No opera composer turned to William Shakespeare more often than Giuseppe Verdi, who composed three works, Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff, based on the Bard’s plays. But if it hadn’t been for the persistence of his publisher Ricordi and would-be librettist Arrigo Boito, Verdi might well have stopped at one. He had to be coaxed out of a post-Aida retirement to write Otello, which finally premiered in 1887, sixteen years later.
But Otello was worth waiting for. A masterpiece, a thorough integration of music, words and drama that, astoundingly, manages to illuminate the original work—itself an unequalled masterpiece—on which it is based.
Hong Kong is pretty conservative when it comes to culture, so Musica Viva’s current production of four opera scenes based on Shakespeare might therefore qualify as innovative. Performing full-staged scenes from different operas—neither, in other words, a full-scale opera nor a recital—is something that is usually confined to galas.
The concept for this new production Madama Butterfly was been influenced the work’s literary background: the western perception of Japan present throughout the autobiographical novel of Pierre Loti (Madame Chrysanthème, 1887) and the diary treatment of the subject by Félix Régamey (The Pink Notebook of Madame Chrysanthème, 1894). These two sources present the protagonist Madame Chrysanthème is in two completely different characterizations: in Loti, she is a dissolute and licentious woman, while in Regamey she is a needy, extremely sensitive creature. David Belasco, meanwhile, (who wrote the play (1904)—derived via an 1898 short story by American John Luther Long—that was the main reference for Giacomo Puccini’s librettists Illica and Giacosa, describes her as a victim of a fatal and irresistible love.