Madam Butterfly

Madam Butterfly by Puccini

You know the story? 3 acts worth of

    1) Naval Officer with the Consultant in Japan rents house and contracts with 15 year old Japanese girl for marriage. Later – he takes off since he always intended to and marry a proper American wife
    2) she waits for him –
    3) the coward that he is -he tries to sneak in the back door and pick up his son (hello? take home a mixed race child of your husbands? I don’t think so……). Distraught from being abandoned – she turns over the boy and kills herself.

Before we go any further, let me give you a little more background so you will understand my point of view. Your concurrence is not required of course; just that sometimes what seems completely stupid on the surface is….. even more so when you think about it. The Opera was written in 1904 by an Italian who, by any account has never been to the far east, made no study of the culture and demonstrates this clearly in his concept of characters and plot. He based it on stories by others (can you spell white European male?) and scholar’s aside – given the attitude toward mixed race anyone held by Europeans I have real doubts as to the veracity of that particular event, especially in the 1880s. (Shall we leave out his personal, repressible behavior in terms of having affairs and otherwise not being a pillar of society?)

This performance at the Volksopern, Vienna was staged with more than full cast and orchestra. Orchestra being defined in this case as a good band diluted by 36 excess strings, an excellent harpist and 4 bored men with bases. Pucinni likes strings. I don’t. Woodwind sections are good; this one was fine which was good since we had the pleasure of being on that side of the theater and spared the brass. However, with Puvcinni it probably didn’t make a difference. He is enamored of strings which means that I was surprised that the brass and percussion sections managed to stay awake for their five minutes of involvement peppered into 2 hours of music. Strings would not be so incredibly annoying if we hadn’t been in lodge seating and were treated to an unrestricted view of excessive body english to the point of flipping feet up and down on the part of one violinist.

I am a recovered flutist of the old school variety – the one that says body english is distracting and a waste of energy that should be better channeled into the music. Bobbing, swaying and writhing in ones chair are not a sign of emotional playing – they are a public exhibit of lack of taste.

Gee – no opinions or digressions here or anything! Back to the performance.

The Volksopern has a standard stage with good mechanics which the director used to advantage. The center stable section had a “Japanese” like building with side panels used to good effect. The outer ring rotated bringing in settings and props. The minimalist props and set pieces were fine.

The actors on the other hand – well just let me leave it with there were an awfully lot of people wandering here and there with no real purpose at the beginning as well as in numerous crowd scenes. It is not that they were needed for chorus work – they were just bodies. Inaccurately dressed bodies. If you are going to portray an era – please be consistent. Don’t mix 1860s with 1880s with 1910 in women’s clothing (all of the silhouettes were wrong and not a corset, bustle or pannier in the herd). Modern foot gear is not a good idea, especially combined with ties (not cravats). Just because you put a straw hat on a kid doesn’t mean that he/she is dressed appropriately for the time.

Shall we just ignore the modernization portion at the end? Crowds again, this time in modern dress – hanging out, staring. Mannequins would have been preferable and more lifelike. To finish it off Pucinni as narrator physically involved with his own opera? Stumbling around with a cane which I guess was supposed to hint at the wheelchair which was his main mode of mobility.

I actually don’t mind the Italian. I don’t know enough Italian to be irritated at the triteness of the lines and story. Put over-titles for subtitles (German) at the top of the theater arch and the little remaining mystery is gone. Stupid story, decent voices often drowned out by the orchestra. Sopranos cut clearly through everything – altos and baritones not so.

George’s take on it was simple – not a good performance. He found the lack of balance coupled with the staging = the worst of the many performances of this opera he has seen. Given that Madam Butterfly ranks right up there at #8 on the world-wide most performed operas, there are more than a few chances to hear it.

I was relieved to catch the S-bahn back to the hotel, have a decent nights sleep and fly comfortably home today.

According to the printed list I got from the machine in the lounge – I just went over the bar required for Frequent Traveler Status on Lufthansa for next year. It is pretty funny that I wound up getting more miles for the little spent on this found trip than I did for my last NY-Frankfurt run…..

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3 Responses to Madam Butterfly

  1. Carmen says:

    I gave up long ago trying to make sense of opera plots. I just assumed they were a vehicle for the music, and that’s it.

    I’ve read about some of the new opera producers – especially in Europe – putting new spins on old classics, and usually offending the audiences. Why a producer would think that a Puccini opera is an opportunity for his/her own ‘performance art’ concept – I don’t know – that is dumb.

  2. Brad says:

    And for what it is worth: The Italian used in Opera is usually far more poetic and archaic than what one would encounter in usual speech. Luckily the English equivalents are close enough as to be discernible if one has a college education.

  3. Bill says:

    Sorry you were disappointed at the Opera.

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