Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Saturday Nov 22

awful slushy day today
Went to opera
(Madame Butterfly)
and then to district.


Matt's Notes

I know that Papa's diary isn't a novel, but it's sometimes hard for me not to look at it critically, as if the episodes he reports on and the details he reveals aren't planted there by an author for dissection, debate and interpretation. Madame Butterfly, for example, is the story of someone who would rather live in fantasy and memory than construct real life for herself with what's available to her.

(A quick review if you don't remember the story: It's 1904 and Lieutenant Pinkerton, a rakish American naval office on tour in Japan, marries a 15-year-old Geisha named Cho-Cho San -- a.k.a. Butterfly -- and then leaves for America with no intention of returning. Cho-Cho San, meanwhile, gives birth to his child and spends the next three years convinced he will keep his promise to return, obsessively reliving the few heady days she spent with him before his departure. Though another suitor offers to marry her and make her a rich woman, her heart lies with Pinkerton. When Pinkerton finally returns, he is accompanied by his new, American wife, who offers to adopt Cho-Cho San's child and raise it as her own. Humiliated and crushed, Cho-Cho San gives up her child and kills herself.)

Already idealistic and predisposed toward sentimental art, Papa must have been doubly absorbed by such a story, for he had struggled all year with is own attachment to the past, his own tendency to prefer the poetry of longing to the practicality of living. He had, for years, believed he might see his family again and experience the simplicity, the sense of belonging, he knew as a boy in the old country. This belief grew so strong he began to think of his life in America, where he was already considered an alien, just a temporary stopover on the way to some unspecified but more perfect place. His thoughts of romance followed a similar path, in which the idealized woman of his dreams overshadowed the real women of his world. Is it too much of a stretch to compare him to Madame Butterfly, a figure living for a lost time and pining for a love who never really existed?

Papa's ending was happier, of course, but how could he have known it would be, as he sat and watched Cho-Cho San succumb to the folly of her stasis, the shocking death of her dream? Hadn't Papa's own dream died with his father six months earlier, ending any thought of his family's restoration? Did he compare the profundity of Butterfly's disappointment to his own? Could he have held back his tears as Butterfly surrendered to the emotions he felt so keenly? Could he have felt any better as he slogged off through the slushy mess of New York's streets when the opera was over?

I recently went to see Madama Butterfly for myself, hoping to see what Papa saw and join him in some way (I hoped to reproduce, in fact, the feeling of having him with me that I experienced when I saw Pagliacci, also mentioned in his diary, a few months ago.) It didn't quite happen that way, though. I'm entirely sure my viewing of Madame Butterfly was quite different from his, unless he saw a high-tech production with 21st Century lighting and special effects, and unless there was a nutcase sitting behind him who talked the whole evening in a Rip Taylor voice and who decided, for some reason, that Madame Butterfly's suicide wasn't dramatic enough and would benefit from him screaming, at the top of his lungs, "Oh my God, it's so beautiful!!!" just as Butterfly plunged the knife into her neck.

Then again, perhaps Papa was distracted in his way because the "small voiced" Thalia Sabanieeva sang the title role, certainly in disappointing contrast to her beloved co-stars, Beniamino Gigli and and Antonio Scotti (then in his twenty-sixth season with the Met). Here's a clip of Gigli, who could be found singing in films until the early 1950's, belting out "O Solo Mio":

And here's a clip of Scotti singing "Tosca" (from a fantastic YouTube series featuring a Victrola playing old opera recordings):



1 comment:

  1. I've known Madama Butterfly for years, but...

    As I read your synopsis, for the first time it hit me, this is Miss Saigon!

    Well, I'm in a mood of "we never learn anything, do we?"