Premiere: Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 1904
The title character of Madama Butterfly—a young Japanese geisha who clings to the belief that her arrangement with a visiting American naval officer is a loving and permanent marriage—is one of the defining roles in opera, as convincing and tragic as any figure in drama. Part of the reason for the opera’s enduring hold on the popular imagination may have to do with the fact that the mere mention of Madama Butterfly triggers ideas about cultural and sexual imperialism for people far removed from the opera house. Film, Broadway, and popular culture in general have riffed endlessly on the story and have made the lead role iconic. But the opera itself, while neither emphasizing nor avoiding these aspects of the story, focuses more on the characters as real people than on complicated issues of power. The opera survived a disastrous Milan opening night but was reworked immediately and enjoyed great success in nearby Brescia a few months later, then in Paris, and soon all over the world. It has remained at the core of the opera repertory ever since, and the lyric beauty of the music for the thoroughly believable lead role has made Butterfly timeless.
Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924) was immensely popular in his own lifetime. His operas are celebrated for their mastery of detail, their sensitivity to everyday subjects, their copious melody, and their economy of expression. Puccini’s librettists for Madama Butterfly, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, also collaborated with the composer on his previous two operas, Tosca and La Bohème (both of which, along with Butterfly, are among his most enduringly successful). The opera is based on the play Madame Butterfly by playwright and producer David Belasco (1853–1931), a giant of the American theater and a fascinating, if controversial, character whose daring innovations brought a new level of realism and vitality to the stage.
The story takes place in the Japanese port city of Nagasaki at the turn of the last century, at a time of expanding American international presence. Japan was hesitantly defining its global role, and Nagasaki was one of the country’s few ports open to foreign ships. Temporary marriages for foreign sailors were not unusual. While other time periods have been used in various productions, the issues of East/West cultural conflict as they existed in 1900 cannot be easily ignored in this opera, no matter when it’s set.
Puccini achieved a new level of sophistication with his use of the orchestra in this opera, with subtle colorings and sonorities throughout the score. The chorus is similarly effective and imaginative, though used very sparingly, notably in the entrance of the relatives in Act I and the unforgettable and enigmatic Humming Chorus in Act II. The opera, however, rests squarely on the performer singing the title role as in few other works: she is on stage for most of the time and is the only character that experiences true (and tragic) development. The soprano who sings this role, among the most difficult in the repertory, must convey an astounding array of emotions and characteristics, from ethereal (her entrance) to fleshly (the Act I love duet) to intelligent and stinging (her Act II dealings with other Japanese characters) to dreamy-bordering-on-insane (the famous aria “Un bel dì”) to resigned in the final scene. The vocal abilities needed to animate this complex character are virtually unique in opera.
Madama Butterfly at the Met
Madama Butterfly had its Met and U.S. premiere in 1907 in grand fashion, with Puccini in the audience and Enrico Caruso and Geraldine Farrar in the lead roles. Puccini always maintained that Farrar’s voice was too small for the part, yet she sang it here to great audience approval 139 times over the next 15 years. In 1922 Joseph Urban designed a production that lasted for 36 years. Temporarily off the boards during World War II, Madama Butterfly returned to the Met stage in 1946 and was served well by Licia Albanese (72 performances) and Dorothy Kirsten (68 performances) for the following decade and a half. In a 1958 production (with Antonietta Stella in the title role), director and designer Yoshio Aoyama and Motohiro Nagasaka famously dispensed with the holes in the rice-paper walls that were specified in the libretto for Act II, calling that touch “wholly un-Japanese.” This production showcased such stars as Renata Tebaldi, Renata Scotto (debut, 1965), Teresa Stratas, Pilar Lorengar, Martina Arroyo, Raina Kabaivanska, Leontyne Price, and Diana Soviero. A new staging by Giancarlo del Monaco opened in 1994, featuring Catherine Malfitano as the title heroine. The current production by Anthony Minghella opened the Met’s 2006–07 season, with James Levine conducting Cristina Gallardo-Domâs and Marcello Giordani in the leading roles.