Monday, August 16, 2010

Madama Butterfly: Music & Lyrics

(This is a very old and damaged video but it features AMAZING singers... Freni & Domingo... and has some subtitles. There are tons of other videos on Youtube if you are interested)

There are a couple of places in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly that evoke spontaneous tears from me…. and surprisingly, the end (her death) is not one of them. For some reason, the moments that tear me up the most are ones of intense passion…often the happiest moments in the opera.

This is one: the love duet at the end of Act One. Pinkerton, an American sailor, has just “married” the very young geisha, Butterfly. After an ugly incident with her family (in which they renounce her), the pair are left alone, perhaps for the first time, and they share their feelings with one another: Pinkerton sings of her beauty, how she has entranced him. She urges him to be gentle with her, to love her as he would a little child, explaining that she comes from a simple people , with quiet but deep emotions.

Ah, love me a little,
As you would love a baby, is all that I ask for.
I come of a people accustomed to little;
Grateful for love that's silent;
Light as a blossom and yet everlasting
As the sky, as the fathomless ocean.

The music is continually soaring, drawing us into their growing passion. Pinkerton grows more and more ardent, and (to me anyway) Butterfly grows more and more transcendent. As he calls to her “come, come…” drawing her into their bedroom, she gazes towards the heavens, suddenly overwhelmed with the enormity of the gorgeous night sky. She feels she has never seen so many stars and is completely enraptured by their beauty and majesty as she experiences love for the first time.  (around 4:25 in the video)

Oh! how kindly are the heavens,
Ev'ry star that shines afar is gazing on us,
Lighting our future for us...

The music alone may bring tears to your eyes, but this is what breaks my heart every time: it seems that these two are having completely different experiences at the same moment. Hers is deeply spiritual, and his is deeply carnal. I believe this scene captures the great struggle of the human condition: that even in our most intimate shared moments we can only have our own experience. While we seek connection we remain separate.

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