February 17, 1904: Madame Butterfly
Posted on February 01 2019
In the beginning of the 20th century, Puccini was aware of his achievements. His success continues to flourish with Manon Lescaut in 1893, La Bohême in 1896, Tosca in 1900...He is considered the successor the grand maestro Guiseppe Verdi who passed away in 1901.
In the summer of 1900, Puccini was in London where he worked on an English production of his opera Tosca.This is where he assists in David Belasco's play Madame Butterfly, a Tragedy of Japan, adopted by John Luther Long's short story.
While he understands none of the language, Puccini is moved by the story. The emotions brought out by the play speak to him, and push him to do everything in his power to obtain the rights to the play. Balesco quickly accepts, stating that "It is not allowed to discuss business with an impulsive Italian with tears in his eyes".
The production of Madame Butterfly takes place during a time period in which Europe, particularly France, is fascinated by the Far East. We're talking about "Japonism". This art movement began in the late 1860s and was relayed by the epoch's most popular artists.
In the summer of 1901 Puccini wholeheartedly dedicates himself to composing his next opera. He studies the music of the Far-East, documents the cities, meets with Japanese artists, and immerses himself in the spirit of sunrise. He confided in Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, who he worked closely with for his previous operas, and told them about his booklet.
Seeing the success of La Tosca, Manon Lescaut and La Bohème, Puccini was confident that his new play would be a hit. His editor Ricordi schedules the premiere on February 17, 1904 at the Scala in Milan, but nothing goes as planned.
A Disastrous Premiere Before Success
As soon as the curtains opened, whistles were blowing which tells the newspapers that the play was as amazing for the cast, as it was for the spectators. No one knows if it was a conspiracy organized by Puccini's competitors, or if the audience's reaction was spontaneous. The main critics responsible for reviewing the play, argued that it resembled "La Boheme" too much, and that two acts instead of three made the viewing too long and unbearable.
The following day, after the fiasco, la Scala's program director cancels all future performances of the play. This was a hard hit to Puccini who thought of Madame Butterfly as one of his "most expressive and genuine" plays.
However, Puccini does not give up, and begins re-working the play by dividing it into three acts and removing certain passages that were deemed too long. The first revised version is performed on May 28, 1904 at the Teatro Grande of Bresica. The opening night is a hit, and its success will continue to live on during the years to come. The play is then exported all throughout Europe and America. Today, Madame Butterfly is the tenth most performed opera in the world.
The story takes place in Nagasaki in 1904. Despite her family's disapproval, "Butterfly", a young geisha, marries the American officer Pinkerton. The night of their wedding, they sleep together for the first time. From this, they have a son, but Pinkerton, now back in the United States, has no idea of any of this. While Butterflystays loyal to him, and awaits his return, Pinkertonis out remaking his whole life. Three years later, Pinkertonreturns to Japan with his new wife. As soon as Butterflyhears of this news, she hands over her son to her old lover and commits harikari.