Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Evolution of Butterfly

 It is difficult to believe that anything as warm, (apparently) cohesive and beloved as Puccini's Madama Butterfly grew in fact  from sources as the diverse and seemingly incoherent and unrelated as the fragments of  Frankenstein's monster and just as miraculously that at the distance of over a hundred years audiences all over the earth still cry, "It's alive!"
Always looking for the "next thing " the Italian Puccini, with little English found himself in London to oversee the Covent Garden premiere of Tosca and, like any good tourist,took in the theatre.In this case an American play by a man named Belasco.This play itself taken in part from from a short story by another American, John Luther Long. Puccini sat and listened knowing almost no English and "felt" the plot from what he saw on stage.He was said at the end to rush backstage in tears, embrace Belasco and propose that he be given the rights to turn it into an opera.This emotional beginning gave way to years of inspired drudgery. Through struggles with his own marriage, he lived with his wife- to -be for almost two decades before they married, colored by his philandering and her jealousy perhaps he saw the plot clearly. In the midst of these arguments,followed by building a house for his growing family and then wrecking a new car in an accident that could have killed him, he began work. He called on the help of diplomats who had lived and traveled in Japan;acquired recordings of Japanese music and met Japanese artist then traveling in Italy. The librettists Giacosa and Illica added and added drawing on novels then popular at the time dealing with the subject, in French. Arguments flared as the final structure saw the composer and the librettists at odds. Three acts or two long acts; to open the first act in America or Japan? How culpable was each character to be in the precipitation of the final tragedy? How sympathetic was each principal to be or how flawed; how much was it to be a study in character or cultural clash of East and West? By the opening at Scala these questioned still remained  unanswered.The premiere was a fiasco, but the composer's faith held. Incredibly, as in the case of that other monster, lightening did finally strike. The corrections,  adjustments and cuts that went on for years eventually came together and the result was one of the world's most beloved musical classics.
Please tune in for this week's Met presentation of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. This Saturday at noon on KPAC and KTXI. 
by Ron Moore

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