Madame Butterfly: guide to Puccini’s famous opera and his best recordings

In the summer of 1900, Giacomo Puccini was in London supervising a performance of Tosca at Covent Garden. During his visit he went to see a new play which was being performed at the Duke of York’s Theater on nearby St Martin’s Lane: David Belasco’s Lady Butterfly.

What is the story of Madame Butterfly?

Although Puccini barely understood English, the essence of the plot was quite simple to grasp. Pinkerton, an American naval officer stationed in Nagasaki, “marries” a 15-year-old Japanese girl, Cio-Cio-San (Madame Butterfly). She believes their union is legally binding, adopts American customs, and gradually isolates herself from her friends and family. For Pinkerton, however, marriage is nothing more than a game, and he casually abandons Cio-Cio-San, only to return later, a “real” Western bride in tow, to retrieve his infant son. . The only honorable course of action a distraught Cio-Cio-San can see is to end his life.

Puccini found Belasco’s play deeply moving and was particularly drawn to its wake scene: an extended wordless passage during which Cio-Cio-San awaited the return of her lover, the transition from dusk to dawn represented by elaborate colored lights. The setting of the play was also attractive: the vogue for Japanese art, ceramics and textiles was sweeping Europe, and Puccini’s rival Mascagni had recently turned to an oriental subject for his opera. Iris. Puccini believed he had spotted in Belasco’s play all the ingredients for a guaranteed success.

The composer joins forces for a third time (after Bohemian and Tosca) with writers Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, who based their libretto on both Belasco’s play and its source text: A Story of John Luther Long Recounting Events His Sister Witnessed While on Missionary Work in Japan. The opera’s genesis was long, with the three men disagreeing over its dramatic structure. However, Puccini threw himself into music composition enthusiastically, reading voraciously about Japanese culture and listening to early recordings of Japanese folk songs, a number of which he incorporated into the score. The opera’s “Eastern” music – which makes extensive use of the pentatonic scale and employs instruments such as the tam-tam and Japanese bells – contrasts with the decidedly Western music of Pinkerton and Sharpless, Puccini even quoting “The Star Spangled Banner‘. Cio-Cio-San’s music initially sounds non-Western, but following his “conversion”, his most effusive (and famous) melodies are unmistakably in the Italian vein.

When was Madame Butterfly first performed?

The premiere of Madame Butterfly his first performance at La Scala on February 17, 1904. A stellar cast was assembled, rehearsals had gone well, and all of Milan’s high society was rushing to buy tickets. No one could have predicted what was going to happen that night. ‘Lady Butterfly flopped, hopelessly flopped,” reports the Giornal of Italy the next day. “Last night’s performance at La Scala was not just a failure; it was what one might frankly call a disaster, a catastrophe. The audience – or at least part of it, now thought to have been a hired slapper – had booed, snickered, made animal noises and shouted personal insults at the leading lady, Rosina Storchio.

Critics muttered that Puccini lazily recycled musical ideas from his earlier works and about the work’s “excessive” length. Though confused and distressed – he was never a composer to behave well with bad press – Puccini set about revising the opera, furious at a friend, “I will avenge myself, when it is performed in a less vast place, less full of hate and passion.” The second version of the opera was duly performed in Brescia three months later and was a huge success in its new incarnation, although Puccini would continue to refine the score over the next few years.

Lady Butterfly quickly established a position at the top of the lyrical canon – and thanks to its guaranteed crowd appeal, it became a lifeline for financially strained opera companies around the world. But now, in the 21st century, the work is once again sparking controversy. As opera sinks ever deeper into today’s culture wars, Butterfly became an obvious target of outrage: as representing the Orient through a Western lens; because of his alleged misogyny; and because of the politics surrounding its casting and standard manner of presentation.

Some even suggested censorship. In 2006, American musicologist Susan McClary wrote: “I look forward to the day when we can pin this opera in the museum of strange cultural practices of the past, where we can stage the music of Puccini Butterfly once and for all as a historical exhibition. The themes presented in the opera certainly cannot be read in the 21st century as they were in 1904, but “cancelling” this much-loved opera is surely neither constructive nor likely. Imaginative contemporary productions, supported by educational events, provide an opportunity to explore the complex political issues that operas like this address. During this time, ButterflyThe abundant melodic richness of , its heroine with a sensitive character and its sheer theatrical efficiency remain worthy of our admiration.

We have named Puccini one of the greatest opera composers of all time, while ‘Un bel vedremo’ by Lady Butterfly was named one of Puccini’s best arias

What is the best recording of Lady Butterfly?

Victoria from Los Angeles (Butterfly)

Jussi Björling, Antonio Sacchetti et al; Orchestra of the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma/Gabriele Santini

Warner Classics 763 6342

It’s unpleasant to choose a “better” Lady Butterfly with so many beautiful renditions available, most of them big-budget from the golden age of long-form recording. One can’t help but notice, incidentally, how few contemporary singers have the opportunity to record the work, except for occasional megastars such as Angela Gheorghiu (creamy and gorgeous on Warner’s set in 2009, although Jonas Kaufmann is a Pinkerton too baritone for my taste). ). Fortunately, the great mid-century singers were superlative in this opera and any of the ‘finalists’ (right) would make an equally valid choice.

But the decision is in here, and my personal preference is the 1959 set of Victoria de los Angeles and Jussi Björling under Gabriele Santini. I admit it: it was the recording that made me discover Puccini’s opera, so it is, in my eyes, the “urtext” and my affection for it is limitless, although the Freni/Pavarotti ensemble – one of two recordings conducted by Herbert von Karajan – gives him a very close race for his money. The orchestral details of Santini’s recording may not be captured as clearly in the remaster here as they are in Karajan’s two sets, but the Italian conductor’s reading of the score is highly expressive and often playful. It’s a performance that exudes immense warmth, both orchestral and vocal, and there’s an ease and naturalness to the sound quality that gives the listener a feeling akin to wallowing in a comforting bath.

It was the second studio recording in Los Angeles composed of Butterfly with the Opera di Roma (the first was made in 1954 with tenor Giuseppe di Stefano) and to my ears it is the more emotionally engaging of the two. De los Angeles is a singer to whom we attach ourselves, with a velvety and seductive voice whether in romantic, coquettish or distressed mode. His ‘Un bel dì’ is at first vulnerable, gaining in maturity and confidence along the way. Björling is a dignified but far from cold Pinkerton, throbbing on the high notes and endowed with a beautifully smooth and even line. Above all, nowhere else on the record is Puccini’s intoxicating love duet sung with such palpable ecstasy, bringing out the piece’s pure eroticism to tremendous effect as the voices ebb and flow, s rising inexorably to their climax of excitement. This performance never fails to delight.

3 other excellent Madam Butterfly recordings

MIrella Freni (Butterfly)

Decca 417 5772

This 1974 recording is all about the glorious vocals. Luciano Pavarotti, unmistakable as always, is plausibly libidinous – although he can also be tender – and his “Addio fiorito asil” is as electrifying as it gets. Freni, so often Puccini’s soprano par excellence, is here perfect, releasing an immense tenderness but without feigned childishness. Each line is beautifully formed, its ‘Un bel dì’ has multicolored tour de force. As in the Callas set below, conductor Herbert von Karajan gives us one of the most vivid orchestral readings of the score available.

Maria Callas (Butterfly)

Warner Classics 2564634099

Cio-Cio-San was not an obvious role for Callas, but in this 1955 recording she goes from a naive girl – singing with surprising lightness – to a knowing woman, coming into her own with real foreboding in his exchanges with Sans acuité. Nicolai Gedda is a magnificent Pinkerton: all gentle and charming, making Butterfly’s devotion truly believable. Karajan’s detailed and flexible reading of Puccini’s score brings out his “inner Wagner” and highlights details that usually go unnoticed. The ending is both chilling and passionate.

Renata Scotto (Butterfly)

Warner Classics 567 8852

John Barbirolli’s response to the opera snobs who mock those who love Lady Butterfly was this loving and honest rendition of the work, recorded in 1966. Carlo Bergonzi is slightly formal in the role of Pinkerton, even tense, though he offers exquisite vocal nuance. Scotto is a very moving butterfly: endearingly sweet, the desperation in her voice as she sings for her son at the end is utterly devastating. The scintillating flower-picking duet with Suzuki (Anna di Stasio) is a highlight, as is Rolando Panerai’s casting as the richly-voiced Sharpless.

And one to avoid…

Montserrat Caballé, while a rather “full-throttle” butterfly, offers vocal opulence and a believable account of a woman in distress. Her real husband Bernabé Marti – a rather neurotic Pinkerton – thrives on the latest show of remorse. Audiences in 1968 went wild, but this live recording suffers from ragged sets, noisy feet, untimely coughs, and muffled sound quality.

Learn more about Puccini and his works here

Read our reviews of the latest Puccini recordings here

About Madeline J. Carter

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