Go behind the scenes with us as we discover the COC's classic production of one of the world's best loved operas, Madama Butterfly. This Inside Opera instalment features rehearsal footage and interviews with sopranos Kelly Kaduce and Patricia Racette, conductor Patrick Lange, and director Brian Macdonald.
Madama Butterfly plays for 12 performances at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts from October 10 to 31.
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By Nikita Gourski
1. It’s a classic opera
Madama Butterfly is the story of Cio-Cio San, a young Japanese geisha who seeks to fulfil her dreams through marriage to an American naval officer. Her faith in their future is shattered by his empty vows, and the loss she endures makes the opera’s tragic ending even more devastating. Butterfly is one of the most popular, most performed operas in the world.
An exquisite production by Canadian theatrical legend Brian Macdonald, designed by Susan Benson with lighting by Michael Whitfield, the COC’s Madama Butterfly has become a Toronto favourite, playing to sold-out audiences at its 1990 premiere and subsequent revivals in 1994, 1998, 2003 and 2009.
The opera is based on David Belasco’s play Madame Butterfly, which Puccini saw in 1900 in London, England. Belasco’s play was itself based on a short story of the same name by John Luther Long, a Philadelphia lawyer, who probably structured his narrative on an even earlier French work, Pierre Loti’s popular novel, Madame Chrysanthème, published in 1887. The libretto, by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, is widely acknowledged as a masterful synthesis, improving the above sources through finely delineated characters, sustained drama, and a tightly structured narrative that lacks anything inessential.
The premiere at La Scala in 1904 was an unmitigated disaster. Booing, hissing, whistling, chirping, and other disruptive noises from the audience derailed the performance almost completely – the singers claimed they could not hear the orchestra, and large portions of the performance were almost certainly inaudible to anyone. No definitive explanation exists as to why the reaction was so strongly negative, but several factors might have played a part: a prejudicial press corps irritated at being shut out during the rehearsal process; an exceedingly long second act that strained the audience’s concentration (Puccini would revise the score into a three-act work); finally, the uproar could have been organized and planted by Puccini’s jealous rivals. In any case, Puccini withdrew the score, returned his fee to the music publisher, and made a number of revisions to the opera. Three months later it was given another performance at a smaller theatre and was a terrific success.
The production’s lean and abstract set design, its evocative lighting, and thoughtful use of space all support the essence of the drama unfolding on stage. Stylistically, Benson has chosen to present Japan through the lens of European Romanticism, rather than in a historically realistic way. The colour palette she draws from is symbolic of troubles to come, with bright oranges giving way to stormy greys.
Two great American singing actresses make their COC debuts in the role of Cio-Cio San: Patricia Racette and Kelly Kaduce.
Racette’s portrayal of the beloved heroine touched millions in the recent Metropolitan Opera HD broadcast. Stands “among the great Butterflies of her era” (Opera News).
Kaduce is a rising star on the operatic world stage, praised for delivering a Cio-Cio San that “demolishes stereotypes. This is noconventional Butterfly-as-victim, but a woman of consequence” (Santa Fe Reporter).
Madama Butterfly is generally considered one of the greatest works to emerge from the Italian verismo movement (1890s-1920s). Originally meaning a “realist” mode of story-telling that explored contemporary, working-class life, verismo operas soon began to encompass more diverse subject matter, including the “exotic,” while drawing on a variety of literary sources – Madama Butterfly is a prime example of this trend.
One of the hallmarks of this movement is that the vocal line retains a spoken quality and natural clarity, while spontaneously acquiring musical pitch – the result is closer to “sung conversation” than the explosive and ornamental singing associated with bel canto or Romantic Italian opera. Of course Puccini still embraces the emotional and vocal expansion of the aria, and this opera features one of the most recognizable arias of all time, “Un bel di.” You can listen to it, along with other guided musical excerpts, at coc.ca/COCRadio.
Photo Credits: (l-r) Allyson McHardy as Suzuki and Adina Nitescu as Cio-Cio San in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Madama Butterfly, 2009. Photo: Michael Cooper
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001