Franco Mannino with the NAC Orchestra, 1980s ©
NACO Home Delivery

Madama Butterfly

For this NACO Home Delivery, we are thrilled to share with you a live, opera-in-concert recording of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly from 1989.

In the Orchestra’s early days, aside from being a fantastic ensemble known to expertly play the music of Mozart and Haydn, it was also equally known for its opera. In fact, Mario Bernardi created Festival Canada, a summer festival from 1971–1977, which then became Festival Ottawa from 1978–1982, in which opera featured prominently. Well-known opera singers came to perform during those years, and the performances of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades (1978) and Eugene Onegin (1983) have become storied legend, still spoken about today.

Conducted by Franco Mannino, Principal Guest Conductor throughout the 1980s, this live recording features NACO at some of its most electric, sublime and inspiring, with its lush sound enveloping you at every turn in Puccini’s gorgeous music.

We hear a young Richard Margison shine as Pinkerton, the Canadian tenor who went on to make a significant mark in the opera world; and American soprano Elizabeth Holleque exquisitely sing the heart-breaking role of Cio-Cio-san. With a strong supporting cast including the Ottawa Choral Society, this performance, which was broadcast by the CBC, is one that many members of the Orchestra still remember fondly.

Sit back, relax, and enjoy hearing the beautiful sounds of Puccini, and our Orchestra in some of its finest playing; music that is perfect for a warm, summer’s eve.

Reflection from violinist Winston Webber

Here we are, the first opera for NACO Home Delivery!  Not just any opera, and not just any performance, though to be sure there’s a whole catalogue of terrific performances of Madama Butterfly out there.

This is probably the greatest NACO live performance ever captured in first-class audio, thank you CBC – a complete, live in concert Madama Butterfly from 1989, performed by the NAC Orchestra and a stellar cast of singers, conducted by Franco Mannino.

I’ll quote a few things from the libretto but, just listening, there can be no doubt whatsoever what’s going on in this opera – and on that level the music and singing are an absolute thrill.   But here’s also where it gets a little tricky. 

For years I have loved listening to this opera – especially the first act.  Just the music says so much, and the rhythm of the words fits into the music so beautifully.  Even if you speak Italian (I don’t) the seamless way that language is used in opera is so much in our ears, you don’t really listen closely to the words, not in detail.  And such a famous, tragic love story.  It’s opera!  Of course, there’s the appallingly selfish character of Pinkerton and Butterfly’s loving but tragic misjudgment. And an ending we know so well that its truly awful conclusion has perhaps less impact on us than it should.   

But the libretto and the music can convey two quite different messages to us in these times – both uncomfortable, but one especially so now.  Puccini and his librettists exploit a common operatic theme – the potentially tragic consequences of love between people of greatly unequal power. But the cultural assumptions are cringe-worthy today.  And the age difference… It’s a classic tale, and a famous, much-loved opera.  In that sense this is a typically operatic story of a great but doomed love.  But in another, more contemporary sense, the story – especially the end of the first act – can be seen as one of the most elegantly concealed, most beautifully sung, most outrageously cruel Me Too moments in all of opera.  

And this particular story – perhaps because it feels contemporary – especially gets to us. Which way of hearing this opera is the true one?  I’d argue both are true.  And that creates a problem we must somehow deal with, even framed, as it is, in great art.

In the ending of the first act, Pinkerton sings a romantic, soaring vocal line:

“Bimba dagli occhi pieni di malia, ora sei tutta mia.”

“Child with eyes full of witchery, now you are all mine.” 

The music is SO beautiful.  But the words… Hear it one way, it’s some of the greatest love music in opera.  Heard another way, he’s already blaming her for whatever may happen.  

Then Butterfly describes how she would like to be loved.  Already we’re in the deep end:

“…una tenerezza sfiorante e pur profonda come il ciel, come l'onda del mare.” 

“…a tenderness gently caressing, yet vast as the sky and the waves of the sea.” 

However you hear it, she is so far above him! 

The wonderful Italian word “sfiorato,” which comes from the infinitely tender way we caress the blooms of flowers, “fiori…”  (I love that “sfiorato” is the marking in the orchestra parts at the gentle beginning of Nessun Dorma (Turandot) – a layer of musical sophistication often lost in the runup to the Big Moment.)

But “sfiorato” is not in Pinkerton’s character.  Butterfly is head over heels in love but still has her wits, so she gets nervous:

“Dicon ch'oltre mare se cade in man dell'uom ogni farfalla d'uno spillo è trafitta ed in tavola infitta!”

“They say that, overseas, if it should fall into the hands of a man, a butterfly is stuck through with a pin and fixed to a board!”

And Pinkerton thoughtlessly but passionately replies:

“Un po' di vero c'è: e tu lo sai perché? Perché non fugga più. Io t'ho ghermita... Ti serro palpitante. Sei mia.” 

“There's some truth in that; and do you know why? So that it shouldn't fly away again. I've caught you...Quivering, I press you to me. You're mine.”

That’s.....pretty hard to dodge. 

Do we remember that “Sei mia!” are Scarpia’s last lustful words before Tosca, defending herself, stabs him to death?  And here Pinkerton sings the same words to Butterfly – and in the first act!   The tragic selfishness is already there, in Pinkerton’s words.  But the words are common in opera and it’s how lovers have talked to each other forever.  How to listen to this now? 

And, if this isn’t enough, when Butterfly and Pinkerton totally lose their inhibitions – or rather, Butterfly loses hers – Puccini puts the ambivalence of the situation into an unforgettable harmony called an augmented chord.  For some people, the moment I’m about to describe is their favourite moment in all of music – it’s really a big deal.  OK, stick with me….

It’s not too much of a stretch to say that all of Western music is driven by a single harmonic imperative, called “the dominant function.”  Don’t run away – that’s just a stuffy harmonic analysis way of saying a home key is established by relating it to the “dominant” chord – a chord placed a perfect fifth above the home key that, for some reason even Oliver Sachs couldn’t understand, makes us feel a tension that can only be resolved by a return to the home key.  Yes, just about all the music we know is powered by this single, ineffable psychological / musical principle.  Which is to say, if you stopped singing Happy Birthday halfway through, it would feel really weird. 

This is WAY beyond normal notes on an opera, but it’s necessary because this augmented chord that Puccini uses is unique in harmony.  It contains the tension all in itself, without reference to anything else.  This unforgettable chord, coming out of nowhere, makes us feel a strange, sinister but seductive unease.  Technically, the chord is made up of two major thirds stacked on top of each other, which means the outside notes of the triad are an augmented fifth apart, not the normal perfect fifth, and boy did that ever go down the rabbit hole. 

Anyway, all that’s necessary to relieve the tension is for the top major third to go up a half step.  The transformation from doubt to certainty, from unease to complete peace for the world is instantaneous, miraculous, almost sublime (and I use that often abused word carefully.)

And that’s the unearthly harmony to which these painfully sincere words of Butterfly are set:

“Ah! dolce notte! Quante stelle! Non le vidi mai sì belle!”

“Oh, lovely night! What a lot of stars! Never have I seen them so beautiful!”

Oh dear God… Our hearts break for her.

The great writer Julian Barnes said, “Every love story is a potential grief story…So why do we constantly aspire to love?  Because love is the meeting point of truth and magic.” 

Yes – oh how much yes.  Here, the magic is all in the music – and what music!  But only Butterfly is really seeking truth.  Those augmented chords are almost a sort of harmonic Greek chorus, telling us ahead of time what we cannot bear to see.      

Franco Mannino conducting the NAC Orchestra in 1989, Pinkerton sung by the young Canadian, Richard Margison in the full flower of his magnificent voice and Elizabeth Holleque, in this appearance as Butterfly (her signature role was Tosca!) a spinto soprano of seemingly limitless vocal and emotional range.  Holleque was a replacement for Leona Mitchell, who had to cancel at the last minute.  Apparently, at the rehearsal cramming session with Mannino before the performance, Holleque and Mannino had a heated disagreement over interpretation. Apparently, it could be heard through the door. The ironic result was that musical lightning struck that night and, which almost never happens, it was captured in excellent live audio.

The wonderful supporting cast:

Suzuki – Sandra Graham
Sharpless – Alan Monk
The Bonze – John Dodington
Goro – Michael Schade
Kate Pinkerton – Kimberly Barber
Prince Yamadori – Ingemar Korjus

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