Puccini’s evocative Madama Butterfly emerges at Place des Arts

Melody Moore stars as the tragic Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly in Montreal in 2015. (Photo by Chip Gillespie)

Both opera buffs and neophytes will be delighted by Opéra de Montréal’s much-anticipated production of Madama Butterfly, starting September 19 at Place des Arts.

Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 three-act opera about love and betrayal is the perfect choice for those curious but unfamiliar with this art form, says musicologist Pierre Vachon, who gives pre-opera talks (in French with a short summary in English) before each performance.

“The moving story has resonance to people today,” Vachon says. While it tells the tragic love story of a young Japanese girl and a U.S. Navy lieutenant, it also has a wider historical context—the Americans “opening” commerce with Japan in 1854 and Europeans becoming fascinated with Japanese culture at the 1878 Paris exhibition.

“Opera is a microcosm of society,” Vachon explains. “It was a shock to Westerners and opened up a world to artists in painting and music.”

Puccini, who also composed Tosca, La Bohème and Turandot, said this opera, which he rewrote five times, was “the most heartfelt and evocative opera I have ever conceived.”

Above all, the composer wanted to move people, to make them weep, Vachon says.

“With Puccini, emotion is key.”

Perhaps this is why Madama Butterfly remains one of the five most popular operas of all time.

The story is easy t follow, made even more so with the addition of supertitles in English and French. It is not necessary to know the plot beforehand, Vachon says.

“Come with an open mind, let yourself be transported. After that, start listening to excerpts, read about the story. This is how your ear is formed.”

Opera is about being in the moment, Vachon says, being immersed in the total experience of music with the singers, orchestra, sets, costumes, lights and drama coming together live before you.

“People want beautiful sing-able tunes—this opera is full of them. The music is quite direct; it touches your soul, like music in a film. It is so immediate; there are psychological changes unfolding in five seconds and the music follows that, translating human passion with such efficiency we rarely see.”

In her Huffington Post blog, Henriette Lazaridis describes live opera s a thrilling experience with which videos and CDs can’t compare.

“It’s one thing to hear all the lovely bits of opera strung together in a recording. … It’s quite another to hear the beautiful parts emerging from passages you’re not really paying attention to. You sit there, looking around the opera house, or maybe getting a little sleepy or thinking of something else, and then it hits you—beauty.

“And you’re slammed into something that I can’t quite explain except to say it’s pure emotion captured in pure sound.”

Opéra de Montreal presents Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at Place des Arts, Salle Wilfrid Pelletier, at 7:30 pm. Pre-opera talks at 6:30 pm. September 19, 22,24,26 and 28. Tickets start at $20. 514-985-2258, operademontreal.com

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