Madama Butterfly and Tōrō Nagashi

I was reminded during my peregrinations in South-East Asia that ‘Madama Butterfly’ situations are still common there. (Indeed, ‘Miss Saigon’ is a more recent take on an all-too-familiar event). Mock marriages between western sex-fiends and local girls are continuing and, if not with quite the drama of Madama Butterfly’s self-immolation, certainly accompanied by family banishment and a probable life of sex-slavery on the streets of insatiable Asian metropolises.

Despite a sensible warning from a friend that we might catch some dreaded disease from the insects marauding over Lake Massaciuccoli we always try to make it to the Puccini festival at Torre Del Lago every year. Our life would seem quite incomplete without being there.

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David Belasco’s play, which Puccini first saw in London in 1900, inspired him to write his most Puccinian (if that can be declared a non- tautology) opera.  There was an immature time when I almost abhorred Puccini and actually thought ‘Madama Butterfly’ worthless. Certainly, my introduction to it – during a teenage visit to Antwerp’s opera house where, conducted by a family friend, it was sung in guttural Flemish – did nothing to endear this tragic masterpiece to me. Yet Maestro Martelli declared that he would give his right arm to be able to write just one page of this remarkable score where French impressionism and Wagnerian intensity meet and are transformed by Italian cantabile into something which owes nothing to anyone except the heavenly genius of our greatest Luccan (and perhaps the world’s) operatic composer.

The 1904 premiere Milan premiere was a fiasco and Puccini thought, at first, it was his own fault. He’d scored great success with his three previous operas, been put on a pedestal by the Italian public and now was promptly demolished by what he described as ‘cannibals’. Animal noises, guffaws, roars of ridicule, howls of disdain from the audience drowned most of the incomparable music. True, the second act was perhaps over-long (it was later divided into two separated now by the famous wordless chorus), true the public was not used to such psychological penetration (this opera is justly the one where Puccini analyses his characters to their innermost being). True, too, there may have been a need for further rehearsals. The real reason, however, was the all-too-familiar one of claques and jealousy. The first night fiasco was a typically Italian mafioso fix-up.

Fortunately Puccini got his own back with the opera’s revised version which took place just three months later that year at Brescia’s Grand Theatre and became the resounding success it deserves to be: it has ever been in the hearts of all those who have a genuine feeling for opera and life itself and was, indeed, the maestro’s favourite opera, although he could never forget the indignity he suffered on the first night’s performance.

The stage setting for this year’s Madama Butterfly was, to say the least, minimal. Taking its cue from the Japanese garden it incorporated two trilithon type stones which (regrettably) from certain angles, looked like giant teeth. A strange gateway motive dominated the second and third acts (here, played without a break and very effectively so).

Perhaps the austere setting emphasised the fact that the performance was dedicated to the victims of the horrors of war: the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (where the opera is set) and the Nazi atrocity of Santa Anna di Stazzema’s massacre, all of which took place around the middle of this month of August.

The Japanese ambassador was present at the performance (which reminded me that the wife of the then Japanese ambassador to Italy together with a famous Japanese actress Sada Yaco, assisted Puccini with all the minutiae of Japanese costume and custom). During the interval we witnessed the ceremony of the launching of candle-lit lanterns onto the dark waters of Lago Massaciuccoli. No, we didn’t catch malaria but we caught some intimations that these lanterns might be the ghosts of those departed souls who come back to haunt us – as indeed the lanterns did when they kept on returning to the reedy shores of Puccini’s favourite sheet of water.

I realised that I was witnessing Tōrō nagashi (灯籠流し?), a Japanese ceremony where paper lanterns (chōchin) float down a piece of water and which is traditionally performed in the credence that it will assist in guiding the souls of the departed to the spirit world. It is poignantly commemorated not just for the Bon ancestor spirit festival but also in memory of such tragic events as the commemoration of those lost in the bombing of Hiroshima and those who died on Japan Airlines flight 123.

Something about the production. The scenery was by the great Japanese sculptor Kan Yasuda. Direction was by Vivien Hewitt and the production also formed part of the 150th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Italy and Japan.

Cio-Cio-San (Madama Butterfly) was sung with great passion by Donata D’annunzio Lombardi, and that ultimately remorseful bastard Pinkerton convincingly by Hector Lopez Mendoza. Costumes were by Regina Schrecker.

The excellent conductor was Eddi De Nadai.

I loved the evening and was particularly struck by the way music I thought I knew backwards was so freshly interpreted. That perennial aria, ‘Un bel Di’, for example, was not belted out prima-donna style but was so enchantingly and sensitively sung that I felt I understood it for the first time.

‘Madama Butterfly’ is not for the emotionally fraught. The love duet at the end of act one is Puccini at his intensest. I just wonder what was going on in the composer’s mind in his little villa on the lake just a stone’s throw away from where we sat. (I think, too, he must have still been suffering from the terrible car.-accident he’d had the previous year where he was almost left crushed under his De Dion Bouton 5 HP travelling from Lucca to his place at Torre del Lago). I don’t think anyone has quite caught so well the powerfully paradoxical emotions of love – possession and freedom, hellish separation and paradisiacal union.

As for eighteen-year old Madama Butterfly’s Hara Kiri at the end when she speaks her last words to her son ‘gioca, gioca, (go and play) and says to herself “Who cannot live with honour must die with honour”  – it is surely one of the most harrowing moments in all opera.

Truly there are few composers who can deliver an emotional mind-punch as effectively as Puccini. As we found our way back out of the theatre to the car I felt that a normally vociferous public was unusually quiet as it the death of Cio-cio-san had become an event that meant even more: the death of so many through human suffering and indifference. Remorse is no pardon for evil deeds once they have permanently injured a person’s innermost feelings of dignity and honour.

Those floating lanterns on the midnight lake with strange menacing heat flashes over the dragon-teethed Apuan mountains brought again to my mind it was this very afternoon that I heard news that my favourite uncle, who’d devoted his life to poetry, French literature and translation had passed away, just like those candle-lit lanterns, to a spirit world where his works and words will never die.

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PS Giacomo Puccini, despite his awful car accident never lost his love for fine cars.  Veteran cars appassionati regularly meet up at Torre del Lago with the same type of vehicles that Puccini used. These included the following:

1899 De Dion Bouton
1908 Fiat Ansaldi Brevetti – Tipo due
1909 Ford T
1910 Cadillac Thirty T torpedo
1910 Aquila Italiana
1911 Lancia Thema
1913 Fiat Zero Torpedo
1916 Fiat tipo Due
1923 Itala 56 A Torpedo
1923 Rolls Royce 20 HP
1924 Lancia Lambda 4 serie

Puccini was particularly fond of his last car, the Lambda:


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