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Puccini Madama Butterfly
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924): Madama Butterfly
After the premiere of Tosca, Puccini immediately began the search for a new operatic project. “I have not yet bound any subject,” he complained. “I am in despair and tormenting my mind.”
Then, during the summer of 1900, he saw a one-act play by David Belasco titled Madame Butterfly at the Duke of York's Theatre in London “I could follow it easily,” Puccini said, “even though I did not know a word of English.” He went backstage to meet the author and “with tears in my eyes paid my own tribute by asking him to let me use Madame Butterfly as the subject of an opera.”
Belasco agreed, but delayed sending the legal contract for the musical rights. “If only some replay would come from New York!” Puccini wrote to his publisher. “The more I think of Butterfly, the more irrestibly am I attracted. Oh, if only I had it here that I might set to work on it!”
Finally the contract arrived, and Puccini consulted with his librettists, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. The publisher Giulio Ricordi called the three of them the “holy trinity.” They had already collaborated on La Bohème and Tosca.
The text is derived from several sources. The Belasco play was based on a story in American Century Magazine by the Philadelphia lawyer John Luther Long. A novel with a similar theme, Madame Chrysanthème by Pierre Loti, had been made into an opera by André Messager in 1893. All of these were used in fashioning Madama Butterfly.
“I'm deep into Butterfly and I proceed swimmingly,” Puccini wrote in April, 1901. “Effects and musical moments abound; the scenic action is very lovely and very new.” Progress on the opera continued apace until Puccini broke his leg in a car accident. During his recovery, the doctors also discovered a mild form of diabetes.
With his leg in a cast, Puccini returned to work on Butterfly during the summer of 1903. He described the opera as “a work that means a great deal to me. It is refined, clear, impassioned, and effective at least as far as the structure of the text goes…The first act is exposition, action, amusing; the second act, moving, passionate, sweet, tender. He finished the score at 11:10 p.m. on December 27, 1903.
The first performance of Madama Butterfly, at La Scala in Milan on February 17, 1904, was an utter disaster. The audience issued catcalls, boos, name-calling, even barnyard imitations. Giulio Ricordi described “buzzing, screaming, disapproving, shouting of opinions, laughing, sniggering…the audience left the theater as if in an angry fit of intoxication.” The press was merciless. “Butterfly, Diabetic Opera, Result of Automobile Accident” blazed the headline.
“I was lynched,” said Puccini. “Those cannibals didn't listen to a single note.” He promptly withdrew the score, revised it, and staged a second premiere at Brescia on May 29, 1904. It was a huge success, a vindication of Puccini's opinion of Madama Butterfly all along--“the most heartfelt and most expressive opera that I have conceived.”
Set in Nagasaki, Japan, the plot concerns the marriage of an American naval lieutenant, Pinkerton, and the geisha Cio-Cio-San (Madame Butterfly). He abandons her, but after three years she is still faithful, assuring her servant Suzuki that “one fine day” (“Un bel di”) he will return. Later, Pinkerton enters with his American wife Kate. Suzuki suspects the worst. On Sharpless's advice, Pinkerton bids farewell without seeing Butterfly (“Addio fiorito asil”).
©2010 Charley Samson