Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924)
was the greatest composer of Italian opera after Verdi. His work closed the classical period in the history of Italian opera (and in the view of many musicians and music historians, the opera classical period as a whole), and at the same time he took in the trends of the new time. In his operas the composer liberally and with great skill used the devices of the musical composition of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: vibrant orchestration in the late romantic manner or pastel impressionistic harmonics, but the core value of his music is melody. It was not accidental that Verdi called Puccini “keeper of the seal of Italian melody”.
Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1904) is ranked among the best classical operas. This work tells a tragic story of love of a young Japanese geisha from Nagasaki for an American lieutenant, and from a broader point of view it speaks of incompatibility of Western and Eastern cultural traditions. “On the back of the enormous European interest in everything Eastern, especially in Japan, Puccini was attracted by the conflict between East and West in the plot (as is known, according to Kipling, “never the twain shall meet”). Energetic American pragmatism (“easy and nice”, according to Pinkerton) encroaches on the mysterious Eastern world of entities and destroys it. The integrity of this world is guarded by the young geisha” (Mikhail Muginstein).
Puccini’s opera is a product of the modernist art period. Puccini’s Japanese tragedy appeared a year before Strauss’ Salome, a gorgeous modernist flower. In Madama Butterfly a lyrical Italian drama is placed in an exotic Japanesque frame. The composer is focused on the character of 15-year-old Cio-Cio-san who goes from being a naive girl to becoming a woman who suffers a psychological drama. Attention to the inner psychological action determines the opera’s slow tempo; several episodes serve as a foil: the wedding ceremony, the Bonze’s curse and Prince Yamadori’s marriage proposal. Madama Butterfly is Puccini’s first opera in which he tried to incorporate the exotic Eastern colouring. The tones of authentic Japanese melodies, Japanese bells and tam-tams in the orchestra – all this creates the imitable aura of one of Puccini’s most widely performed operas.
Denis Azarov, stage director:
This opera is ultimately about failed expectations. The source event is the purchase of a woman, and everyone understands it: Pinkerton, consul Sharpless and Cio-Cio-san. It is her absolutely deliberate choice of escape, departure from the context that she conflicts with. Japan made her poor; her father died by committing hara-kiri.Cio-Cio-san believes that out there life is very good, and at this moment appears a US naval lieutenant named Pinkerton, who buys her out and who she falls in love with. (She realizes that somebody would have bought her out anyway, but it could have been a Japanese man.) It seems that she finally has a stroke of luck, but it turns out that “out there” is a cheat, too.
In the country where Cio-Cio-san lives purchasing a woman is normal, but it appears that it happens “out there” as well, which means life is not better there. Cio-Cio-san believed that Pinkerton would save her and everything would turn outdifferently because he is unusual. But for him it is also normal. This brings the theme of failed expectations.
In turn, for Pinkerton it is a story about how a man looks back and suddenly understands that everything that has been normal for him appears to be absolutely abnormal. So, it is a twofold story. And here it can be compared with Nazi Germany when the Germans came to realize before long what attrocities they had committed.
This story clearly shows the consumption concept cultivated by Western society. It attracts everything: home, a woman and even love. Cio-Cio-san’s love isreal, pure and sincere, but she faces the “consumer” attitude. Hence the clash of two cultures, West and East. We show this conflict by the pop-art means, using recognizable things without concrete time reference: on the one hand it is the Japanese world; on the other hand it is European-American. Its mix producesa third phenomenon: Cio-Cio-san in the second actis not Japanese anymore, but she will never become American.
Alexey Tregubov, set designer:
The action takes place in Nagasaki, the place that implicates a certain context. We, the producers, try to look at the story related in the opera from the distance of our time. I mean the plot of Madama Butterfly is a story of relations between American (or Western in general) and Japanese cultures. As Puccini was writing it, he didn’t know what would happen in the future but he expressed the problems of these relations in the opera: a strange culture is of novalue; it is only an exotic thing, an attraction for tourists. Several decades later this incomprehension will lead to a terrible tragedy with the bombing of Nagasaki.
We speak to the public in a language of signs and stereotypes. We all have a certain view of Western, American culture and the same generalized view of Japanese culture. With the connection of these images the main action takes place in a combination of .these perceptions. At the beginning of the performance we see an empty concrete space that looks like a new-built. It is being rendered habitable, filled with different things, with Western images while Cio-Cio-san tries to enter the new culture. But in the finale she commits hara-kiri! It is not asuicide in our perception, but a ritual action, and it is a purely Japanese ritual. Thus she gives up everything that she has taken in, the attempt to join a strange culture. She returns back home, to her own self.