Madame Butterfly and that Iron Age Knife.

It was a calm and sunny Sunday here today. No roadworks, no snow, no parties, no medical procedures, no nothing.Looking out from the window, white doves were circling the old police station, with sex on their minds. In a gutter above the house across the road, two sparrow were having the same idea. As were the long tailed tits flying around in my back yard.They are all thinking of Spring, copulation, nests and babies. I am not sure that they have got it right but Mother Nature has a weird way of knowing these things long before us mere humans clock on to it.I read somewhere that brain haemorrhage sufferers are known to experience higher and more volatile emotions that they had before. I was wondering if that was true for me too.Was I always so engaged in Nature, the weather and the seasons. Well, yes, I think I was but, maybe, I didn’t sit around thinking about my feelings in the same way as I do now that I am constantly watching for signs of brain damage.I was also always effected by architecture so the morning sun on our town’s 14th. Century gatehouse has always raised my heart beat just as it did today. Somehow, today, the gatehouse and our 11th. Century castle reminded me of childhood – not that I am that old even if my fractured spine makes me feel it at times. No I grew up in historical Sussex where ancient flint building works are still one of our local glories and they will always stay in my memory as the background to my youth.The South Downs, rolling chalkland hills are another symbol of that time and, luckily for me, I can still see them from my bedroom window.It was on the Downs that I found, what I thought to be an iron age knife. One of the wonders of my childhood – corroded, jagged and fragile, it was often used in games involving battles, heroism and ritual suicide.All normal boyhood games – aren’t they? Or am I weirder than I think?It was this knife that I also imagined as the weapon that Madame Butterfly used for her own ritual suicide at the end of Puccini’s opera of that name.I was 13 years old when a relation gave me a recording of this opera. Much too young for such high emotion some might say. Well, it was too late, after I had listened to it once on a sunny September day, I was totally hooked.So this was what love was all about, I discovered. Unyielding, all-absorbing, emotionally draining and deeply tragic. As far as I could see it could only end in death after extreme suffering.And I loved it.I was probably never quite the same again.Someone was talking to me last night about Madame Butterfly and, well to be honest, they got me going on the subject.Now if there is any music that can be guaranteed to untap those emotions – let alone heightened brain damaged ones, then it is this most passionate and tragic opera. In my humble (well, maybe not) opinion, his masterpiece.I gave myself another one of those dares. Could I listen to it again, after a few years, without being reduced to an emotional wreck?Let’s find out, I thought. I played the sensational and probably unbeatable recording with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra with the young Luciano Pararotti and Mirella Freni both in their vocal primes and unsurpassable in this music.Really there was no debate.The plot about an innocent Japanese girl being sold as a bride to a callous and lusty American captain is set to some of Puccini’s most lyrical melodies, orchestrated in a way that would do Debussy proud.The music, ultimately, is about the drama though. The tension is tightened gradually, almost sadistically as the romantic girl is taken from awakening love, through unleashed passion to a desperate and cruel discovery that her love was always one-sided. An honourable death is the only possible outcome.We, of course, know that she will be betrayed and we are the helpless witnesses to her destruction. It is here that Puccini shows us that he is one of the great dramatists. He knows exactly how to grab our emotions and keep them in his unforgiving grip.It is sad but inevitable that some of the melodies from the opera are performed as short popular items because they really belong as essential bricks within the framework often with the beauty of the music acting against the cynical reality of the situation being enacted on the stage. Like Shakespeare’s Othello or Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Puccini is a master of controlled suspense.For instance, the so-called love duet that ends act one in an erotic rhapsody is really not a love duet at all. Butterfly, of course is singing of love but Pinkerton sings of lust. The consumation of the marriage is a joyful beginning for her but a highly enjoyable sexual climax for her young American lover. It is all there in the music.There is no escape for Madame Butterfly and no escape for us – we are helpless victims in Puccini’s hands. If you think you don’t like opera then listen to this, reading the words of course, and recognise that you were wrong. Only an emotional pyschopath could resist it.I, of course, know it almost too well. It is deeply ingrained in me and has formed, probably unwisely, a part of my emotional development but, luckily, living in this Anglo-Saxon, protestant country, I have learned long ago to keep my feelings well buttoned up. Am I alone in living with that shadow hanging over me? An insecurity dating back to memories of adolescence when every expression of passion was in danger of falling on unresponsive ground. In this country we find it easier to laugh these things off but Madame Butterfly belies our deeper feelings by being consistantly popular with even the most stiff-upper-lipped types.Butterfly’s love for her handsome American can be felt by us all, male and female alike. I hope that all of you out there experience all of her joy and none of her disappointments. To do that you have to be a whole lot more unbuttoned than you might think is good for you.If I were ever to feel like repeating those childhood re-enactments of ritual suicide though, I will have to find another weapon. My iron age knife was thrown away long ago by a grandmother who saw it as a piece of old rubbish.Oh yes, sorry fellow Anglo-Saxons, I fell into Puccini’s wet eyed trap by the way but I don’t think it has anything to do with brain damage.

2 Comments

  1. There’s a wonderful Rufus Wainwright song called “Damned Ladies” about an opera lover who implores the famous heroines to come to their senses–for example:

    “Violetta keep your man locked up
    Or like Cio-Cio you will end up
    Burned by love or sickness.”

    In the chorus he sings, “…why don’t you ladies/Believe me when I’m screaming/I always believe you.”

    I think that last line nails what you refer to as Puccini’s trap. In Puccini faith is a certain path to destruction. That’s harsh. We all consider that possibility eventually, but it’s quite a load for a 14-year-old to bear. It’s not easy to give ourselves up completely to something the way we do when we’re children, once we know that we can be hurt. But once in a while when we manage it we find strengths in ourselves that we’d quite forgotten were ever there. Puccini tends not to go there.

    I hope you realize that you never really lost that knife…

  2. Anatole, I did find it truly overwhelming as a kid coming across this depth of feeling and vulnerability. Puccini, I fear, for all his genius, enjoyed imposing that pain. It genuinely has haunted me for years.

    When, as you say, we can find those strengths, when we can give ourselves up in a trusting way and survive, then Puccini has lost and we have gained something more valuable than anything else that life can offer us.

    I still love his works though even though a part of me has never forgiven him…maybe because of that.

    And that knife…no it will always be here at my side. Strange that you should know that.

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