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The Operatic Legend in Madama Butterfly

The events purported to have occurred in Nagasaki at around 1886, triggered the genesis of one of the greatest operas to grace world theatres, Madama Butterfly. These events were compiled by Pierre Loti and transformed into a novel by the name Madame Chrysantheme in 1887. From there on, the story was picked up by John Luther Long in a short story that was later dramatized by David Belasco in 1898. Though these works of art had inclusions and exclusions to the original story, the flesh of the story was left intact, or even better, developed to maturity.

It was from these distinct sources that Giacomo Puccini gained his insight and composed a two-act opera before rewriting it into a three-act opera. He composed the opera on a libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Thus emerged Madama Butterfly, the opera. As already noted, the original version of this opera was in two acts and it premiered at La Scala, Milan on 17th February, 1904. The lead roles featured baritone’s Giuseppe De Luca, soprano’s Rosina Storchio and tenor’s Giovanni Zenatello. However, the performance was poorly received, largely because of lateness in completion and hurried rehearsals. This prompted Puccini to go back to the drawing board and remake the opera for success.

That is when he decided to split the single act to into two separate acts besides making other dramatic changes. The story of Madama Butterfly was still enroute to stardom. When he was done, the revised version of Puccini’s opera premiered in Brescia, on 28th May, 1904. The reception was spectacular to say the least. But the journey of Madama Butterfly had just but begun, greater improvements would be made in the course of the following four years.

Puccini was not satisfied with the great reception of his second version and he went back to scratch his head with a quill. In 1906, he emerged with a spectacular third version of Madama Butterfly, which premiered at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Again, the opera was better and even more refined. Yet this did not stop Puccini, it was as if he was chasing an illusional objective. Everybody else, critics included, was convinced that the opera had been brewed to perfection.   He nevertheless went on to make other changes to the opera, especially in the vocal scores and the orchestral. What he came up with was a totally different opera, the fourth version of Madama Butterfly. This penultimate version was an even greater success when performed at Paris that same year.


The final stage of modeling the opera into a genius production came in 1907 when Puccini went ahead to alter the earlier version further. He made the final revisions on the opera, creating the fifth and the final version. To acclaim the achievement of the fifth version, better than any of its preceding versions, the experts acclaimed it as the standard version of Madama Butterfly.

Today, that standard version of Puccini’s opera stands as the most performed version the world over. It had taken a long, rigorous and sustained creative process to come up with the opera. Rarely is the 1904’s original version ever performed, and when it is performed, it is purely for academic purposes. In all, Puccini actually revised and rewrote five different versions of the opera before the standard version was arrived at. Having gone through such an elaborate and enriching history, the opera attained a class of its own. Premieres of that standard version became a record-setting crowd-puller, in Buenos Aires on 2nd July 1904, in London on 10th July 1905, in New York on 12th November 1906, and Sydney on 26th March 1910. From there on, the performances spread to the entire world repetitively, having been performed everywhere that an opera can be performed.


Madama Butterfly is today a staple of the world’s standard operatic repertoire, for audiences and performing entities. In America, the opera ranks an impressive first among the 20 most performed operas. For all these years, Puccini’s opera has weathered any negative criticism and stood tall as an operatic legend of all time. The opera forms a basic outlay for even the most innovative opera house in the world.

Ideally, the story of the opera has a setting of Nagasaki city in Japan. After its success therefore, the opera singer, Tamaki Miura became a local hero and won international fame. She had performed the role of Cio-Cio San, and made it a brilliant show. Consequently, her statue and that of Puccini were erected in due honor, at Glover Garden in Nagasaki.

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