Pre-performance Talk

Opera Talks!

George Fleeton

This Talk was given before Lyric Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly in the National Concert Hall Dublin on 18, 19 & 21 February 2017

Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, his sixth opera of twelve, was first given in Milan at La Scala where it was received with howls of derision 113 years ago.

It was a contemporary opera and as the story is set in the Japan of 1904, the year in which it was composed, it is also a 20th century opera.

There is much to say about it, even for those of us familiar with it on stage, and you will find that in my article, also published here on -  see BUTTERFLY i.

In this short personal introduction we focused on how the music of Butterfly both counterpoints and underscores the on-stage drama unfolding before us.

The objective was to get lots of added value from our shared experience of the performance so that we left the theatre renewed and invigorated by our encounter with Puccini’s music.

It has been said that Puccini’s music sounds better than it is and, yes, sometimes his showmanship is a bit superficial and there is little by way of intellectual engagement in this or in any of his operas.

But we are not dealing with Wagner or Verdi; yet Puccini has become quite simply the most popular opera composer in the history of European music, for several reasons.

His twelve operas in their totality are very different from what had preceded them in the 19th century; and their continued popularity has been robust and largely unchallenged in the nine decades since his death.

He recognised that opera is a blood sport in which tragic narratives stalk the stage as we sit there in the dark fascinated by the melodrama; he had a passion for high octane narratives: think of Tosca or Turandot as examples of that.

Puccini also had a natural feel for what works best in the theatre and how the drama is embedded in the music; he consistently wrote memorable melodies and his genius included skilfully manipulating our emotional responses to the story which his music was telling – which is why that music becomes the soundtrack of so many of our lives in ways that most other opera composers cannot compete with.

Puccini gave Italian opera its final great burst of pride and with his death in 1924 that style of drama expressed in music, stretching back over 100 years to the heyday of bel canto,  was effectively consigned to history.

In Butterfly we are offered ecstasy in love (act 1) and pathos in death (act 2) – a kind of liebestod, not in the profound sense of Wagner but in the simplicity and brevity of small things  happening in front of us on the stage and in emotions which we can relate to and which are perfectly painted, choreographed, sculpted in the music.

To achieve this catharsis, we suspend our disbelief and allow ourselves to succumb to the astonishing richness of the music and once our emotional engagement is locked into place, once our expectations of the plot and characters are fulfilled, we should experience, through the music, the poignancy of Butterfly’s predicament and her sense of loss, as tragedy supplants her earlier happiness, helplessly witnessed by us, the watchers in the dark.

All of us involved in bringing you Madama Butterfly expressed our sincere thanks for your attendance and your support for what we are trying to do to keep opera alive in Dublin in what are very difficult times for the performing arts in general and for indigenous productions of opera in particular.

The three film clips used to illustrate this Talk were taken from Frédéric Mitterand’s movie Madame Butterfly (1995) with Ying Huang and Richard Troxell, conducted by James Conlon:

In the first clip Cio-Cio San arrives for her wedding to Pinkerton, accompanied by her family; as is the case with Mimì (in La Bohème) and Tosca we hear her before we see her, in the chorus Quanto cielo, quanto mar! …..                      

In the second clip nothing has been heard or seen of Pinkerton for three years; Cio-Cio San’s faith in his return has never wavered; in her aria Un bel dì she hangs on desperately to that faith; there is tremendous pathos in her self-belief; it’s a rhapsody with a fine firm line and a fortissimo ending…..

And in the third clip Sharpless, Pinkerton and Suzuki grapple musically with the appalling dilemma of telling Cio-Cio San about the new Mrs Pinkerton…..   

© mmxviigeorgefleeton