I’ve spent a lot of time over many years loving and hating Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Is it just a tear-soaked pathetic melodrama with good tunes or is it a really great opera, a great work of art? For a number of years, I’d just been pooh-poohing it as “just a sad story, boo hoo!” Well, yes, it’s a sad story of misplaced love–with great tunes.
After seeing the Metropolitan Opera’s HD transmission of Butterfly last season, I started having second thoughts about my negativity. After all, there was I time when I loved it, played through the score on the piano many times, listened to recordings, etc. After a time I became hard-hearted until … The Met production was so startlingly beautiful, so perfectly acted, and beautifully sung, that I saw and heard anew what I had always loved about this opera.
Vancouver Opera’s current excellent production is only confirming my admiration for the brilliance of Puccini’s score. He not only turned out one gorgeous melody after another, and wrote superbly for the voice and for the orchestra, but he also had a sure hand at theatrical effect. He took what was essentially a pretty corny play (by David Belasco) and turned it into a masterpiece. After all, it has held the stage for one hundred and six years and is probably now more popular than ever.
Its shortcoming, if it is a shortcoming, is that it is a veristic tale of ordinary people. What makes it of value, though, is that, like any great drama or tragedy, the ordinary person, Butterfly in this case, rises to heroic stature when confronted with an impossible, soul-destroying set of events. While I’m still not convinced that this is a great tragedy, I am more and more in awe of the score and Puccini’s dazzling ability to touch the heart and stir the soul.