Sunday, May 1, 2011

Giacomo Puccini's "Madama Butterfly"

Giacomo Puccini
Giacomo Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" is a tragic tale which is told in the popular opera style called verismo. The Italian word for realism, verismo was very popular in Italy during the 1890s and early 1900s. Puccini was a master of this style, telling true and gritty stories which often culminated in a violent ending. The Italian composer's heroines are instantly recognizable with their strength and fragility, and in his opera "Madama Butterfly", his heroine is Cio-Cio-San, a young geisha.

As a young composer Puccini was overshadowed by his compatriot Giuseppe Verdi. Yet Verdi was also the man who inspired Puccini into the genre of opera. As a teenager Puccini saw Verdi's Aida, and at the age of 35 came Puccini's first major success, Manon Lescaut. Puccini was a wonderful melodist, and has crafted many memorable arias which have melodies which bend and move with grace. His arias often begin in the upper register and work their way downward, with flexibility and suppleness. Yet Puccini did more than just brilliant arias, his orchestral work created atmospheres with a variety of colors. He often employed the violinata technique, which was an orchestral doubling of the vocal line.

Puccini's love for exoticism is notable in the choice of settings and subject matter of his operas. Turandot, Madama Butterfly, and Girl of the Golden West all show his fascination with exotic lands and foreign cultures. In total, Giacomo Puccini wrote 12 operas including Madama Butterfly, La Bohème, and Tosca.

The plot of Puccini's Madama Butterfly is based off a play by David Belasco. The tragic story follows a Japanese geisha named Cio-Cio-San (also called Butterfly) who marries an American naval officer named Pinkerton, only to be abandoned by him. She waits for him faithfully and Pinkerton returns three years later, yet he has an American wife. When Pinkerton arrives, he wants to take his boy he had with Butterfly back to America. Butterfly's humiliation is too much to bear, and as she attempts to commit suicide her boy is pushed into the room to distract and stop her. Butterfly bids a farewell to her son and sends him off to play. As she stabs herself, Pinkerton's voice is heard far off in the distance calling Butterfly's name.

Aria: "Un bel dì vedremo




Probably the most famous part of Madama Butterfly is Cio-Cio-San's aria, "Un bel dì vedremo". It is sung by Butterfly in response to Suzuki's (her housekeeper and friend) doubts that Pinkerton will never return to Japan. The formal structure of the aria is ABAC, starting with a calm A section which is in G flat major. The homophonic texture (single melodic line accompanied by harmony) starts in a languid and beautiful fashion. It begins high and slowly works its way down, employing the violinata technique. The A section has a very rubato feel because of the continual changes of tempo.

Section B changes the time signature to 2/4 from A's 3/4, and it's marked with the Italian words, con semplicità, which means, "with simplicity". A recitativo parlando style is achieved by fast-repeating notes which are sustained by orchestral chords.

The A section returns and is marked this time with con forza, which translates to "with strength". This time there's the same melodic contour heard at the beginning of the aria, but now delivered with an almost parlando effect of the B section. In the C section the broad recitative style is maintained as the melody rises and builds in pitch and volume. It builds all the way to a climactic high B flat on the words, "await him". Then we hear the principal theme by the orchestra one last time.

Maria Callas's rendition of "Un bel dì vedremo" is my favorite on Youtube, and many consider her the best performer of many arias. Her performance carries all of the emotion and beauty which Puccini surely wanted to depict with his brilliant opera, Madama Butterfly.

1 comment:

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