The Met Live in HD at USCB Center for the Arts: A preview of Puccini’s opera classic, Madama Butterfly

5 mins read

By Alan Schuster

Several of the world’s best operas have been opening night failures, among them Carmen, The Barber of Seville and La Traviata. But the best of the worst occurred at Milan’s La Scala in 1904: Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. In act one when a love duet began, the audience started screaming “Boheme,” accusing the composer of ‘borrowing’ his earlier work. In act two, a draft of air from the wings inflated the soprano’s kimono. Someone shouted: “Look, Butterfly is pregnant already.” And in the final act, the orchestral sounds of birds emanating from an intermezzo inspired the audience to join in with cock-a-doodle-dos. One critic likened it to Noah’s Ark. Months later – after a few revisions – the opera became a brilliant success.

Nagasaki: Goro, a marriage broker is showing Pinkerton, a US naval officer, a home which he will buy after his marriage to Cio-cio-san (Madama Butterfly), a young geisha, later that day. US consul Sharpless arrives. Learning of Pinkerton’s intention to leave his “port wife” when his tour expires, he tries to convince him not to abandon her, but fails. Cio-cio-san and friends enter. To the dismay of her relatives, she is renounced for having deserted the family religion when the wedding ceremony takes place. They all depart, leaving Cio-cio-san in tears. Pinkerton comforts her, and then they enter their home.

The music: Three extraordinary numbers define the act. Pinkerton’s arietta (All over the world the Yankee travels) is a boastful claim made to Sharpless, ending with their rousing toast to “America forever.” This leads to Butterfly’s dreamy entrance from a distance, her voice rising above a brilliant chorus. It’s one of Puccini’s most charming and effective numbers. Finally left alone after taking their vows, the couple engages in an extended, rapturous duet, ending the act.

It’s three years later and Butterfly – now with a little boy – expresses hope as she waits for Pinkerton’s return with her devoted servant Suzuki at her side. Sharpless enters, telling Suzuki alone that Pinkerton has an American wife. But before Cio-cio-san learns of this, Goro enters with a wealthy prince who is eager to marry her – which she curtly rejects. Soon after, a harbor cannon announces the arrival of Pinkerton’s ship. Cio-cio-san and Suzuki joyfully prepare for his return.

The music: Butterfly’s first full-scale aria (One fine day) is one of the composer’s most famous songs, as she convinces herself that he will come back. After dismissing the Prince, the cannon sound leads to the wonderful harmonies of her “Flower duet” with Suzuki. As darkness nears, they take up a vigil, awaiting his return. In the background, a melancholy humming chorus can be heard, ending the act on a quiet but highly emotional scene.

In Butterfly’s absence, Sharpless arrives with Pinkerton and his wife, Kate, informing Suzuki that they’ve come to arrange for the care of the child. He tells Pinkerton to leave rather than bear witness to Butterfly’s reaction to such tragic news. When she enters and sees Kate, she realizes her dreadful situation and asks Kate to have Pinkerton return in half an hour to receive the child. Alone, she blindfolds her son and places a little American flag in his hand, then stabs herself with a dagger as an anguished Pinkerton arrives too late.

The music: The humming chorus continues as the final act begins, a clever linking of the two acts together between nightfall and dawn. Another prime moment follows as the trio grapples with the dilemma of comforting Butterfly. Pinkerton, now aware of the heartbreaking situation he has created, sings a poignant farewell, (Farewell, home of love). In the last tragic moments, Butterfly sings a sad farewell to her son, and then kills herself in a highly melodramatic finale.

The cast: Kristine Opolais as Butterfly (previously, a brilliant Manon Lescaut); Roberto Alagna as Pinkerton; Maria Zifchak as Suzuki; and Dwayne Croft as Sharpless.

The starting time is 12:55 p.m. Tickets for all opera presentations are now available. All seats are general admission. Adults $20; OLLI members $18; Students $10. Order online at www.centerforthearts.com or by calling 843-521-4145. Box office opens at 11:30 a.m. USCB Center for the Arts is located at 801 Carteret Street, Beaufort, South Carolina.

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