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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Get an insider look at our gorgeous and hilarious production of Verdi’s comic masterpiece Falstaff! This Inside Opera instalment features rehearsal footage and interviews with bass-baritone Gerald Finley, director Robert Carsen and COC Music Director and Falstaff conductor Johannes Debus.
Falstaff plays for seven performances at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, from October 3 to November 1.
For more information, click here
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By C. Ian Kyer
In 1995 when American bass-baritone John Del Carlo was preparing to sing the lead in Falstaff at the Schwetzinger Festspiele, he had to do extra training. He had sung Verdi’s Falstaff before but this time was very different, because what he was singing was not the work of Arrigo Boito and Giuseppe Verdi. This Falstaff featured a libretto by Carlo Prospers Defranceschi with music by none other than Mozart’s infamous rival, Antonio Salieri. To Del Carlo’s surprise he found the work both entertaining and musically interesting.
The two Falstaffs were both the work of mature and celebrated composers. Verdi’s Falstaff was in fact his 26th and last opera. He had said that he fired his last cartridge with Otello (1887) but in 1889, at age 76, he began to set another libretto based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. Verdi and his librettist called it Falstaff, after the lead character in Shakespeare’s play, Sir John Falstaff, and it premiered at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala on February 9, 1893.
Coincidentally, the first opera ever performed at La Scala had been Antonio Salieri’s Europa Riconosciuta in 1778 (it was also performed at the re-opening in 2004), when Salieri was only 28 years old. He was much older in 1799 when he wrote the music for Falstaff, his 37th opera, but certainly not as old as Verdi was when he composed his version. One of Salieri’s students, Ludwig van Beethoven, so liked the work (or so wished to exploit its popularity) that he did piano variations on a duet from the opera, La stessa, la stessissima.
This year the Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble of New York marked Antonio Salieri’s birthday (August 18th) by presenting his Falstaff as part of the company’s two-week A Summer of Shakespeare festival. See the New York Times review here.
You owe it to yourself to attend the COC’s performance of the Verdi comedic masterpiece, but you should also watch John Del Carlo sing Salieri’s Falstaff from the Schwetzinger Festspiele. It was recorded and released on DVD (and a trailer for it can be found on YouTube here). For a classic DVD version of Verdi’s version, check out Franco Zeffirelli’s acclaimed Metropolitan Opera production conducted with warmth and brio by James Levine. Its superb ensemble cast features Paul Plishka in the title role; Mirella Freni as a delightful Alice and, early in their careers, Susan Graham and Barbara Bonney as Meg and Nannetta. Marilyn Horne takes a comic turn as Mistress Quickly. The DVD is available for purchase at the Opera Shop for $25.75 including tax. Watching these two operas will give you a real insight into how the art form has changed in the almost 100 years between them.
For more information about the Austrian Imperial Kapellmeister Salieri, read Ian Kyer’s novel “Damaging Winds” (available for free online in both PDF and ePUB file formats) or listen to him as a guest on the National Arts Centre podcasts.
Image Credits: Portrait of Antonio Salieri, Museo Fiorini, Legnago. Wiki Commons. Costume design realized on commission of Ricordi & c. by Adolf Hohenstein for the premiere at the Teatro alla Scala, February 9, Milan, Wiki Commons.
Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001