I love opera.
It feels too pretentious to type, let alone confess out loud. And yet, to my own deep surprise, it is entirely true.
My love for opera has recently soared to new heights because…
…last week (to be precise, Tuesday 22nd March, at 7pm, sat in stall A, row D, seat 7- eek!) I had the exquisite privilege of seeing Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at Gran Teatro La Fenice in Venice.
A fairly new convert to opera, despite my mother playing it for many years, this was my third performance, the previous two being Bizet’s Carmen at the Royal Opera House (incredible!) and Mozart’s Così fan tutte at the Leeds Grand Theatre (very good, but at times a little much).
I had always seen opera as confusing and daunting, the domain of snobs and polyglots. My mother, incidentally being neither, continued to stress the transgressive emotional quality of the art form. I was often reminded of the scene in Pretty Woman when Richard Gere and Julia Roberts attend a performance of Verdi’s La traviata (the story of a Parisian courtesan, the titular ‘fallen woman’, and her bourgeoise admirer – subtle much?) and she is simultaneously transfixed and moved to tears by something both linguistically and socially discordant.
It was Giacomo Puccini who made me fall in love with what I previously deemed ‘hysterical shrieking’. The moment I heard the lilting aria ‘O mio babbino caro’ from Gianni Schicchi, I was hooked (and rather tearstained).
The reality of seeing his Madama Butterfly, in my favourite city to boot, was everything I could have hoped for and more.
But first let us deal with the facts and later on, the feelings…
The Gran Teatro La Fenice was founded in 1792, conceived by the architect Gian Antonio Selva. The facade is inscribed with the motto ‘SOCIETAS’ (just above it’s D.O.B of MDCCXCII) one that was immediately transformed into an ironic acrostic by the Venetian people: ‘Sine Ordine Cum Irregularitate Erexit Theatrum Antonius Selva’ – Without Order and With Irregularity was Erected the Theatre by Antonio Selva.
Never was a building so perfectly christened, for the word ‘fenice’ means ‘phoenix’ in Italian, and the theatre has twice been resurrected from its ashes. Teatro La Fenice was engulfed in flames on two separate occasions: first on the 13th December 1836, when the auditorium and stage were destroyed, and again on the 29th January 1996, the blaze leaving the building gutted and only the smoking outer shell remaining.
However, in between fires, the theatre enjoyed great success, staging the world premieres of numerous operas, including those of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi. It continues to be one of Italy’s primary concert halls, perhaps second only to Milan’s La Scala, staging more than one hundred opera performances each year as well as a major symphonic season conducted by prominent conductors from all over the world.
It’s also so very, very, very pretty. It’s fussy and beautifully grandiose in that red velvet and gilded gold way. The vaulted ceiling is this marvellous azure that effortlessly blends into cyan blue. Creepy little cherubs/putti (n.b. I find them all inexplicably creepy so I doubt La Fenice’s were any more unsettling than your average chubby winged children) float above your head, circling a dazzling chandelier dripping in glass, in the company of willowy women in billowing robes. It’s all quite surreal.
I’ll hand over to Teatro La Fenice for this bit…
“Madama Butterfly is an opera in three acts (originally two acts) by Giacomo Puccini, with an Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. The libretto of the opera is based in part on the short story “Madame Butterfly” (1898) by John Luther Long—which in turn was based partially on stories told to Long by his sister Jennie Correll and partially on the semi-autobiographical 1887 French novel Madame Chrysanthème by Pierre Loti. Long’s short story was dramatized by David Belasco as a one-act play, Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan(1900). After premiering in New York, Belasco’s play moved to London, where Puccini saw it in the summer of 1900.
The original version of the opera, in two acts, had its premiere on 17 February 1904 at La Scala in Milan and performed very poorly (this most inauspicious premiere was greeted by the audience with ‘grunts, roars, moos, laughter, bellows, and guffaws’!) despite the presence of such notable singers as soprano Rosina Storchio, tenor Giovanni Zenatello and baritone Giuseppe De Luca in the lead roles. This was due in large part to the late completion and inadequate time for rehearsals. Puccini revised the opera, splitting the second act into two acts and making other changes. On May 28, 1904, this version was performed in Brescia and was a huge success.
Between 1915 and 1920, Japan’s best-known opera singer Tamaki Miura won international fame for her performances as Cio-Cio San (Madama Butterfly) . Her statue, along with that of Puccini, can be found in the Glover Garden in Nagasaki, the city where the opera is set.
Madama Butterfly is a staple of the standard operatic repertoire for companies around the world, ranking 6th in the Operabase list of the most-performed operas worldwide (Puccini’s La Bohème and Tosca rank 3rd and 5th respectively.)”
I love learning the backstory of things (if that was not already apparent…) So, now we know that Madama Butterfly‘s debut was marred by imperfection; the opera too had to rise from disrepute and failure. But we also know of Puccini’s faith in his creation, one that has enjoyed resounding success ever since.
Suzuki⎮ Manuela Custer
F. B. Pinkerton⎮ Vincenzo Costanzo
Kate Pinkerton ⎮ Julie Mellor
Sharpless⎮ Luca Grassi
Goro⎮ Luca Casalin
Il principe Yamadori⎮ William Corrò
Lo zio bonzo⎮ Cristian Saitta
conductor⎮ Myung-Whun Chung (leading the Orchestra e Coro Teatro La Fenice)
director⎮ Àlex Rigola
sets + costumes ⎮ Mariko Mori
light designer ⎮ Albert Faura
WOW. WOW. WOW.
I’ll be brief because my emotions toward the performance were, and still are, a rather incoherent muddle of euphoria, heartbreak and excitement. Also, I don’t want to give the story away.
The seating was cramped, the lady in front of me had a large head, or to be fair, a big hair-do (it kept gently drifting to the left during the second act as she began to doze off) and I was quite thirsty. These were all things I noted as I sat down.
As soon as the curtain lifted, as soon as Butterfly made her entrance, these small things were of no consequence. I was completely enchanted. I felt each one of Puccini’s arias run up my spine. Indeed, my whole body seem to reverberate with the raw emotion of the vocals and the sheer beauty of the chords.
The set and costumes were contemporary, a landscape of clean white shapes and soft pastel figures that seemed to float and flit about with the beauty and dramatic flourish of actual butterflies. This aesthetic was somehow both visually imposing and also the perfect canvas against which all emotions could play out and actions be scrutinised. Against the bright white, everything was unrelentingly clear; exploitation, sacrifice and global imposition as much as innocence, beauty and eternal love.
The whole cast were incredible and consummate performers. Manuela Custer’s Suzuki (Butterfly’s servant and shadow) was very memorable, not distracting from Yeo, but delivering a performance that created a powerful synergy between the two. Luca Grassi’s Sharpless was brilliant as a man caught between duty and what he feels is right. Pinkerton, played by Vincenzo Costanzo, was the perfect scoundrel, just as magnetic in his moments of cowardice and cruelty as in those of passion and tenderness.
It should be no surprise that Madama Butterfly herself, played by the exceptionally talented Vittoria Yeo, was the star of the performance. She was sublime. The perfect Butterfly in both execution and appearance. Her vocals were so very pure and clear, and yet shot through with a myriad of different emotions- shyness one moment, devastation the next, then angst, desire, love, regret, longing and frustration. My grasp of Italian is not particularly strong, but her face, her movements and of course her words were so affecting and realistic that this mattered little. Glancing up at the surtitles during moments of confusion was helpful, but I did so much less that I expected to for it was so very hard to tear your eyes away from the stage.
I cried twice. At the conclusion of the first act and the tragic culmination of the second. It was cathartic. I didn’t want it to end.
Of course, all things must end, and when it did I clapped until my hands were numb.
The cast stepped forward: “BRAVI!” chorused the audience.
The adorable young actor playing Butterfly and Pinkerton’s son ran forward: “Ahhh che belloooo!” sighed the audience.
Costanzo took his bow: “BRAVO! Magnifico!” shouted the audience.
Yeo finally stepped forward, blowing kisses, and the audience lost their bloody minds: “BRAVA!!!!! BRAVA!!! BRAVA! Perfetto!”
They all surged forward once more, this time with the conductor, hands joined and then raised in triumph. Whistles, cheers and applause rained down on them all.
And then it was over.
I drifted through the crooked streets of Venice in a daze (although, admittedly, this is my usual method of navigation in the city as it is so astonishingly beautiful) and full to the brim with, I don’t know quite what to call it…bliss, perhaps? How fanciful this all sounds, but it is the truth.
I love opera! I’m telling people this now. My mother, for one, is delighted (having attended all three performances with her, we are now sharing opera music as well as Motown and 80s rock ballads…). Adversely, when my housemates faintly hear a shrill scream or sweeping crescendo buzzing from my ear phones (I never warble along lest a variation of this unfortunate incident happen!) they give me a look that seems to say “I really don’t get why you like this stuff.” and also “How are you concentrating while listening to that?”. Perhaps, I’ll manage to convert them by graduation? Sure, I am only a novice at the moment, but I think I’m hooked for life. As with most powerful and extravagant things, it is divisive. It seems to either rally strong dislike or strong adoration.
I’ve no longer come to see opera as a ‘high art’, something elevated and elite, because I think opera is emotion, raw and relatable (no matter how ridiculous or distant the setting) to us all. I urge you to give it a try, or perhaps another try, if like me, you were still unconvinced after initial exposure. Although, I honestly feel like opera is something one sort of makes their mind up about before giving it a good listen- like death metal, country music or ska, it seemingly defies widespread appeal, while still being immensely popular.
The Internet allows us to experience a number of new and exciting things and YouTube is home to film adaptations of opera as well as actual footage, soundtracks of the orchestral pieces (I came across Andre Kostelanetz and the New York Philharmonic’s Puccini Without Words before I heard any vocal renditions) and of course a million different arias performed by legends from Maria Callas to Plácido Domingo.
Should you be so inclined, students can get two tickets for £10 at the Royal Opera House for screenings of performances, while tickets to live events can also be obtained on the cheap and with a number of concessions (in some cases costing as little as £4! In fact just under half of tickets sold are under £40) provided that you plan. Meanwhile, Opera North travels around the country, often performing pieces in English (the performance I saw of Così fan tutte in Leeds was one of them) and always providing surtitles when not doing so.
I hope you’ve stayed with me until the end and will forgive my waxing lyrical- I really did try to be brief! You’ve had the long (coursework-long in fact, I’ve typed just over 2,000 words!) so now the short.
Opera is pretty great. Give it a try and you might be pleasantly surprised.
As always, thanks for reading!