Monday, March 26, 2007

Puccini's Madama Butterfly

Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini is one of the greatest operas of all time. It plumbs the depths of tragedy. If you are ever going through a difficult time in your life and need a catharsis, just listen to Madama Butterfly. It is a the classic story of a naive young girl falling in love with a jerk. 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 has become so perverse that we are shocked by such early marriages, 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 pagan 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 actually the perfect opera for our times, as young girls are mercilessly exploited not by foreign invaders but by their own friends, families, communities, schools. Like Butterfly, they are often forced to surrender their children when the children are slain in abortion. Written at the dawn of the modern era, Puccini's opera transcends musical entertainment, for it is more than opera; it is prophecy.


Anonymous said...

The same errant sense of cultural superiority accounts for a lot of the mainland Chinese hostility to Catholicism; once upon a time, there was an understanding that being a bishop in China was either wholly or largely restricted to the French.

Of course nowadays, it's mostly about stubbornness. On the other hand, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church still has the old mass.

Then there was a Pope who refused to let the Jesuits offer the Mass in Chinese...

elena maria vidal said...

Which Pope was that, I wonder?

Anonymous said...

I attended Mass celebrated in Cantonese Chinese while in Hong Kong a few years before the 1997 handover. Although the priest was non-Chinese, it was a worthwhile cultural experience.

I believe there's a movie version of "Madama Butterfly" in Italian. Also there's a play titled M. Butterfly which is a variation of this opera. It's also been adaptated for a movie.

Anonymous said...

It was my first opera experience, and from then on I was hooked.

I once dated a young man who, while in the armed forces, was stationed in Japan. I found out he had 'married' a Japanese woman and then returned to the US after his tour of duty was over leaving her behind. He said it did not matter because in Japan one merely stands on the street and announces one is divorced, and he is certain that is what she did after he left. I was dumbfounded.

Anonymous said...

The Pope in question was: Clement XI.


China might well be Catholic today were it not for his misunderstanding of Confucianism.

elena maria vidal said...

Thanks, sc!