Posts Tagged ‘Madama Butterfly’

“Madama Butterfly” revisited

There are times when one should reconsider some point of view one had previously expressed with great confidence, and concede, much though it may pain one to do so, that one may, perhaps, have been a trifle over-hasty. To switch now to the first person, I have to admit I’ve been talking shite.

The last time I wrote about the operas of Puccini, I had characterised him as, essentially, a purveyor of schmaltz – a splendid craftsman who, far from hiding his craftsmanship, put it on display, and who knew better than anyone how to pull at the heartstrings. And while it is certainly very enjoyable stuff, it is not, I implied, to be taken too seriously. You have a good cry as you’re watching it, and afterwards, if not actually forget about it, smile at the thought of having been so affected at the time. It’s showmanship of a very high standard, admittedly, but showmanship all the same, and nothing more.

But now, a full week after seeing a live broadcast into the cinemas of Royal Opera’s superb performance of Madama Butterfly, and still unable to get it out of my head, I find myself questioning this. Even if it were all true; even if Puccini were a master showman, a craftsman of the highest order who knew full well how to get his audience crying; why should that imply that his works are not to be taken seriously? What is it, precisely, that should prevent me from seeing Madama Butterfly as a serious tragic drama?

The plotline is simple enough (and I guess that I should issue at this point a spoiler warning, for those who care about such things). A young Japanese girl, Cio Cio San, from a noble family now fallen upon bad times, and, aged only fifteen, very innocent and naïve about the ways of the world, enters into marriage with a young American sailor Pinkerton. She takes the marriage very seriously, going as far as to reject her religion for her future husband’s, thus earning her family’s disapproval. Pinkerton, on the other hand, does not take this “marriage” at all seriously: he is just in it for a night of sex with an attractive young Japanese girl, and he even jokes quite openly about later finding himself a “proper American wife”. After his night of passion, he sails away, and forgets all about this girl. It is not that he is a villain: he is just a thoughtless young man who is doing what he sees everyone else in his position doing. It doesn’t occur to him – or, indeed, to anyone else – that the “bride” might be taking this whole silly business seriously.

But she does. From that night of passion, she has a little boy. And she waits for Pinkerton to return, as he had said he would, and will not hear anything to the contrary. And when, after three years, he does return, he has his “proper American wife” with him. He is overcome by remorse, and he and his American wife speak of adopting the little boy from his former “marriage”. Cio Cio San, her entire life and soul now crushed, takes out of its scabbard the sword with which her father, on the Emperor’s command, had committed hara-kiri. She reads the inscription: “He who cannot live with honour must die with honour”. And she blindfolds the little by so he cannot see his mother’s final agony, both physical and spiritual.

That is the story, and, for all the talk we hear of operas having silly plots, this seems to me frighteningly realistic. But what is interesting is what Puccini makes of this story. For, as far as I can see, what he makes of it is more than just a finely crafted tear-jerker. It now seems to me that it is nothing less than a tragedy of immense proportions. Cio Cio San’s fate is every bit as tragic as that of Janáček’s Káťa Kabanová, or Berg’s Wozzeck. If we do not hesitate to describe those works as tragic (and I don’t think anyone seriously does), I really don’t see why we should withhold that status from this opera. Yes, Cio Cio San is tortured beyond human endurance, and Puccini is often criticised for what many regard as his streak of sadism, and of misogyny. But Káťa Kabanová and Wozzeck are equally tortured, and I’ve yet to hear Janáček criticised for misogyny on that score, or Berg of misandry. And neither is accused of sadism. It seems that these criticisms are made only of Puccini. Is it because he wears his heart so obviously on his sleeve, I wonder? What other reason can there be?

Also, sadism implies an enjoyment in inflicting pain. But I get no sense of that at all in Madama Butterfly. Puccini takes Cio Cio San’s sufferings very seriously. Indeed, he is perhaps the only one who does. Apart from the maidservant Suzuki, all other characters seem to see Cio Cio San as essentially disposable: she doesn’t matter, and neither do her feelings. In the first act, Pinkerton never pauses to ask himself whether Cio Cio San takes the marriage seriously, or as lightly as he obviously does. Even the American consul, Sharpless, though sympathetic, is merely uneasy at the marriage, and no more: he tells Pinkerton to be careful, but, crucially, doesn’t tell him not to proceed with his plans. Later, he expresses frustration that Cio Cio San insists on waiting for the man she still regards as her husband. In the final act, no-one questions that Pinkerton’s second marriage, with a “proper American woman”, is the one that really counts, and not his first. Pinkerton may be remorseful, and everyone may feel sorry for Cio Cio San, but no-one thinks anything of taking her child away from her. The American Mrs Pinkerton promises to Cio Cio San that she will look after the child as if he were her own: she actually thinks this is a kind thing to say. And we can all guess what will happen once the curtain drops on the dead woman and the blindfolded child: the child will be taken away, his mother never more mentioned, and, in time, she will be forgotten. A disposable person well disposed of. Move on – nothing to see here.

The only person to understand the full extent of this tragedy, to understand its earth-shaking nature, is Puccini himself. And to see this merely as a master showman pulling strings to get his audience crying does not strike me as an adequate way to view this – as it seems to me now – extraordinary work. It wrings the heart with terror and with pity, and neither is there just for theatrical effect.

The Royal Opera production, and the performances, were top notch. Conductor Antonio Pappano shapes and paces the drama to perfection, and Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho is absolutely sensational as Cio Cio San, both in terms of singing and of acting. A full week after the show, neither my wife nor I can get this opera out of our heads. The other characters on stage may no doubt see Cio Cio San as essentially a disposable human being; but Puccini has ensured that we see her as something considerably more than that. Madama Butterfly is among the great works of tragic drama.

The operas of Puccini; or, how I learnt to stop worrying and love the schmaltz

One should never apologise for one’s tastes. I am not talking about extremes here: if one’s tastes run to murdering and dismembering random members of the public, say, then an apology is, I imagine, the very least that may be expected. No, I mean one’s tastes in reading, in films, in music: no matter how banal or undiscerning or unschooled one’s tastes may be, one is entitled to like or to dislike whatever one damn well wants. That must never be at issue.

But given this, I do not know why I feel I should apologise for enjoying Puccini. When I was loading some of my favourite music on to my i-Pad before going on holiday, there I was picking out from my CD collection La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, in full knowledge that there were CDs containing far greater music untouched on the shelves.

Generally, when we love something, we are quick to refute, or, at least, to refuse to acknowledge the validity of, damning criticism. I love Chaplin’s City Lights, for instance: when it is accused of being sentimental, I am quick to reject the charge, for “sentimentality” is a Bad Thing, and City Lights I know isn’t bad. Or when Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is accused of being melodramatic, I reject that criticism also, and for similar reasons. After all, I do not love these works with that postmodernist irony (is there any other kind of irony these days?) that rejoices knowingly in the work’s weakness: I love these works because I think they are good, and how could something be good if they are characterised by qualities I acknowledge to be bad? But with Puccini, it’s different. However one defines sentimentality and melodrama, I acknowledge La Bohème to be grotesquelysentimental, and Tosca to be absurdly melodramatic. And yet I wouldn’t be without either. And the worst of it is that I love these works not despite these qualities, but because of them.

One may add to these crimes of sentimentality and melodrama that of “manipulation”. Frankly, I have never understood why this should be regarded as so heinous a crime: I cannot think of a single work of art, no matter how great or exalted, that doesn’t manipulate the reader or the listener or the viewer in some way or other into feeling and experiencing certain things. But I suppose it is a serious flaw when the strings are pulled in too obvious or in too mechanical a manner. And even this, Puccini is guilty of. He revels in it. He is so good at pulling the strings, that he makes a show of it – he allows the audience to observe him doing it. When at the end of La Bohème, Rodolfo becomes aware of what everyone else in the room already knows – that his beloved Mimi is dead – the orchestra lets out three loud chords, like the pealing of funeral bells, and then launches with untrammeled passion into that big tune to which Mimi, only a few minutes earlier, had sung to him “There’s so much I’d like to tell you”. And as we realise she never will tell him, goddammit, we weep along with Rodolfo. We weep even as we see Puccini pulling the strings. Yes, we are being manipulated, but not only do we acknowledge it, we find ourselves happy to be complicit in the manipulation; and we continue weeping, quite unembarrassed by it all. And – you know what? – we feel all the better for it. At least, I do.

Those composers who continued composing in a Romantic vein even as modernism was developing and flourishing – Puccini, Strauss, Rachmaninov – were frequently “schmaltzy”. Perhaps we should deplore their music for being so, but for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, I can’t. And neither, I know, can many other music lovers – vast numbers of them, across several generations now – whose tastes in all other respects are often immaculate.

So what conclusion can we draw from all this? That these works aren’t sentimental, or melodramatic, or manipulative? No, that won’t do: I am happy to concede that they are all three. Or that these qualities are not necessarily bad qualities? I have a problem there as well, since there are many works I can think of off the top of my head that I find unbearable for one or other of these reasons. The only other option I can think of is that these qualities are acceptable, and even enjoyable, under certain circumstances. But what these circumstances are, I frankly haven’t a clue.

Last night, unable to get to sleep, I put on La Bohème on my earphones, and was once again transported by the gorgeous voices of Victoria de los Angeles and of Jussi Bjoerling singing the most glorious and passionate of melodic lines, with the orchestra, under the direction of Sir Thomas Beecham, breaking the heart with every manipulative phrase. Yes, yes, I know – this music is everything its detractors claim it is. But I love it – and I ain’t going to apologise!