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Subject: Madama Butterfly - letter to Ricordi
From: David H Spence <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:David H Spence <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Mon, 12 Jun 2017 21:28:22 -0400

text/plain (120 lines)

In anticipation of viewing Madama Butterfly from last December at La Scala,
courtesy of Landmark Theaters - highly recommended viewing - one particular
inquiry comes to mind, regarding something I found, reading a page off  

As more than an aside, I highly recommend attending the moviecast, should
you be within three hours driving distance of a Landmark Theaters venue.  I
tuned in to listen last December.  Maria Jose Siri is very fine in the title
role and will be singing Francesca da Rimini by Zandonai, in a new
production, conducted by Fabio Luisi, next season at La Scala,  This is a
very lyric, but ample voice and a singer with good dramatic instincts as
well.  Bryan Hymel, who'd perhaps prefer to pride himself on the French
heroic repertoire (Aeneas, Arnold, Henri in Vepres) gave of his very best as
Pinkerton,  if not fully then almost rivalling Giuseppe di Stefano in being
as much in character as Pinkerton, thus far out-distancing Pavarotti in
doing so.  The supporting cast is very fine. Chailly drawing most supple and
nuanced playing out of his La Scala forces, gives of his very best.

Perhaps the revised 1906 version is a little tighter in places, such as
during the first half of Act One, but the lightness of the episodes cut out
of the later version here is infectious - and the further insights than we
have in 1906 into the character of Pinkerton are harrowing in a way.  In
contract with the smoothed over, over-sentimentalized tale we've known for
far too many years from the 1906 version, with compromises such as 'Addio,
fiorito asil (better if it had a separate life entirely of its own, as the
melody to it is very nice) - and I should not give away any surprises as to
what Butterfly's last aria or solo is like.
Should one take the time to read the novella by John Luther Long, it makes
much better sense again now than it has before.
Puccini is so much more true to himself in 1904 than he was later on - in
what I now reckon to be a very confused stance we've suffered from for too
long, regarding Madama Butterfly.  I have in the back of my mind earlier in
life have even assumed that Madama Butterfly might have been in some ways a
step backwards for Puccini, but should I have had any doubts, the original
1904 version rectifies things in a hurry.

According to the Ricordi website, there is a letter that the composer wrote
in 1920 to Giulio (?) Ricordi, suggesting that it was under 'constraint' of
perhaps what might've needed to be done to please the public, audiences of
his day, to make the changes he did.  He in this letter however expressed
'fear and bitterness' that he might not get to experience this work again as
he had originally conceived it.  Here his revision(s) had become a runaway
success in many major capitals on several continents, whereas the original
version the one time it got performed at La Scala was notoriously a fiasco.  

Perhaps the audiences at the time, encountering a Second Act nearly 90
minutes long, the last half of which almost entirely through-cojmposed,
sensed that the encroachment of so much musical influence from the North of
which they were apprehensive had here come a little too much to life. 
Though indeed at least somewhat through-composed, Puccini, more I'd arguably
say in some ways than in the  sanitizing revision thereof, had come up with
something fully Italianate, expressive that way.  Think of how resentful
Claude Debussy, a formidable influence upon Puccini himself, might have been
had Pelleas et Melisande faced the same accusation - of having been written
under the influence of the Bard from, in his case, neighboring country to
the east.

I feel in a way rewarded for having stood up and loudly, lustily booed the
last time I attended Madama Butterfly in Houston six years ago, though well
sung were the two principals (Ana Maria Martinez, Josef Calleja). It was
conducted badly and the production, though in a way pretty to the eye at
first was just dreck (Michael Grandage).  Summers editorialized in Opera
Cues that Madama Butterfly ends in G Major - instead really an unresolved
submediant chord in B Minor that is indeed in fact a G Major chord.   And he
thinks just as of late he is worthy to conduct Gotterdammerung?  Back in
1985 however we had a Ken Russell production of Madama Butterfly, which I
feared at first would be too kitschy by half, but which turned out to be
quite gooid, very responsibly conducted by Lawrence Foster.  Jaw dropping
were the insertions of 1904 in what was mostly an account of the 1906
version.  Richard Leech did not sing 'Addio, fiorito asil.;'  Good for him
and all forces involved on that occasion.

Where might we find the letter, which was probably to Tito Ricordi, so we
all may be able to read what is there?  I did not begin my search by showing
up on the listserv this evening, but it is one of several steps I've had in
mind the past couple of days.  The Julian Smith reconstruction of the 1904
version of Madama Butterfly has been around.  Why might we have had to wait
for so long for it, beyond Komische Oper Berlin and Welsh National Opera,
perhaps one other place, according to the composer's wishes, should such a
letter as I mention here exist, to experience, again according to what
Puccini would have desired himself to see the full light of day?

Riccardo Chailly, with the service he has given Puccini and his work -
encouragement and world premiere of the new finale to Turandot, the great
Ronconi production of Trittico, and now this, is deserving of some honorary
ackonwledgment of what he has done.  His set of La Boheme with Gheorghiu and
Alagna, recorded from La Scala, though starring not my two favorite singers
in the world, gave us perhaps a foretaste of what might follow later on.  It
is so vastly superior to the overrated Karajan on the same label.  Instead
of muzak for Puccini, one gets similar either to Carlos Kleiber or to
Toscanini, a full abiding by the strong dynamci contrasts that are marked in
the score and the entire thing just leaps over the speakers in such a way
the Karajan fails to do so.  Thomas Beecham, with the poetic sense about
this piece he had, somewhat gets away with his slower tempos and more
reflective approach, but he was Thomas Beecham, but a few insights
notwithstanding, Bernstein, Karajan, Pappano, Mehta do not.

Landmark Theaters will be showing Madama Butterfly, in a new production by
Alvis Hermanis, on June 28th. Starting time at most of their venues will be
7 pm.  Do not miss out on this.

David H Spence

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