December the Eight is the feast of the Immaculate Conception, over here, and the first holiday in the Christmas season – when most people trim their Christmas tree and prepare their crèche. Not I – because, for several reasons, we have our own tradition of tree-trimming on Saint Lucia’s eve – but still. And yesterday was Sant’Ambrogio, marked in Italy by the opening night of the opera season at La Scala, in Milan. It’s a glittering musical and social event, broadcast nation-wide, and hugely followed and discussed… this is Italy, after all.
Well, last night we had a generally very good Madama Butterfly, directed by Riccardo Chailly, with good singers (minus the tenor), stunning visuals, and the first chance to hear the original version of the opera, never heard again after its near-disastrous première in 1904.
Later, after curtain down, we were discussing the opera with a bunch of theatre friends via Whatsapp and I said that, while liking it very much on the whole, I couldn’t bring myself to care much for the tenor, found the original version less effective than the revised one, and had my reservations about the ending, with the heroine Cho-Cho San committing suicide amidst a veritable crowd of her doubles, her maid, her son…
“There goes Brainy Clara again”, came from Gemma the Director. “Why can’t you just go with the feelings?”
Now, this is an ongoing argument between Gemma and myself. It’s been ongoing for the last twenty-five years or so: I was her teenaged drama pupil, and we were arguing the merits of logic versus feeling already… Gemma says that my analytical mind is at constant risk of being my greatest weakness, theatre-wise, and I insist that riding on feelings is good for the audience, but to elicit said feelings takes a good deal of analytical thought backstage and onstage… Which is, I dare say, why we work so well together, each providing an ingredient to the whole.
Still, I must make my point: Cho-Cho-San’s mime doubles were lovely to see for most of the opera. With their beautiful costumes, Kabuki-like looks and motions, they offered suggestive glimpses of the heroine’s imaginings and hopes, filled the huge space around the few characters, and gave a pictorial look to the whole. All very well until the end – where it all crashed for me. I’ve always imagined Cho-Cho-San’s final choice as a moment of terrible solitude. She sends child and maid away, as she proudly and heartbrokenly choses death. Puccini’s music is at its best here, and I think the solitary act achieves a tragic, sacrificial greatness…
But no, here we had a dozen weeping doubles, the maid and the (blindfolded) child attending. She wasn’t alone anymore – and what can I say? It felt weaker. Watered down. Emotionally wrong.
And look, I’m as happy as anyone to let Puccini pull at my heartstrings – which is exactly why my feelings lithobraked well before my analytical mind began to scream: Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!
And I don’t know, perhaps Gemma is right – at least up to a point – and in always thinking backstage I’ve lost the ability to just enjoy the show, forever calculating cause and effect… A kind of toy-maker complex, maybe? But still, I cannot help thinking that a solitary Cho-Cho-San at the end would have packed a more powerful emotional punch. I’m not terribly likely to end up directing operas – but, if I ever do, my Madama Butterflys will always die very much alone – and, after overanalysing last night, I’ll know exactly why.