Cher Public

Canard season

La Cieca has her old, old, old friend Enzo Bordello (pictured, left) to thank for this week’s canard, or rather, carnards, as Enzo has delivered a delicious brace of blunders.

First misconception: “Violetta’s joyful cabaletta ‘Sempre libera’.” There is nothing joyous about what she is expressing. It is a death wish to annihilate herself through hard living. The manic character of the music is ironic, not literal.

And canard the second: Cio-Cio-San kills herself “because of a broken heart” or as an act of manipulation to make Pinkerton feel bad. No, she kills herself as an act of self-effacement to eradicate any trace of her son’s ties to Japan, so that he can acculturate neatly and easily into his new life in America, freed of the stigma of being viewed as a biracial bastard. And the usual reply to this is: “Well, how can that be? He must look Asian.” Well, no. Puccini and his librettist are explicit about the boy’s blonde hair and blue eyes. Genetically improbable, perhaps, but there it is.

  • Hey Louie

    Quite an ending—she dies as a butterfly, I guess.

    I imagine that a suicide may be driven by several motivations, some rational, some emotional, some unconscious, very often a mixture of things. Might not a broken heart play some role?

    “Getting back at him” too. A bit before the “Tu, tu, tu,” we have this:

    E il figlio lo darà?

    Butterfly [who has heard, says solemnly]
    A lui lo potrò dare
    se lo verrà a cercare.
    [with marked meaning, but quite simply]
    Fra mezz’ora salite la collina.

    She doesn’t want to see him to plead with him, nor to show him how brave she’s being—she plans to be dead when he comes.

    Look what you’ve driven me to.

    • armerjacquino

      Plus, of course, the words written on the knife- ‘con onor muore’ and so on.

      She can no longer live honourably, because Pinkerton hs dishonoured her, so she has to die.

      In fact, I wonder if ‘Butterfly kills herself to give her son a chance’ is so certain and so unambiguous as to be a new canard in and of itself…

      • Hey Louie

        At least the new canard has the virtue of being politically correct, while Puccini, unless I’m confusing him with Mascagni, was fairly chummy with the fascist set. Oh, and there’s Belasco, with his rather right-wing dialogue, especially the words he provides for his Butterfly:

        “Oh me ‘ope American so ‘andsome will not foget his frutelling butterfry wife!” I quote from memory, so don’t expect perfect accuracy, but I’ve got the gist.

        I think of our Doyenne as someone who strives to achieve balance in all things. Very Tao: For every right, there is a left, and each carries a large dollop of the other, and if it doesn’t, she’ll be glad to provide it.

    • mia apulia

      Yes, the problem with both of these canards is that if things are so black and white (this is why, this is what, and nothing else) there is not an allowance for mixed motivations on the part of the characters (or on the part of the composers and librettists). Real people don’t always act with full self-knowledge; in fact, they rarely do. And even “omniscient” authors (or composers) don’t always write with full self-knowledge; sometimes their creations end up being other than what was originally intended, and can contain emotional depth that can surprise everyone involved. And I think the interpretations that are often most moving are the ones that allow for painful ambivalence.

  • I really disagree with the second “canard.” I feel like the second act of Butterfly is so powerful because it shows how desperate, even delusional Cio Cio San is about Pinkerton. I’ve never been to a Butterfly where I haven’t seen audience members wiping away tears as she starts “Che tua madre.” Is it unrealistic that someone can remain that naive? Maybe, but that is Puccini’s idea of the heroine — someone who’s been waiting for 3 years and is at the very end of her emotional rope.

    It’s true that she greets Pinkerton’s news with heroic stoicism, but that’s a powerful contrast with how she was in Act Two. She doesn’t have a breakdown but that doesn’t mean that the audience isn’t fully aware of her anguish.

    • Opera Teen

      I agree. An in addition to that, she’s only 18 at the end, and lived part of her life without a father. She has been under immense strain for most of her life and probably isn’t used to a stable male character in her life. (I’m getting way too into this…) Teenagers do impulsive things. I would know. It’s a testament to her character that she’s remained functional for so long, finally giving in once the pressure’s too intense. I, for one, can see that being the case.

      There’s my weakly supported 2 cents. Enjoy your weekend. :-)

      • We also have to remember that Pinkerton makes nasty comments behind Cio Cio San’s back but he’s affectionate to her face. Lots of teens can be fooled by that. I feel like Puccinis’s opera is a masterpiece because while the libretto and the source has a strain of racism/paternalism the music does not. Audiences feel Butterfly’s pain — there’s no condescension there. And I’d argue that a good Cio Cio San needs to convey desperation. It’s why Scotto’s recording is so great — that slightly acidic voice sounds so much like so many women when they’re worried and heartbroken. the pitch goes up, the tone becomes quavery, all of a sudden they sound more child than woman. Toti dal Monte is also able to achieve this effect. Victoria de Los Angeles too. But some of the fuller voiced Butterfly’s like Tebaldi or Stella IMO don’t quite have the same ability to sound like a half child, half woman, half heartbroken, half hopeful, the way then more lyrical voices do.

        • Avantialouie

          Sorry, Ivy. Scotto’s “slightly acidic voice” sounds . . . well, just acidic. But you’re certainly right about dal Monte and de los Angeles. You’re right about Tebaldi and Stella and the heartbroken/hopeful bit, too. The soprano who gets this effect right is Gallardo-Domas.

        • Porgy Amor

          I’m with Ivy here…although I’d say Scotto’s recordings, plural. I like the second one (Maazel/Domingo) in some ways more than the famous first (Barbirolli/Bergonzi).

          It’s odd that during the years when she was the Met’s reigning diva and was in so many telecasts, even telecasts in which she sang Puccini heroines, there was none providing a visual document of her most famous role. We got Manon Lescaut, Mimi, Musetta, Giorgetta, Angelica, and Lauretta, but not Cio-Cio San.

  • La Valkyrietta

    It is not genetically impossible for Cio-Cio-San’s kid to have occidental looks, the father’s genes obviously dominated. There are no assurances about the grandchild, though…Has anyone written a sequel? It could be another tragedy as the kid will have kids perhaps around WWII…

    • Opera Teen

      There’s a book called Butterfly’s Child about Little Pinkerton returning to America and then going back to Japan as an adult. I only read part of it over a year ago, but it’s sat on my bookshelf since.

      • La Valkyrietta

        I was reading to all the readers’ reviews of this book in Amazon page. Apparently the kid (called Benji in the book, not Joy or Sorrow) does not adjust well to the farm in Illinois and later Kate becomes mad and Pinkerton an alcoholic. Most readers hate the twist at the end of the story, but none say what that twist is, except that the kid goes to Nagasaki. I guess they don’t want to write a spoiler. Perhaps one day I will go to Strand or Barnes and browse and find out what this twist is.

        • I believe “The Nagasaki Spoiler” was the title of one of Dashiell Hammett’s unpublished stories.

        • armerjacquino

          Oh, I reckon we can guess that twist, can’t we? I mean, there are two things about Nagasaki. There’s MADAMA BUTTERFLY, and…

          • La Valkyrietta

            Well, I still don’t know the spoiler, but I can guess. Perhaps he does not find the city as it no longer existed at the time of his visit, at least no relatives survived. Or perhaps he is the pilot on a plane with a secret mission. It can play out many ways.

            La Divina.

          • grimoaldo

            That was one of the things I hated about Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures” which deals with the relations between the US and Japan, mostly about the forced “opening up” of Japan to foreigners but ends with a song “Next” which shows the modernisation of Japan from the 19th century to now and does not make any reference to the fact that the US dropped atomic bombs on them.
            “Don’t mention the war”, what a cop-out.
            That show had a couple of songs with clever lyrics in it but is a mess as a entity and the fact that it just pretends the war did not happen is an insult.

          • The twist is that he never makes it to Nagasaki. He is shipwrecked on a Pacific island, and his experiences there inspire an opera by Leonard Bernstein.

        • DonCarloFanatic

          I hate it when they don’t include the full plot, even in IMDB.

          Guessing from the time frame, I’d say he goes to live in Nagasaki as a Japanese, and then we bomb him, not the other way around.

          • manou

            OK -- I am going to a performance of Butterfly tomorrow and the result of some haphazard Googling is that the ending is not unhappy (or nuclear…), aspersions are cast on Cio-Cio San’s character, cats are tortured, and “… then they lost me with destroying the fourth wall by Pinkerton finding out about some opera that a Mr. Puccini wrote about him.”

            Opera Teen -- please get the book down from your shelves and put us out of our misery. Thanks!

  • ianw2

    Canard the First seems to be very loose. As far as I’m aware Verdi didn’t mark Sempre to be played maniacally or joyously. The score I’m looking at has only the marking ‘allegro brillante’. I think a dramatic case could be made for desperate mania, the sudden turn to joyous (maybe even self-deceptive) or doing Sempre as a cocaine bender.

    I demand Enzo show his work for this canard.

    As for Butterfly, can’t it be both, even taking into account the Orientalisms of the time and that Butterfly is the victim of an underage sex crime?

    • armerjacquino

      I think the difference with last week’s is that the ‘Haha, there are no deserts in Louisiana’ canard is just factually wrong for various reasons.

      This week’s, on the other hand, are personal interpretations of why the characters behave the way they do- interesting and credible ones, but personal interpretations nonetheless. A good director and singer will make a self-deludingly joyful ‘Sempre Libera’ work; a Butterfly is perfectly entitled to decide that her character kills herself because of a broken heart.

    • mjmacmtenor

      I normally dislike unusual concept “tricks”, but the cocaine bender actually sounds like a good idea for modern-day production. People turn to “self-medicating” to relieve pain, physical or mental, and Violetta certainly has plenty of that. Besides, many a period production has LOTS of champagne flowing (period Violetta’s drug of choice?) and the brilliante music and tempo would certainly fit with this idea, which is after all the deciding factor of whether any concept “works”.

  • mp3348

    It seems so clear to me. Why all the speculation? Butterfly kills herself out of duty. That is the culture into which she was born and lived. It would have been dishonorable to have done anything else.

  • Enzo Bordello

    In fairness, I wrote the above in a parked car, with 5 free minutes on my hands, with a caveat in the intro about canards that veer off into matters of interpretation. Several points: one of the things I dislike about the “broken heart” motivation is that it diminshes Butterfly’s integrity as a mother. What kind of mother throws her kid under the bus in an impulsive moment of romantic heartbreak? I think Puccini was aware of this and put the dramatic emphasis where it needed to be. She already feels bad enough about abandoning her role as a mother. She knows that she cannnot possibly care for the boy on her own without inflicting all kinds of trauma on herself and him (“Che tua madre.” And yes, Ivy, it is shattering precisely for this reason. The “geisha dance” is a metaphor for all kind of abasement). The fact that she does not have a long and harrowing breakdown after Kate’s true status is revealed points at another possibility. That Butterfly has already reasoned her way to the possibility of this outcome. Ever notice how in Act 2 she is constantly interrupting or avoiding what others have to say to her? I take that to be unconscious anxiety about the the intrusion of reality into the situation. And when it gets really threatening, she orders Sharpless to leave or threatens to kill Goro. Unconsciously, she *knows* all this but cannot allow herself to embrace it fully. That is very real and very human. The other thing is Pinkerton does not bring dishonor on her. SHE brings dishonor on herself. She chose to marry him against all reasoned advice to the contrary, she renounces her culture and religion, she refuses to re-integrate via marriage to Yamadori, etc. I am not blaming or judging her for these choices. Denial is not the same as delusion. And many rational people are in denial about things which are painfully obvious to others. And let it be said, she is my favorite Puccini heroine and I love the opera very much. But part of her integrity is she alone has to come to terms with her choices and not blame others or displace responsibility.

    • I realize source material is not the same as the finished work of art, but the John Luther Long story makes very clear Cho-Cho-San’s motivation for attempting suicide:

      SHE sat quite still, and waited till night fell. Then she lighted the andon, and drew her toilet-glass toward her. She had a sword in her lap as she sat down. It was the one thing of her father’s which her relatives had permitted her to keep. It would have been very beautiful to a Japanese, to whom the sword is a soul. A golden dragon writhed about the superb scabbard. He had eyes of rubies, and held in his mouth a sphere of crystal which meant many mystical things to a Japanese. The guard was a coiled serpent of exquisite workmanship. The blade was tempered into vague shapes of beasts at the edge. It was signed, “Ikesada.” To her father it had been Honor. On the blade was this inscription:

      To die with Honor
      When one can no longer live with Honor.

      It was in obscure ideographs; but it was also written on her father’s kaimyo at the shrine, and she knew it well.

      “To die with honor — ” She drew the blade affectionately across her palm. Then she made herself pretty with vermilion and powder and perfumes; and she prayed, humbly endeavoring at the last to make her peace. She had not forgotten the missionary’s religion; but on the dark road from death to Meido it seemed best now to trust herself to the compassionate augustnesses, who had always been true.

      Then she placed the point of the weapon at that nearly nerveless spot in the neck known to every Japanese, and began to press it slowly inward. She could not help a little gasp at the first incision. But presently she could feel the blood finding its way down her neck. It divided on her shoulder, the larger stream going down her bosom. In a moment she could see it making its way daintily between her breasts. It began to congeal there. She pressed on the sword, and a fresh stream swiftly overran the other — redder, she thought. And then suddenly she could no longer see it. She drew the mirror closer. Her hand was heavy, and the mirror seemed far away. She knew that she must hasten. But even as she locked her fingers on the serpent of the guard, something within her cried out piteously. They had taught her how to die, but he had taught her how to live — nay, to make life sweet. Yet that was the reason she must die. Strange reason! She now first knew that it was sad to die. He had come, and substituted himself for everything; he had gone, and left her nothing — nothing but this.

      THE maid softly put the baby into the room. She pinched him, and he began to cry.

      “Oh, pitiful Kwannon! Nothing?”

      The sword fell dully to the floor. The stream between her breasts darkened and stopped. Her head drooped slowly forward. Her arms penitently outstretched themselves toward the shrine. She wept.

      “Oh, pitiful Kwannon!” she prayed.

      The baby crept cooing into her lap. The little maid came in and bound up the wound.

      WHEN Mrs. Pinkerton called next day at the little house on Higashi Hill it was quite empty.

      • Nerva Nelli

        At which juncture in Long story’s does Licia vociferously boo?

      • mirywi

        Did anyone else giggle at ‘that nearly nerveless spot in the neck known to every Japanese.’?

        • “Kwannon” is rather curious, too. This appears to be a Chinese loan-word into Japanese. The original Chinese word is nowadays rendered as “kun’nan”. The Google machine transliterates the Japanese as “kon’nan”, but it sounds quite similar to the Chinese (minus the tones, of course). Even allowing for changes in transliteration conventions, I’m still mystified at how Strong ended up with “Kwannon”.

          Unless he was thinking of “Sine Kwannon”.

          • (to get the Google Machine demonstration to work properly, click on the Japanese word and choose the homonym from the menu which [mostly] matches the Chinese -- it should be the second or third item on the menu)

          • manou

            …or “Sino-Kwasinippon”.

          • Batty Masetto

            No Sinologist etc. here, but maybe it’s only fair to allow the guy to belong to his era. From Wikipedia:

            In Japanese, Guanyin is pronounced Kannon (??), occasionally Kan’on, or more formally Kanzeon (???, the same characters as Guanshiyin); the spelling Kwannon, based on a pre-modern pronunciation, is sometimes seen. This rendition was used for an earlier spelling of the well-known camera manufacturer Canon, which was named for Guanyin.

          • Guanyin, the Boddhistava of Mercy, is usually (nearly always) depicted as female -- and anyway is nearly the opposite of Trouble (unless you are a Monkey King and need a Boddhistava to keep you in line…) I’ve also never, ever heard of anybody naming their kid after Guanyin -- which I would have thought to be sacrilegious…

            [I’m not sure what’s up with that “Canon” business -- nowadays the Japanese spell the company name alphabetically, no use of the name Guanyin]

          • Batty Masetto

            One never knows where Parterre will lead one. From Canon’s own website:

            … “Kwanon,” a prototype of the Japanese produced 35mm rangefinder camera that appeared in the June l934 issue of the Asahi Camera magazine.

            The prototype camera was named “Kwanon” because Yoshida was a believer in “Kwannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy.” The camera’s logo depicted a thousand-arm Kwannon Goddess, and even its lens was named “Kasyapa” which came from Mahakasyapa, a disciple of the Buddha.


  • Will

    OK, here’s the story on the TWO books written to speculate on the later life of Trouble:

    Butterfly’s Child was written by an American woman who was resident in Japan for many years and who taught in university there. I will not reveal any spoiler, especially the big one, but say that nobody here has come close to it. The book is very well researched and written.

    The Heat of the Sun is a more ambitious and virtuoso exercise in culture shock, juggling subplots across continents, and tying historical events of many kinds into the plot. One character eventually is eventually recognizable as very similar to a character in The Manchurian Candidate. It is enjoyable to be sure but Butterfly’s Child struck me as more psychologically satisfying.

    The two authors, by the way, have very different approaches to dealing with the fact of Puccini’s opera once it has been premiered in the U.S. I bought and read both books while preparing a Symposium I delivered on Puccini’s life and works last March.

  • I agree that Butterfly’s principal motivation for suicide is honour.

  • manou

    BBC Radio 3 has “Donna Del Lago” on tonight at 6.00pm London time. P

    • MontyNostry

      I don’t want to hijack the thread, but I have just been underwhelmed by Daniela Barcellona’s performance of Malcom’s entrance aria (I had the same reaction in the theatre). She certainly knows how the music should go, but most of her voice just doesn’t seem to ‘speak’ with much beauty or resonance. It made me wonder what has happened to Laura Vlasek Nolan, who had a success with the role in concert in New York a few years ago. She seemed promising, but doesn’t seem to have been active very much since.

      • manou

        Come over to the Casa, Monty!

      • MontyNostry

        … and, as in the theatre, I think Colin Lee makes a much more attractive sound than JDF.

        • manou

          Tout à fait d’accord.

    • Quanto Painy Fakor

      Why do the put DiDonato in a coffin full of plants with windows at the end of the opera? Nice lady, but not a beautiful voice.

      • MontyNostry

        According to the director, the opera is all about our reinvention of history. So they put the diva in glass case and dress the comprimario tenor and mezzo as Walter Scott and Rossini respectively -- though you’d never have worked it out unless someone told you. It was all pitifully half-baked and rather dull, though Joyce looked very pretty in her box and I think the auburn hair suited her.

        • Quanto Painy Fakor

          Oh, I get it noiw -- Thanks. Mura infelice.

      • Nerva Nelli

        “Nice lady, but not a beautiful voice.”

        Well, de gustibus. Your loss.

        • Quanto Painy Fakor

  • Enzo Bordello

    Apropos of this thread, I ran across this quote from verista Iris Adami Corradetti in Rasponi’s THE LAST OF THE PRIMA DONNAS: “You want to know why, until I closed my career, I became so identified with Cio-Cio-San. I think it is because I had a different conception of her. I thought of her far more as a mother than as a wife abandoned by her husband. She kills herself not becuase Pinkerton has remarried, but because he demands the child, and she knows that he can give him a future she is unable to provide. Her suicide is prompted by her deep love for ‘Dolore,’ as the little boy is called, so that one day he will not be able to accuse his mother of having abandoned him. If one analyzes the masterful libretto of Giacosa and Illica, it is all there, written between the lines.”

    • rapt

      Thanks for that quotation, Enzo. I love that last line--“It is all there, written between the lines.” Kind of Zen, kind of hilarious, and, to my mind, verging on the Meaning of Life.

      • Indiana Loiterer III

        Or at least the Meaning of Opera. (Isn’t the music what’s written between the lines?)

  • La Valkyrietta

    One can read between the lines, but why ignore the actual lines and scenes of the opera, explicitly placed in ti? There are multiple motivations for any human action, so perhaps the canard is just fixing the attention on one of those and ignoring the others, as important as the highlighted motivation might be. Perhaps in the end Cio-Cio-San kills herself because Yamadori is no Brad Pitt. :(