Madama Butterfly

Published on Fri, Apr 23, 2010 by Margot Griffiths

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Vancouver Opera’s Golden Jubilee season comes to a close in early June with Giacomo Puccini’s perennial favorite, Madama Butterfly.

Set in Nagasake at the beginning of the 20th Century, Madama Butterfly was first performed in Milan in 1904. Puccini’s research into Japanese culture went deep and he incorporated Japanese melodies into his opera, giving it an exotic flavor that was originally rejected by the tough Milanese opera crowd. But after Puccini made some changes, Butterfly has become a much-loved staple of opera houses everywhere.

Goro, a marriage broker, arranges a union between Lieutenant Pinkerton, a young American naval officer, and a Japanese bride, Butterfly. The “marriage” contract includes a convenient clause allowing Pinkerton an annulment when he’s ready to move on. Butterfly alone takes it seriously, and her childlike devotion defines her character.

And so, of course, when his ship sails for America, Pinkerton manfully moves on. It is three years before he returns. Ever hopeful, Butterfly awaits his arrival with his young son by her side. But Pinkerton brings with him his American wife, Kate. Finally convinced her marriage is a sham, Butterfly takes her own life to preserve family honor and to ensure her son will have a better life with his father.

Puccini has been described as the heir to Verdi. This is due to a blend of the symphonic method (a style of continuously developing music, like Wagner’s) and a vein of traditional Italian melody, which gives Puccini’s work a highly emotional lyricism.

Dramatically, this composer cared less for character development than for the power of intense human impulses—impulses that are vividly suggested in the high points of his music, making this a genre of what in English is called melodrama. But, as noted in an earlier column on Norma, it is amusing to recall that in Italian, “melodrama” means, simply, “opera.”

Puccini’s two fundamental sensitivities as a musical dramatist are sympathy for a heroine in distress, and a love of a strong theatrical situation. His “stage sense” is critical to his work as a composer, and his heroines are supremely tragic figures – women who have been foiled badly by the Fates. It may be that Puccini was an early feminist. His male leads seldom develop the forceful, empathic presence that his women do. Pinkerton is essentially a negative character – unworthy and morally lacking. The opera belongs to Butterfly alone.

Puccini’s operas focus on the potential of the dramatic moment. In her most famous aria, “One Fine Day,” Butterfly acts out the scene of Pinkerton’s longed for return. This “acting within acting” highlights Puccini’s love of the dramatic moment. And most dramatic of all is the heartrending goodbye between Butterfly and her son.

It’s safe to say everyone can fall in love with Puccini. My kids fell for La Boheme before they were old enough to argue. The high drama and exquisite lyricism of Madama Butterfly make it a fitting finale to the VO’s glorious golden year. There is no better closer than Puccini.

May 29, June 1, 3, 5, 8, 10, 2010. VO Ticket Center:  604-693-0222

Madama Butterfly

Vancouver Opera’s Golden Jubilee season comes to a close in early June with Giacomo Puccini’s perennial favorite, Madama Butterfly.

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