If advance gossip is any indicator, this year’s Bard Festival, devoted to Giacomo Puccini and his World, was one of the most controversial. “Puccini! Controversial!” You say, “There’s not really enough in him to have a controversy about, is there? Those sappy tear-jerkers speak for themselves.” In fact there was a lot of grumbling. Some festival regulars stayed away, or dragged themselves to only one concert, the one that included pieces by Dallapiccola, Pizzetti, and Petrassi. Even with these absentees the Festival sold out, or came close to selling out. Most of the concerts and the panel discussions were packed.
Musically, this summer in the Berkshires, there was one event that was truly exciting, in the sense of something important that was entirely new…or almost, as the people behind it made entirely clear. Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of interviewing the two impressive and engaging founders of the Berkshire Opera Festival, Jonathon Loy and Brian Garman, who promised to “bring fully-staged opera back to the Berkshires.” And this they have just fulfilled with a production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, that was in a way as perfect as an opera performance can get, considering that opera is the quintessence of imperfection among art forms—or perhaps that should be said of art itself. Musical and theatrical ability that was both solid and brilliant, imagination, good taste, and deep knowledge and understanding of the work and its authors flowed together with all the concentration and energy aroused by a new, make-or-break enterprise to create a performance that can only be described as an object lesson in how to perform opera—and a thrilling and moving one newcomers, casual opera-goers, and opera-makers alike can appreciate. The Berkshire Opera Festival has, within less than a week, made itself indispensible.
The Bard Music Festival, every year since 1990, offers music-lovers a splendid gift in its weekends of immersion in the music of some major composer and others related to him, the intellectual and artistic life of his time, and the legacy that connects us to it all. It equally presents us with a powerful challenge—a challenge to overcome our preconceptions about this partly familiar, partly unfamiliar music, chiefly the product of famous composers. In some cases we discover that a composer’s most popular music is not in fact his best, and our estimation of him rises significantly, as in the case of Sibelius and Prokofiev, or in others, like Schubert, we can become acquainted with genres like the part song, which have fallen out of the repertory because the social context for their performance has become obsolete. Many music-lovers divide Franz Liszt’s output between serious music of high quality and shallow, flashy display pieces. Again, the Bard Festival challenged its audiences to reconsider.
When Stanton Welch adapted Puccini’s opera to the ballet 16 years ago it was his first full length work. He is now head of the Houston Ballet, and meanwhile Butterfly has played around the globe and of course has stuck in the Australian Ballet’s repertoire. The ballet is neoclassical, or more accurately neo-romantic: it uses the classical ballet forms and also visions and fantastic ethereal imagery, at times within worldly and concrete settings, something ballet in particular does so well, and really is its major strength as an art form, contributing to its appealing free and unique method of story-telling. It doesn’t really make sense to compare ballet to opera, I think Madame Butterfly shows why this comparison is false as it is very different from the opera, but it does seem to gain something in being a ballet — it at least becomes more refined and concentrated and, for me, Mr Welch’s lyrical flowing dances add a je ne sais quoi missing from the music, but moreover it opens up possibilities in the depths of the very difficult characters.
One could say that Madama Butterfly is a distilled and simplified presentation of the stereotypical opera plot. It is a romance told very straight with spurning, madness leading to the female lead’s suicide with good songs and a bit of exoticism, but it lacks the twists in the plot which Mozart’s operas have (at least Donna Elvira tries to chase down Don Giovanni) to deepen the characters’ relationships. This leaves all the characterization to the music and I don’t think Puccini’s is up to it. Cio-Cio-San is too pathetic and doormat-ish and it’s hard to feel into her character when the music doesn’t sink deeply enough into the listener to help them understand her or link her into the greater universe. Perhaps that is unfair to the music since the libretto and story itself doesn’t give much to go on to divine her motivations, but Puccini did choose the story. Pinkerton too isn’t exactly 4-dimensional. He is a cad with neither redeeming qualities, magnetism nor charm. Having said that, the opera can be enjoyable at some level if, as in this case, the music is well played and sung, making the more dragging parts of Act II bearable, though this enjoyment was marred by a certain noisy leading tenor.
It has been interesting to see Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Puccini’s Tosca just a few weeks after seeing Opera Boston’s production of Beethoven’s Fidelio, just down the street at the Cutler Majestic Theater. The two operas, in their very different ways, invoke a powerful atmosphere of political repression — the world in which everyone lives, the trap that everyone is caught in, the air that everyone breathes — and in both cases a woman at the center of things wreaks havoc with the status quo. Kierkegaard, writing about Mozart’s Don Giovanni, says that music is by nature seductive and thus that Mozart had found the perfect subject — seduction — for music drama to spin out and reflect upon.