whenever the occasion moved him, of course.
His rivals, however, had other ideas. They had set their sights on his next opus, whatever and wherever that might be. In our present-day parlance, they were “loaded for bear.”
As it happened, Puccini’s choice of a subject, i.e., the aforementioned Madama Butterfly — itself an adaptation by Belasco of lawyer John Luther Long’s short story — turned out not to be the grandiose operone that Ricordi had long insisted he compose. Not only that, but the principal character of Cio-Cio-San, the geisha who falls in love with an American naval officer, Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, through a marriage of convenience, is abandoned by him. To make matters worse, when Pinkerton returns to Japan with “a real American wife,” his plan is to take Butterfly’s child away forever. This was not the typical romantic lead that audiences would have expected at the time. No wonder Ricordi had doubts about the matter.
From the creative side of things, work on the opera progressed slowly. Right at the start, there were delays. For instance, it took an unusually long time to obtain the authorship rights — nine months in all, due mostly to miscommunication with Ricordi’s New York office. Finally, in early 1901, the way was cleared for Puccini to begin.
The plan was to turn the one-act play into a three-act drama. This was an unusual practice for Puccini. With Manon Lescaut and La Bohème, the source material had come from two French novels, out of which various episodes were extracted to create his fast-paced plots. With Tosca, an exhaustively wordy five-act play by the Frenchman Sardou was vastly pared down and altered to arrive at a workable format for operatic purposes. Trimming the text to manageable proportions was part of Puccini’s methodology, what Verdi termed la parola scenica, or “the scenic word” — a concise summation of plot and thought in as few verses as possible.
In the matter of Madama Butterfly, he and his librettists had no choice but to go beyond what was found in the one-act play: Act I would be based on aspects of Long’s story; Act II, the so-called “Consulate Act,” was an invention by Illica to contrast with the Japanese first act; while Act III would be all Belasco — ergo, the raison d’être for a work in three acts.
After spending an inordinate amount of time on the piece, Puccini experienced a sudden change of heart and insisted on a two-act treatment instead: an hour-long first act, to be followed by an even longer second act — an hour and a half, by his calculations, both set in and around Cio-Cio-San’s home. This midway course change met with disfavor from both Ricordi’s corner and that of his librettists, especially the intractable Giacosa, who threatened to walk out on the project altogether.
There were other complications as well, mainly the drawn-out love affair between the 40-something composer and the much younger Corinna — a law student or teacher, according to reports — an affair that did not end happily for either party. In addition, Puccini’s own live-in mistress, Elvira Gemignani, was still legally married to her husband Narciso, a childhood acquaintance of Puccini’s. Puccini and Elvira even had a son out of wedlock, which only added to their troubles. To this we make mention of Narciso’s refusal to divorce Elvira on any grounds.
As the song goes, the “best” was yet to come: in February 1903, Puccini experienced a near-fatal car accident that left him with a fractured tibia and months of inactivity. The recovery period was slow and painful and complicated by diabetes, with progress on the opera coming to a crawl. In the middle of these encumbrances, Corinna made it known that she wanted a more permanent relationship, which Puccini and his publisher feared might lead to adverse publicity.
The “good” news, if indeed there was any, had come the day after his car accident: Narciso, Elvira’s husband, had died suddenly from wounds sustained in a fight with another woman’s husband. It seemed that infidelity had reached epidemic proportions in the composer’s home district. You could say that many of these occurrences would have made excellent material for an opera. Indeed, a case can be made that Puccini had written into his work more than a sufficient number of episodes from “real life” — the very root of verismo.
The above difficulties notwithstanding, within a year Puccini and Elvira were officially married (in accordance with Italian law and to untold pressure from Puccini’s sisters) in a clandestine late-night ceremony. Some time thereafter, Puccini negotiated a financial settlement with Corinna, who despite the money continued to squawk at how shabbily she had been treated. (Years later, it was learned Corinna had been fleecing the impressionable composer out of his fortune, while continuing to engage in secret liaisons with other men — none of which sat well with anybody.)
Fiasco Made Easy
Puccini completed the opera on December 27, 1903, at precisely 11:05 p.m. Pleased with the overall results and with the two-act partition, as well as with the rehearsals (which had gone exceedingly well), Madama Butterfly was set to premiere at La Scala on February 17, 1904.
Ricordi’s son, Tito, was placed in charge of the production, with scenery designed by the Parisian-born stage-painter Lucien Jusseaume. A first-rate cast was assembled for the run: Rosina Storchio, Giovanni Zenatello and Giuseppe de Luca, all of them established artists in their own right. The conductor would be Cleofonte Campanini, the brother of tenor Italo Campanini.
Everyone’s spirits were up, including Puccini’s, who felt secure enough in the outcome to invite his entire family to the opening — the first time any of his relatives were present at one his operas. Due to the lingering effects of the car accident, Puccini required the use of a cane to get around. Because of this and his habitual shyness around the public, he had decided to sit backstage and away from everyone’s prying eyes.
In view of what subsequently took place, this was a wise choice. Posterity has recorded the opera’s first night as one of the grandest fiascos ever to have taken place at that venerable institution. As many had no doubt feared, rival factions as well as the presence of practical jokers in the audience, who “brayed like donkeys and mooed like cattle,” succeeded in wrecking Puccini’s delicate flower of a work, transforming his beautiful Butterfly into an unmitigated disaster.
The change to the opera’s formal structure, with no intermission between the two parts of the interminable second act, had proven to be a torturous test of the audience’s patience. Not that it made any difference, but the next day’s criticisms were strictly on the negative side. Some reviewers praised the composer’s new musical direction toward exoticism and the whole-tone scale, while others felt it was more of the same. Either Puccini had failed to anticipate the hostility hurled at his piece or it was a mess from the start, neither of which would hold up over time. After the next day’s damage control session in Ricordi’s office, the firm agreed to return La Scala’s fee, and the work was subsequently withdrawn until further notice.
Three months later, on May 28, at a nearby theater in Brescia, Madama Butterfly was reintroduced with cuts to the first-act wedding scene, a revised entrance song for Cio-Cio-San (some had complained that it sounded too much like La Bohème), and a sensible intermission between the two parts of Act II. With the further insertion of the arioso, “Addio, fiorito asil,” for Pinkerton, along with a trio for Pinkerton, Sharpless and Suzuki (a holdover from the discarded “Consulate Act”), the opera became the singular success its composer had initially predicted it would be. Vindication was his at last!
After premieres in the major Italian theaters, along with new productions in London in July 1905, and in New York in February 1907 — with particular attention being paid to the Opéra-Comique in Paris, also in 1907, where Puccini had sanctioned additional alterations to his score — the opera quickly found its way into the standard repertoire.
Alongside La Bohème and Tosca, Madama Butterfly had joined their ranks as the composer’s most frequently performed work.
(To be continued…)
Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes