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I love Madama Butterfly so much. It's probably the opera that I've seen and heard live the most often. When I was working at the Metropolitan, for two whole seasons I followed all the performances from the audience and fell deeply in love with Anthony Minghella's extraordinary Madama Butterfly full of imagery. Life takes us on marvellous, unexpected journeys and, a few years later, I had the honour and the pleasure of debuting exactly the same version of this work on the podium of my theatre in Vilnius which, together with the MET and the English National Opera, is its co-producer. This season, besides conducting it at the end of January for three performances, again in Vilnius, I'm delighted to be back with this work at one of the theatres I love the most: La Fenice.


Compared to all Puccini's other operas, Madama Butterfly has a unique characteristic: I dare suggest that it is an opera about just one character and what goes on inside her mind. Essentially, the music continuously underlines the protagonist's state of mind, her feelings of fear, love and, in general, her psychological drama, as if this were a great psycho-analytical "monodrama" in which all the other characters are electrons revolving around a central atom: Cio-Cio-San and her psyche are a constant reference point for all the others whose actions depend only on her, and the same can be said of places: the house, nature, everything on stage whether great or small. The music is surprisingly kaleidoscopic: relentlessly creating sketches, frescoes, lighter and darker tones, without neglecting the slightest detail. In the first act it does so by highlighting how fragmented small events are and by treading in the footsteps of French exoticism and, more precisely, a certain "debussyism", whereas in the second act it first sustains the female protagonist's long, interior monologue, until it progressively reaches symphonic consistency, with long, profound passages, from "Un bel di vedremo", to the entrance of Yamadori, then the cannon shot marking Pinkerton's return, up to the famous "humming chorus". And so in the third act it explodes at last with a more emphatic symphonic quality, less fragmented, hyper dramatic and much less exotic and, in some ways, closer to the Puccini of Tosca or La Bohème.


From a conductor's point of view, the score is extremely demanding, both technically, because of the difficulty of the agogic accents with which it is covered, such as the obsessive use of rubato (in this case not implied, but painstakingly and explicitly written down), the sudden changes in tempo, a composition style which I would describe as not being fluid but, rather, dynamically and theatrically disjointed; but also because of the great difficulty of relating it to the stage, above all when it comes to balancing voices with the orchestra score, which is sometimes extremely muscular and imposing. Comparisons with the great recordings of the past, the interpretative traditions and, finally, the universal popularity of this masterpiece, mean that the conductor's task is complex, yet compelling. By studying Madama Butterfly more and more in-depth, and striving faithfully to respect the composer's indications, it is possible to understand why Puccini never stopped loving his creation, considering it to be "the most heartfelt, evocative opera that I have ever conceived.


Cover photo © Teatro La Fenice


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