Performing Chopin

Beethoven: Sonata op. 57 ("Appassionata")

Discovering "L'altro Rossini": Young Meyerbeer's Semiramide

40 to the minim - a study of tempo in Puccini's "Turandot"

Revisiting Senta

How fast does the Dutchman fly?

The Descent from Mount Sinai

Slow movement in Rondo-Sonata form?

Beethoven: Sonata op. 2 no. 2

The Interrupted Feast

The Interrupted Feast

A comparative look at the curse scenes in Don Giovanni, Rigoletto and Madama Butterfly
Opera is a unique genre. It employs certain mechanisms which are extremely powerful and would not produce the same effect – if any – in other related genres such as theater or film. This is what all great opera composers knew, which still makes their works effective in our days. One example, which is unfortunately often overlooked nowadays by theatres and stage directors, is off stage music and singing. The entrance aria of Butterfly should be sung completely off stage. This way Puccini and his librettists characterized the heroine of the opera as such a delicate creature that at the moment of its presentation, it lacks any physical and visual feature. It is only the voice, or rather the singing, through which we get our first introduction to Cio-Cio-San. Another typical operatic procedure which would produce a very different effect if not a complete chaos in other genres is the simultaneous singing of several characters. Music – particularly in the hands of the great masters – allows this otherwise confusing device to be organized in a perfect manner. The quartets from Rigoletto and La Boheme are both an excellent example for this. 

In this article I would like to take a look at a pattern which recurs in three of the most famous operas, belonging to three different periods and styles. It is the proof that however different the musical style and content may be, opera at its best sticks to the same mechanisms, one might even say conventions – in the best sense of the word. These are the very elements which make opera what it is. 

Verdi's famous letter to Antonio Somma in which he describes "Rigoletto" as his best opera up to that moment, points out the Duke as the center of the opera: "All the peripeties are born out of the light-hearted, libertine character of the Duke: hence the fears of Rigoletto, Gilda's passion etc. etc., which create many excellent dramatic moments.." (Venice, April 22nd 1853). It seems that Verdi looked for a musical key for this special character and found it in the main character of the greatest opera of the preceding century: Mozart's "Don Giovanni". The connection between the two characters is obvious, though they actually represent two completely different things: Don Giovanni is the embodiment of the driving force in life, the "Yang" energy, which moves constantly forward and never stops – not even before death. The Duke – one should never forget – is originally Francois I in Hugo's play "Le Roi s'amuse", and therefore belongs to the traditional place of the king in the French theatre, representing the cosmic order. This is the reason that he eventually cannot be killed. 

Verdi chose to use Don Giovanni as a background resonance for his innovative opera, using musical – operatic devices. He does it with great effect in the first scene of the opera, and then moves on to explore other aspects of his character. The first of these devices is the string quartet playing on the stage in the first scene, which evokes the three string orchestras used by Mozart on stage in the Finale I of Don Giovanni. To make sure we don't miss the connection, Verdi lets the quartet play a Minuet (during the duettino with the Contessa di Ceprano), which resembles in rhythmical patterns and texture the same dance in Mozart's opera, played by the first of the three orchestras and creates the framework for the whole scene. Another parallel between the two operas is the couple Master – Servant formed by the Duke and Rigoletto on one hand, and Don Giovanni and Leporello on the other. In both cases, the couple is at the center of the party and at the same time somehow detached from it. They often sing the same melody – one after the other, or together in thirds or in unison. 

The most striking resemblance between the two operas however is generated by a third figure: that of the offended father, whose daughter was abused by the main character. He enters in the middle of the party and stops everything, claiming justice and revenge for the immoral deeds of the offender. The musical parallels are as striking as they are inevitable, considering the conventions and mechanisms of opera: both the Commendatore and Monterone are basses, which is the voice assigned to older men, often representing religious people or kings (when they are not libertines). Both are characterized harmonically by the use of diminished chords, rhythmically by dotted figures and melodically by the repetition of one note followed by a leap upwards. 

It is however interesting to note the difference in choice of tonality: Mozart uses D minor, which remained ever since in tradition as the tonality of death (Mozart's own Requiem, Schubert's "Death and the Maiden", Brahms' first of the "Vier ernste Gesaenge" and Agammemnon's death cry at the opening of Elektra, to give just a couple of examples). Verdi is using C minor, which could be defined as the tonality of tragedy (Beethoven's 5th symphony, Chopin's nocturne in C minor, Brahms' 1st symphony, the entrance of the Dutchman, the prelude of Madame Butterfly). It is a subtle but significant difference. The Commendatore leads to Don Giovanni's death, and the genre of the piece is "Dramma Giocoso" – a combination of Opera Seria & Buffa elements - by no way means a tragedy. In "Rigoletto" none of the two characters cursed die. Just like Oedipus– to give one example – originally tragedy had more to do with realizing one's mistakes and keeping on living with this new conscience than with the loss of life (Shakespeare for his own reasons has his characters die at the end of the play). Verdi probably felt clearly the need to create the difference. He chose C minor as the key tonality of "Rigoletto", more specifically associated with the cur,se and used the D minor death tonality where it belonged to: in the storm scene at the end of which Gilda is stabbed to death. 

As much as it is fascinating to observe the connection between "Rigoletto" and "Don Giovanni", it is even more surprising to find the same effect in a later opera of a completely different style: Puccini's "Madame Butterfly". Many details are changed on the surface, but the entrance of Bonzo during the wedding scene of the first act stands in direct connection to the other two operas just discussed. It is worth remembering that the first act of Butterfly is a pure invention of Puccini's librettists and therefore is even more clearly rooted in opera tradition than the rest of the opera which originated from Belasco's play. In Puccini the situation is even more sophisticated than in the earlier examples: the "Don Giovanni" is of course Pinkerton, who organizes the immoral act of the wedding. However, the curse is gradually shifted along the different periods: in "Don Giovanni" it is directed towards the main character and causes his death. In "Rigoletto" both the Duke and Rigoletto are cursed: but only the last one is hurt in the end. As I mentioned before, this is due to the Duke's (the French king originally) position in the play, representing universal order (even when he is completely immoral) and thus cannot be killed. 

In "Madama Butterfly", the curse is directed only at Cio-Cio-San. The "Don Juan" is present, and generates the whole situation, just like in the previous operas, but the focus is shifted completely. At this point in the history of opera, the moral issues dealt with in earlier periods are of much less interest, not allowing the current musical style to fully express itself. Butterfly is cursed and she is the one who endures the consequences in the end. Having a look at the musical means employed, it is interesting to see that Puccini doesn't get very far away from his predecessors: the diminished chord takes on the form of its more contemporary counterpart - the half diminished chord, and the melodic line is again characterized by dotted figures and repetition of the same note. The use of the chorus – singing and mostly howling - as a support for the curse gives the scene a new flavor which makes it novel and unique. 

The interrupting character in each one of the three operas represents moral. In "Don Giovanni" it is the Christian, religious moral confronted with the personification of the free will. In "Rigoletto" it is the representation of the moral against state power. As I mentioned above, because of the tradition of French theatre, the Duke remains intact and Monterone goes to death – a switch of position in relation to "Don Giovanni" – but the curse does have its consequences on Rigoletto himself, who is the center of our attention. In Butterfly we have at once the more modern presentation of the situation and the offence against the oldest moral laws. It is no longer a cosmic conflict, not even anything on the level of the state. It is the story of one simple person who makes a mistake. In this sense it is much more modern. The moral which is violated however, is the old tribe – family rules, the offence against tradition, and the denial of oneself and one's own identity. In Butterfly's case there is no moral offence in the Christian sense of the word. It is a much deeper misdeed, a spiritually prohibited action, which can only lead to a disaster, as it does marvelously in the only opera where Puccini changed the usual title "Melodramma" to "Tragedia". 

©2013 Rani Calderon

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