Like the first performances of both Rossini’s The Barber of Seville in Rome on February 20, 1816, and Verdi’s La Traviata in Venice on March 6, 1853, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly was a flop at its Milan première on February 17, 1904.
The principal problem with the Rossini lay with supporters of rival composer Giovanni Paisiello, whose own Barber of Seville was then in vogue, coming out in force to do Rossini down.
The difficulties with the Verdi arose when the tenor singing Alfredo lost his voice; the baritone in the role of Giorgio Germont sulked, considering his role unworthy of him, while the ‘troppo prosperiosa’ soprano singing Violetta bore little semblance to a courtesan dying of consumption. Later performances of both operas had unqualified successes without a note of their scores being altered. Matters were a little different with Madama Butterfly.
At its La Scala première an anti-Puccini faction was there to cause trouble. By the end of Act I it was in an ugly mood with matters no better after the overlong Act II. Having the American characters in contemporary costume didn’t go down well either while Butterfly’s principal aria, Un Bel Di (‘One Fine Day’), was heckled without even a single curtain call.
Hurt and disappointed, Puccini cancelled the remaining performances and set about revising his score. With substantial alterations, the new version had tremendous success at the Teatro Grande in Brescia under Toscanini on May 28, 1904.
Setting the opera in Japan was still something of a novelty although there had been precedents – Sullivan’s The Mikado (1885); André Messager’s Madame Chrysanthème (1893) and Mascagni’s Iris (1898). But Japan itself had been more or less in seclusion for a long period prior to the mid-1800s when it opened up to western trade.
The land of cherry blossom, chrysanthemums and geishas became the foci of western writers with Pierre Loti’s colourful 1887 romance Madame Chrysanthème having particular appeal. French naval officer Loti had been in Nagasaki for a time in 1885.
The novel influenced a number of writers including American John Luther Long whose resultant short story Madame Butterfly found its way on to the stage through compatriot playwright David Belasco. His play, also titled Madame Butterfly, was well received in New York before opening in London’s Duke of York’s Theatre on April 29, 1900. Puccini saw it and was smitten. The seeds of his Madama Butterfly were sown and the result, as they say, is history.
A favourite with Irish audiences, a new production, courtesy of Irish National Opera and directed by Ben Barnes, opened at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre last Sunday. There are further performances this evening (March 28) and on Saturday (March 30). The staging can be seen in Cork’s Opera House next Tuesday (April 2) and Friday (April 5).
In Todd Rosenthal’s designs and with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra under UK conductor Timothy Redmond, Naas-born soprano Celine Byrne sings the title role with UK tenor Julian Hubbard as Lieutenant BF Pinkerton. Canadian baritone Brett Polegato is US Nagasaki consul Sharpless with Derry-born mezzo Doreen Curran Butterfly’s confidante Suzuki.