Archive for May 22nd, 2014

by Sam Juliano

The premiere of one of the world’s most popular operas, Madama Butterfly, was staged at Milan’s La Scala on February 17, 1904.  It was an unmitigated diaster, despite the employment of first-rate singers and technical craftsmen.  At the opera’s conclusion it was reported there was a stone silence that yielded to cat calls and boos, and even screams of “La Boheme again, we’ve heard that already! Give us something new!” and derision over Cio Cio San’s pregnant appearance after her kimono billowed in front of her.  After the fiasco, a furious but undaunted composer Giacomo Puccini -who had barely survived a car accident months before, told friends: “It is I who am right.  It is the finest opera I’ve ever written.  You must have been dismayed at the vile remarks of an envious press.  But never fear!  Madama Butterfly is full of life and truth, and soon she will rise from the dead.  I say it, and stick to it, with unwavering conviction.”  The composer made cuts and divided the second act in two before the “second premiere” three months later proved a sensation.  It was later speculated that the initial debacle was orchestrated by jealous rivals who stacked the audience to do some mischief.

It is generally thought that the literary origin of Madama Butterfly dates back to 1887, when a Parisian writer named Pierre Loti published a semi-autobiographical novel titled Madame Chrysantheme, which concerns a temporary union between a French naval officer and the title character, who is a geisha.  The work was enormously popular and was made into an equally successful opera by Andre Messager in 1893.  Five years later, John Luther Long’s story “Madama Butterfly” appeared in the American Century Magazine.  Long’s sister had lived in Nagasaki, and was able to furnish her brother with some anecdotes and authentic details.  Hence, Long made some adjustments to Loti’s original story, adding his sister’s tale of an abandoned geisha, thereby transforming the maudlin trappings into a far more emotionally potent story of tragic realism.  Pierre was turned into B. F. Pinkerton, a heartless opportunist who sets in motion unconscionable heartbreak when he abandons his unsuspecting geisha lover.   Madame Chrysantheme is changed into Cho-Cho-San, an innocent and trusting child-bride who meets her doom after the poisonous one-two-punch of desertion and infidelity are revealed a few years after she gives birth.  The work was a worldwide sensation, and after numerous offers Long collaborated with the American playwright David Belasco to create a one-act dramatic adaptation that essentially commences after Act 2 has begun, at the point when Pinkerton has left Japan. (more…)

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