Music That Floats Like a Butterfly… and Stings Like a Bee

Love kills. So sang Elektra (“Liebe tötet!”), the last Diva to be Exposed on our Detroit stage, shortly before she succumbed
to that phenomenon. Besides being an apt summary of all tragic opera, we hear the exact phrase—in its negative form— uttered in the first act of Madame Butterfly. Alone together on the night of their wedding, Butterfly does not let herself tell Pinkerton she loves him, lest she die at hearing such joyful words, to which he, “L’amor non uccide” [Love does not kill]. He and Elektra could get into a fine debate about that one.

But so could he and Butterfly. She, like Elektra, and unlike the flippant Pinkerton, is aware of the high stakes of love and its
opposite, which is perhaps not hate, but rather lack of love, love forgotten, cooled to such a state that it can be sensed no longer. Those giddy with infatuation so often promise themselves that love will not harm, that it will only revive—Pinkerton follows his denial of love’s danger with “Ma dà vita” [Rather, it gives life]. But the clear-eyed and true of heart know something that the fickle bounders do not. That if love gives life, then surely the absence of love’s reciprocation must take life away.

Butterfly believes this from the beginning. It gives tragic weight to her pronouncements, setting them off against the shallow fripperies of Pinkerton, who, between sips of whiskey, boasts about his second marriage before he has even begun the first. (Puccini realized the lack balance in his principals’ seriousness of sound and sentiment. As he wrote to a conductor friend while he was composing the opera in 1903, “There is a great part for the prima donna, not much for the tenor…”)

And nowhere is her part greater than when she intones most powerfully this hope wedded to fear—this love-fire blown with the exhalations of potential demise—in her most famous piece, and one of the most beloved of all opera, “Un bel dì” [One beautiful day]. An aria arises in opera when the character’s feeling is fed with such pleasure or pain that it cannot help but bloom, like a flower, and so Butterfly’s music does, opening shyly at first, a huddled chrysanthemum, but exploding into a multi-dimensional, many-hued profusion by the end, all the instruments chorusing her cry.

The aria is not of one color, of untouched hope for her husband’s return after a three years’ absence. Throughout, it is tinted with dread. Hear how the opening line, a musing on the fine day when she will see her love again, starts with a surge above the musical staff, a call over the ocean as she sees his ship approach. But the pitches drop lower and lower as the sentence unfolds, plummeting below the staff on the word “poi” [then], as if Butterfly fears what comes next. Hear the cornets calling coldly, as if from a distance, and the lone bang on the bass drum at “Romba il suo saluto” [Rumbles forth its call], literally just an evocation of the ship’s cannon, but more than that, a startling prediction of the “colpo,” the hard and heartless “blow” that Butterfly is told may await her later in the act. And most dramatically of all, hear how the same melody to which she sang of Pinkerton’s approach she uses again in the aria’s final third, beginning with the word “morire” [to die], as she announces her fear that the bliss of his return could end her. Here again is the dream of love darkened with the menace of death. To the very same tune, Butterfly sings of both, one the veiled handmaiden to the other. That “morire,” delivered with such terrible anguish, has the power to stun, and yet we understand it.

Some of us have surely experienced it, a love so absolute that nothing can seem to contend with it, even life; or the worry that should we be left without it, we should have nothing at all, only the abyss to look forward to. This immortal “Un bel dì” is Butterfly’s call over that abyss, over the ocean that separates continents, over the clash of cultures that would in 40 years wreak havoc on Butterfly’s native Nagasaki and Pinkerton’s America both. It is her shattering cry into the depths, her prayer for happiness, her prophecy of gloom.

Let its petals caress your ears as it unfurls, let it remind you that the twin flowers of love and suffering grow in every generation, that you are not alone. Let it bond you to the most feeling parts of yourself and to your fellows in the audience—this is opera’s magic power. “Senti” [Listen], as Butterfly implores before she begins the aria. She is speaking not only to her maid. She speaks to us all.

By Michael Yashinsky