Madama Butterfly had its premiere at La Scala, Milan on 17th February, 1904 – to a hostile reception. It was withdrawn, revised and re-launched, and has subsequently become Puccini’s most-performed opera.
18th and 19th-century opera had usually treated ‘the Orient’ as an excuse for exotic – and erotic – spectacle, where dancers and opulent stage settings were as big a draw for the audience as the music. Now, it is certainly possible to sit back and luxuriate in Puccini’s opera. After all, the composer of Manon Lescaut (1893), La bohème (1896) and Tosca (1900) had demonstrated his power to hold an audience with beautiful vocal writing, memorable melodies, gorgeous orchestration and a sure instinct for theatricality. Butterfly has more of the same, to be sure, but there is much more to it.
Firstly, the setting. Puccini and his librettists are writing for European and American audiences, and absolute authenticity is not sought after. However, Puccini and his collaborators were certainly concerned that costumes and staging should avoid pastiche, and give the audience the impression of reality while still producing an attractive stage picture.
When it came to the music itself, Puccini made a study of Japanese musical modes. As with the staging, he would avoid pastiche, but introduce into his melodies a modal structure that would suggest Japanese music while totally avoiding pastiche. In his melodic lines, harmonic language and orchestration he succeeded brilliantly in evoking a Japanese atmosphere. Whereas in La bohème, Puccini had used a richly romantic, saturated orchestral palette and in Tosca a large orchestra to produce a sometimes shocking dramatic impact, in Butterfly he changes his approach. More than ever before, he creates an orchestral texture that is almost Impressionist in its subtly shifting colours. The first audiences would have been surprised at the restraint of Puccini’s orchestral writing, but in fact it serves to intensify the drama.
Restraint is the order of the day in Puccini’s use of the chorus, too. To accompany Butterfly’s night vigil as she awaits the return of Pinkerton, Puccini comes up with a musical and dramatic masterstroke. In La bohème the chorus simply serves to fill the stage with action; in Tosca it serves to bring the first Act to a thrilling close. There had never before been anything like the ‘humming chorus’ in opera. It is more than music: it provides a sound texture to the lighting effects on stage as night moves towards dawn.
Although Puccini’s operas are primarily about his heroines, his heroes, even if they are sometimes poor specimens, usually provide him with the opportunity to create some of the greatest tenor arias in all opera. Pinkerton is beyond redemption, however, and Puccini resists the temptation to romanticise him. Of all Puccini’s male leads, he has the fewest opportunities to shine.
Certainly, Puccini’s own humanity responded to the plight of Butterfly. He could so easily have got the character wrong, so easily have produced a clichéd figure, something cheap and tawdry. In the event, Butterfly seems (to Western audiences anyway) authentic both in her Japanese nature and in the depth of her passion. The ecstatic love duet which brings the first Act to a close is full-blooded and unrestrained, but elsewhere Butterfly is quietly self-possessed, for all she has to endure. At first sure of Pinkerton’s love, when the moment comes where her life falls apart she achieves a balance of despair and quiet dignity which is devastatingly moving. Her quiet courage at the end is unforgettable.
Maria Callas (1923-1977), hailed as “La Divina” was the greatest singing actress of her generation. She brought to bel canto opera a new dramatic intensity and penetrating insight into the characters she portrayed, allied to a phenomenal technique. She demanded much of herself and was severely self-critical. In Verdi and Puccini she dominated the stage by her vocal intelligence and the conviction of her acting, and was not afraid to sacrifice beauty of tone where she felt the drama demanded it. Leonard Bernstein called her "The Bible of opera"; her influence was so enduring that, in 2006, Opera News wrote of her: "Nearly thirty years after her death, she's still the definition of the diva as artist."
Callas made her La Scala debut in 1951: Italy’s premier opera house was to be her principal home throughout the rest of the decade. She went on to have a brilliant career in the United States and at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where she made her operatic farewell in 1965.
Lucia Danieli, who died in 2005, aged 77 was unlucky not to have been signed by one of the major international record companies, for the recordings she did make reveal her to be one of the finest Italian dramatic mezzos of the ‘50s and ‘60s. She is best remembered for her participation in the Callas-La Scala-Karajan “Butterfly”, where her beauty of tone brings distinction to the role of Suzuki.
Nicolai Gedda (b.1925), born in Sweden, is one of the most popular and versatile tenors of the second half of the 20th century. Equally at home in Italian, French, German and Russian opera, he brings to each style of opera an utterly idiomatic-sounding interpretation. His beautiful voice and masterly technique, allied to great musicianship, has enabled him to maintain a front-line international career of unusual durability both on stage and on record.
Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989)
From the mid-1950s onwards, Karajan became the most powerful musical personality in Europe. Karajan succeeded Furtwängler as director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, became artistic director of the Vienna State Opera, de facto principal conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic and a dominant figure at La Scala and the Salzburg Festival.
Sleeve notes by John Kehoe