A Close Look at Puccini’s

The very act of breathing deeply enough to produce generous quantities of sound tends to make singers drag the pace of the musical line. Furthermore, the laudable desire to emphasize important words and phrases can also result in slowing. Selective and occasional dragging need not be considered a vice. If, however, the singer does not retake a tempo he or she has slowed, certain passages can become unnecessarily difficult, expression can become monotonous, and ensemble with the orchestra part can be compromised. I find that Puccini’s own tempo markings in Butterfly’s suicide from Madama Butterfly provide a good illustration of the importance of consciously re-establishing a tempo after it has been stretched.

In the very opening outburst, the composer has dictated a long stringendo, beginning in the sixth bar of the prelude, and continuing throughout Butterfly’s cries of “Tu? tu?” Since, following the entrance of the voice, the orchestra has only intermittent chords, the singer must participate actively in the stringendo if it is to continue. This acceleration contributes to the passage’s breathless hysteria, and we may welcome this chance to produce intensity by means other than sheer loudness, especially since the passage lies mainly in middle voice. No soprano would fail to avail herself of Puccini’s invitation to slow the endearment “fior di giglio e di rosa.” But the following a tempo (“non saperlo”) is likewise important in conveying Cio-Cio-San’s resolution to give up her child now, before he is old enough to understand her sacrifice. (Or so she thinks.) If we re-take the Andante agitato tempo here, the fermata on “muor Butterfly” will be all the more striking by contrast. (Andante should be understood in the correct Italian sense of “going,” rather than as misunderstood by German composers to be an indication of moderate slowness.) At this climactic point, the leap of a fifth, the note A (unexpectedly out of the harmony), and the text’s first fully explicit acknowledgment that Butterfly will kill herself, merit a generous, generous fermata, and therefore a generous breath before “muor.” At “perché tu possa andar…” Puccini writes no tempo. He does not need to, since the previous fermata interrupts but does not change the basic tempo — still agitato. If we are to understand that the following “perché…abbandono” is one single long sentence, broken by gasps, the re-establishment of the agitato is essential. Again, since the orchestra plays little more than punctuating chords, the responsibility for maintaining this tempo must lie in part with the singer. Moving the tempo here will save her breath, making it easier to expand the climax of this phrase in a luxurious allargando. Please note that Puccini usually reserves slowing for when the voice is in an especially resonant range. Here, well-earned dragging becomes both a virtue and a pleasure!

The following aria proper is also vocally strenuous. (I remember a Butterfly telling me that her well-known and respected voice teacher had said of its climax, “I would never encourage you to push, but if you were going to push, here is the place!”) Fortunately, though, since the initial phrase “O a me…” expresses Butterfly’s tenderness, a piano is entirely suitable to this phrase—note how Puccini has modified the orchestra’s forte with the entrance of the voice. The phrase’s high tessitura ensures that it will be heard, even if sung softly. The triplet “ben fiso” is marked col canto in the orchestra, implying that it will be slowed. The singer cannot, of course, achieve an a tempo on the repetition of “fiso,” especially if she emphasizes this repetition with a little separation; this re-establishment of tempo must be initiated in the accompaniment. She can, however, convey by her urgency of expression that she is willing and eager to retake the tempo here.

Butterfly’s suicide aria is a short one, but it comes at the end of a long, long role. The benefits of re-establishing tempo are even more significant when the role is sung complete than when the arias are excerpted.

Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith is a highly respected New York coach, particularly known for helping singers with difficult and unfamiliar scores.