Not Your Standard View of Butterfly

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Took Sam to see Madama Butterfly Friday night and I had forgotten how angry the Opera makes me. It seems that Puccini lavishes his lyrical might in the service of a story that, at best, is a thin tissue of immoralities strung together by implausibilities: a predatory, pedophile, American naval officer toys with the affections of a mentally unstable codependent girl, leaving her with a chld to go off and marry a "real" wife in America, and returning only to steal away the son he had by here, ultimately to her destruction.

My questions--what use her friends, who in the moments of greatest torment run off one direction or another? Am I supposed to be sympathetic to the moral monster that is Pinkerton--please--knowing that you are basically hiring a long-term prostitute even though she thinks she's getting married, running off and marrying elsewhere, returning and then whining about how upset you are that you upset her?

Every syllable a waste in the service of such nonsense. Even the amazingly beautiful aria Un Bel Di basically a neurotic paean to deliberate and cultivated ignorance.

Well, I can say that the performance I saw had the virtue of versimilitude. Madama Butterfly was played by an up-and-coming young Korean Opera star, the voice, the orchestra, and everything flowed together smoothly into an evening of really beautiful, if terribly wasted music.

I know, I was supposed to cry. But I was too busy wondering where in all this mishmash there was anyone who really cared. Even when there are people who do care, there can be tragedy--but this ultimately manipulative melodrama is better listened to without any sense of the story--or with perhaps the few glimpses you get from time to time through television or the movies. Believe me--if you've seen them, you've seen enough.

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I agree about that opera. The Broadway play, Miss Saigon, is based on the same story, set in the Viet Nam War. In both, you see one American view of people of other cultures, disrespect for the poor in distant cultures, and disrespect for women in particular. It tells you that many people today still experience enough of that kind of disrespect in their day to day lives that the opera and play are still appealing, although also shocking.

It seems to me that the opera "Peter Grimes," alludes much more specifically to pedophilia -- so much so that I am surprised that it is still performed anywhere, and yet it seems to be becoming more popular rather than less so. For "Peter Grimes," some opera stars have refused to perform the role as pedophile, but the implications are clear in the opera as Britten wrote it -- which makes me wonder about whether continuing to use Britten's work in church music is still in good taste.

In any event, then there are the operas that shock and move us in a noble way, redeeming the art form: Dialogues of the Carmelites by Poulenc, St. Fran├žois d'Assise by Messiaen, and a few others with noble values and Bible-based stories. Messiaen's complicated harmonies would not make a good early opera experience for a child. Poulenc's lopping off the heads of all the Carmelites after the French Revolution can be troubling even to adults, and intentionally so, with the guillotine dropping at unexpected points in the rhythm to evoke the unpredictability of one's own death.

It is good to give thanks for operas with values of self-sacrificial faith and kindness to the poor. But it is troubling that operas based on values that are simply shocking seem to be more commonly performed, while those that encourage socially beneficial values are falling more to the wayside. And troubling sexual allusions, like the pedophilia in Peter Grimes and Madame Butterfly, are more boldly portrayed, when past audiences and opera stars rejected such portrayals.

It is a troubling sign of what is happening in our culture.

I love "Madama Butterfly." What pedophilia? What do you mean?

Here are my thoughts about this opera. Thanks for providing such a thoughtful commentary which really made me think deeply about this.

Madame Butterfly isn't supposed to be a likeable story or a tragic story. It's Puccini's verismo opera, as far as I can tell. He's telling a story about the sort of thing that does happen, and that people let happen.

It's supposed to make you mad, I think.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on March 25, 2007 7:00 AM.

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