By Gianmarco Segato, Adult Programs Manager
Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is generally considered one of the greatest works to emerge from the Italian verismo movement – that is, the short, concentrated period in operatic history which lasted from just 1892 (the premiere of Catalani’s La Wally) through 1926 (when Puccini’s Turandot marked its end). Verismo was the Italian response to the naturalist movement that originated in French literature, notably in the working-class milieus presented by Émile Zola and Guy de Maupassant. Italy found its equivalent in Giovanni Verga, author of the short story Cavalleria rusticana on which composer Pietro Mascagni based his 1890 verismo-defining opera of the same title.
Despite its origins in “realism” with stories based on contemporary, working-class life, the operatic iteration of the verismomovement soon shifted focus to explore more diverse subject matter which embraced the “exotic.” Consider this list of verismoheroines who emerged in the decades after 1892: noblewomen (Giordano’s Fedora; Cilea’s Gloria; and, the nobly born nun Angelica in Puccini’s Suor Angelica); courtesans (Stephana in Giordano’s Siberia; Puccini’s Magda in La rondine) and "oriental waifs" (Mascagni’s Iris and Puccini’s Liù in Turandot). So, it is an oversimplification to view verismo opera as dealing solely in subjects drawn from tawdry newspaper headlines (as did Verga’s and Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana). The proof is in Madama Butterfly, only the most famous example of how composers of this era, including Mascagni, strove to constantly expand and refine their art, searching for new and original subject matter to include such (then) “exotic” cultures like Japan’s.
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When Falstaff premiered at La Scala, Milan in 1893, it landed at the centre of a critical controversy raging between two opposing points of view.
On one side, there were those who saw the future of Italian opera as lying within the “Wagnerian” camp; that is, in compositions that veered in the direction of orchestral complexity, constant melodic development, a reduction of the role of the melodic line and, the subordination of music to the text – elements not generally associated with the great Italian bel canto tradition in which melody and the singing line dominated.
A second, opposing group of Italian critics asserted that Verdi did actually achieve perfection with Falstaff – that it stood at the summit of his career. They explained away the Wagnerian “problem” by attributing Falstaff’s musical innovation to the internal creative development of Verdi’s mind as opposed to any wholesale adoption of Germanic influences.
So, where does Verdi himself fall in this critical maelstrom? He did make it clear his last opera would be quite different from anything he’d previously written. It was to be the comedy he always wanted to compose and from a musical point of view, Verdi said he wrote it as much for his own amusement as for the public’s.
Verdi’s Falstaff is extremely rich, inventive, and fast-paced; the orchestration is sensitive to every shift in the language of Arrigo Boito’s libretto – so, when an image in the text changes, the music turns on a dime and adopts a different tempo and mood, befitting the tone of the text. Paradoxically, this extreme invention is probably also the reason why, at first, audiences did not embrace this opera in quite the same way as they had with Verdi’s earlier works. There is a fleeting quality about it. Falstaffcontains an abundance of melody, without much repetition; tunes come and go almost before they can be grasped. The immediately memorable, hummable tunes of Rigoletto and La Traviata are no longer foremost on the composer’s agenda.
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Kelly Kaduce comes to the Canadian Opera Company full of the passion needed to portray one of Puccini's most iconic, and tragic, characters.
What’s she doing with us? This is Kelly's debut with the COC, sharing the title role with Patricia Racette in the COC’s acclaimed production of Madama Butterfly. Like Patricia, she has sung Cio-Cio San in several productions, with Santa Fe Opera, West Australia Opera, and Portland Opera.
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001