Monday, February 6, 2017

Madama Butterfly & the Beauty of Tragedy

Can I officially say now that I love the opera? Don Giovanni at the Santa Fe Opera last summer was my first opera and I enjoyed that immensely, and now I've also seen Madama Butterfly here by the Arizona Opera and it was absolutely amazing.

(Yes, yes, I've possibly been having too much fun going to see all the shows lately, but let me assure you that I stick to the cheap seats, I've been waiting to be able to do this for a while, and shows kind of have on and off seasons and this just happens to be the time of year when there's a lot going on that I want to see.)

Let me start with one superficial note. Arizona Opera's website explains that the opera is the place you can get all dressed up for, and I love that this is true. I like the concept of dressing up. I grew up watching things like I Love Lucy where everyone puts on their best clothing and takes all of this time to get ready to go out somewhere, be it dinner and the movie theatre or a show. Nobody really does that anymore, at least not here. Movie theatre? Casual. Nice restaurant? Slightly dressed up. A play? Almost casual. But Symphony Hall? Expect people to dress up, especially for the opera. The men who weren't wearing suits were at least wearing collars. Many women had full length gowns, and dresses ranged from classic black to a bit of glitz. (I went with classic black.) A little more glitz than in Santa Fe, where everyone paired elegant yet comfortable shoes with their black dresses rather than the more expected high heels. Either way, I love the dressing up.

In many ways, Madama Butterfly was an entirely different production from Don Giovanni. That set was very sparse, while this one was filled in more with the Japanese house, a bit of garden, and a background showing the sea. The lighting, as well. I don't have such a photographic or cinematic eye that I notice lighting in any particular way--but I had never seen lighting done so artistically in the theatre before. The light produced the effects of night and day and different tones, as well as drawing attention to particular spaces. It was very beautiful.

Whereas the subtitles in Santa Fe are attached to the seat in front of you, these are on a screen above the stage--which I thought wouldn't be as nice but in fact worked just as well. And you really do need the translation. Don Giovanni had more conversations and so you needed to know what the characters were saying to follow each scene, but Madama Butterfly is more about long songs that are poetic and flowery in their depiction of emotion. As you're listening, you're also reading these pretty words and so you're experiencing two art forms at once.

The music of the two operas is also quite different. Madama Butterfly is by Puccini, with whom I thought I was entirely unfamiliar (except for "O Mio Babbino Caro," which Downton Abbey informed me was by Puccini). I can't explain his style in musical terms, but to me it sounds fluid and soft and elegant and piercing at the same time, like pink dye running over fresh silk. You might say that the music together with the lyrics are a little sappy in their emotional intensity--but I like that. In fact, a couple of lines that the audience found funny I thought were very sad and did not laugh at.

While all of the singers were excellent, Sandra Lopez stole my heart (or my ear?) as Cio-Cio-San, or Madame Butterfly herself. Oh, the way she sang. Her delivery brought not only amazing musical sounds but also amazing emotion. I didn't know that the song "One Fine Day" was from this opera until its music began--and when Butterfly started singing the familiar lines I felt like I had never heard it before, because I had never heard it like this before and I had never known the context for the words. She broke my heart and I literally cried. Her innocent vision of hope when all the audience knows that her hope will not come true is unbearable. This opera made me want to weep. It was tragedy indeed.

When the music stopped and the performers finished and everything came to an end, I had a genuine shock. I was so caught up with what I was watching unfold on stage that it was jarring to see an end and then to see the performers come out as themselves and to see that they're not these characters. It was so much like I was watching something real--because they did create something real and tangible.

If you've never gone, go see an opera when you get the chance. It's an experience like no other, immensely powerful.

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