Sunday, May 4, 2008

Madama Butterfly

Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini is one of the greatest operas of all time, plumbing the depths of tragedy. A fifteen year old Japanese geisha marries an American sailor, who has no intention of keeping his troth. She becomes a Christian, her family disowns her, and then her husband abandons her. She bears his child and waits for him, only to have him return with an American wife. They want to take her little boy away. According to the Japanese tradition of choosing death rather than dishonor, she kills herself. It is a horrific finale.

Yes, she was too young to be married. We must remember that in other cultures and in other places and times, girls were married as teenagers. Our society is shocked by teenage brides, but the girls in those cultures were raised with the expectation that they would be married young.

Puccini was certainly not celebrating the manner in which his Japanese heroine was treated by her husband. He was condemning it, and the music captures the unspeakable outrage. Such thoughtless cruelty was happening all over the world and what way does an artist have to make a statement about a bad situation other than paint a picture, write a novel, make a film, or compose an opera. Madama Butterfly actually opened many people's eyes to the careless behavior of Europeans and Americans in non-Christian cultures, behaving in ways which did not win souls but rather led to death.

Here is some more commentary on this most tragic of operas.

Madame Butterfly originated in a story by John Luther Long and was adapted for the stage by David Belasco. The play premiered with great success in New York in 1900, then quickly crossed the Atlantic for a London production where it was seen by Giacomo Puccini. Puccini's first version of the opera failed at La Scala in 1904, but a revised version was successful the same year, the version that we hear today, one of the most frequently produced operas in the entire repertory.

is different from many operas. It is intimate, devoid of spectacle, taking place completely within a house in Nagasaki. There is one straight plot line, without subplots. Girl wins boy, girl loses boy, girl commits hara kiri. What makes the piece work are the characterizations of Butterfly and her Captain Pinkerton, both in the drama and in the rich and luscious Puccini score.

From when we first meet Pinkerton, a dashing officer in the United States Navy, it is clear that the man is a philandering heel, infatuated with the fifteen year old Butterfly, cognizant of her fragility, but "not content with life unless he makes his treasure the flowers on every shore." He says as he compares her to a butterfly, "I must pursue her even though I damage her wings."

The stage for the tragedy is set. We meet the beauteous Cio-Cio San, not a complete innocent - she has been a geisha, after all - but nonetheless fragile, unworldly, and in love with the handsome sailor. She deceives herself, despite abundant warnings, as to Pinkerton's motives.

The tale unfolds with well written dialogue, sung to music which captures the feelings of love and yearning and pain, raising the entire experience into the realm of great art, transcendently moving. This simple plot provides the vehicle for the arias of love and loss and hope and despair, the stuff of which the very best operatic music is made.
Madama Butterfly is an opera for our epoch, as young girls are exploited not by foreign invaders but by their own friends, families, communities, schools. Like Butterfly, they are often forced to surrender their children, especially when the children are slain in abortion. Written at the dawn of the modern age, Puccini's opera transcends musical entertainment; it is art which captures the darkness that would sweep our times.

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