I had my very first brush with Opera at DUCTAC yesterday – the Italian Industry and Commerce Office in the UAE had organized a staging of Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly at the Centrepoint Theatre.
Growing up in the eighties in small town India, we reveled in our books, friendships, and rich imaginations. One of the pleasures of my childhood was flipping through the World Book Encyclopaedia – a black and white edition from the early ‘50s. We had volumes A, B, C, D, F, N-O, S and WXYZ with us – all that my mother could carry with her easily on her 3000-odd kilometer journey across India after marriage.
This meant my sister and I were very well informed on subjects such as Cats, Dresses, Flags, Flowers, Shakespeare, World War II, and of course, Opera. We’d pore over the long section on Opera, read the synopses of Aida, Carmen or The Barber of Seville and imagine a world of beauty, art and enchantment. So fascinated was I, that when I would play with my small army of dolls, Lady Angela Crawleigh could often be seen taking her rigid plastic body and nylon auburn hair off to the opera, clad in a black lace gown and fur muff (repurposed from my sister’s best baby frock and an old toy dog, respectively).
As I grew older and got over my first mild shock of hearing an actual aria, the fascination continued. Like my first face-screwing taste of Cabernet Sauvignon, I acquired a liking for the music itself, albeit in a light casual way. Pavarotti’s sublime renditions at popular events like the Three Tenor concerts paved the way but I was by no means a true or knowledgeable fan.
When I saw the poster for Madame Butterfly outside DUCTAC, I was extremely excited. I was also a bit disappointed that it was that particular one, because it was one of the operas my sister and I had dismissed as soppy. But when I looked it up, and listened to Duvonque al mondo and Un Bel di Vedremo, I realized that it was one of the best operas for a beginner, with accessible and melodious music. I went online and quickly booked myself a ticket, one of the nosebleed ones high up in the balcony, for the only day it was playing in Dubai – Thursday, 12th November.
As the day approached, I was faced with many dilemmas that I’m sure Opera goers in centuries past never had to contend with. While they worried about which corsages to carry with their dresses, or whether their beaux would visit their boxes during the interval, my thoughts went like this:
- What if there is a dress code? How am I going to dress up for an Opera to work and not look silly?
- Will my bus come on time? What if the connecting Metro doesn’t run properly?
- What if my boss suddenly keeps me back at work?
- How do I get back home after it ends? Will it run so long that I miss my train?
- What do I do about dinner? Do I go to a restaurant or get a croissant from the metro café?
To make matters worse, the day of the opera dawned and it was rainy and windy– Dubai has only two or three days of rain every year and it HAD to happen on the day I had plans. Again, we had some mini crisis at work and for a minute I could feel tragedy begin to envelop me much as it did Madame Butterfly herself. However at six, the clouds – both metaphoric and real – had cleared, and I was on my way, feeling my excitement mount. In the ladies’ loo, I swapped my blazer for a silk stole, dabbed on some make up and swished my way to DUCTAC’s Centrepoint Theatre.
Dubai’s Italian contingent was out in full force, including the Consul General and his wife, who most emphatically were not in nosebleed seats. There were many women in black or maxi dresses with pearls and wraps, and even a few in pants and silk shirts. I had a brief chat with a lady who was there by herself like me, and she very kindly took the photo that accompanies this post. I have no pictures of the opera itself since we were forbidden to take any, but I did see a few later on Instagram.
Before each act, a narrator – Geetha Prodhom – would give us a gist of the action to follow. The production had focused on the main storyline involving Pinkerton, Cio Cio-san, Sharpless, Suzuki and Dolore, omitting Goro, Yamadori and Cio Cio-san’s uncle and their pieces altogether. Although I didn’t understand much beyond “Mi esposa”, “Butterfly” “Retorna” “Verra” and “America Forever” the entire time, the action and emotion were easy to follow. In the first act, we watched Sharpless and Pinkerton talk about Butterfly singing their peppy duet, with its Star Spangled Banner-inspired intro, Duvonque al mondo. Both Gianluca Pasolini who essayed Pinkerton and Gianfranco Montresor, the baritone who played Sharpless, were fabulous.
Then there was the affecting love duet between Pinkerton and Butterfly. The second act went by with Butterfly pining for Pinkerton and this was the least interesting bit of the opera for me. Even Un Bel di Vedremo which I had been looking forward to all evening, was a little uninspiring. But Monica De Rosa Mackay was back in full force in Act Three, which was simply magnificent. She was affecting in the scenes with her son Dolore, and in her final death scene. The humming chorus sounded amazing and the stage transition to show the passing of a long night followed by a new day was well done. Unfortunately the magic of that moment was ruined by someone’s cellphone ringing – and the annoyance in the room was palpable.
Agata Bienkowska, the mezzo soprano who played Suzuki had a powerful voice and got the role of the demure Japanese maid down pat. A key reason (see what I did there?) for the evening’s success was the proficient pianist, Piero Corradino Giovannini. His music set the scene skillfully. The crescendo before Butterfly stabs herself was awe-inspiring. I’d read that Puccini had skillfully woven in Japanese melodies and I could pick these out especially during the sequence where Suzuki is praying.
Act Three came to a close all too soon for me, with Pinkerton’s last look of anguish at Butterfly and Dolore. The curtain fell to thunderous applause – as the cliché goes. The cast came and took their bows one by one and then together, several times to prolonged clapping. I enjoyed this bit as much as the opera itself because the cast had worked so hard and so strenuously to put up a great performance and this was our little performance of appreciation in return. I clapped extra hard for the tenor because I had enjoyed his singing and voice the most.
Watching an Opera live, even if it is not in an Opera theatre but in an ordinary one, is an experience in itself. Nothing you see on TV or on Youtube or hear on audio recordings can prepare you for the impact it has in a large yet closed space, where it reverberates off every wall, fills each corner and rises high to the very rafters. I remember Richard Corliss of Time describing the art form as both sublime and ridiculous. Not to be pompous but I think Opera cannot be contained in the tiny spaces and contexts of our iPods and every day life – it needs its stage and space to blossom. Sign me up for the next one!