Madam Butterfly – one of the most colourful & exotic operas
Cio-Cio-San shows her baby to Suzuki
Spending a few days in London for the July 1900 Covent Garden premiere of “Tosca”, Giacomo Puccini attended a play by American David Belasco from a story by John Luther Long – Madam Butterfly.
Long’s story is in fact based in turn on a real-life incident witnessed by his sister, Sarah Jane (Jennie) Long Correll, a missionary in Japan.
Puccini understood virtually nothing of the English script but, by the end of the performance, he was utterly seduced by the tragic female lead, Cio-Cio-San and was convinced that the piece could be made into a moving and powerful opera. However, although Puccini had decided on the subject, it was not before March 1901 that the rights were secured from Belasco
Madama Butterfly became a powerful and important opera in Puccini’s own eyes. Into it he poured his most passionate creativity, his most romantic music and his most vulnerable heroine, Cio-Cio-San, constantly striving to make the music more lyrical and the drama more intense.
His confidence and pride were thus dealt a devastating blow at the disastrous first night in the famous opera theatre La Scala, Milan, in February 1904. A group of agents provocateurs had been paid to jeer and catcall. They were bent on disrupting the performance and so intimidated the audience that the finale was received in utter silence. The opera was subsequently withdrawn by the composer for revision.
Three months later the new version was premiered at Brescia where rapturous applause confirmed that Madam Butterfly had risen above its traumatic birth to become established as an international favourite – a tribute to both Puccini’s acute dramatic sense and the innate power and beauty of his music.
“Madam Butterfly” is rare among Puccini’s operas in having one character the central focus throughout – and Puccini, Giacosa and Illica’s complex and sympathetic exploration of Butterfly’s character ensured their opera’s dramatic success.
Butterfly’s profound capacity for love, her moments of playfulness, her dignity and courage, all make her a compelling, lovable protagonist, and one who continues to fascinate us.
Madama Butterfly remained close to Puccini’s heart, for he never tired of hearing it or of seeing it performed. Fortunately, today’s opera-lovers agree wholeheartedly with him!