Though his first opera Le Villi
(1884) was rejected by the Sonzogno Competition—run by the revered Milan publishing house—and his second, Edgar
, failed to make much of an impact at its premiere at Milan’s La Scala in 1889, Puccini was steadily moving towards his first masterpiece, Manon Lescaut
. Combining a near-Wagnerian system of recurrent motifs within a sweepingly melodic score, Puccini fashioned the type of music drama with which he would continue to triumph internationally over the next few decades. Moving out of the limelight of La Scala, Manon Lescaut
opened in Turin in February 1893, followed three years later by the premiere of La Bohème
(though the critics were initially blind to its qualities).
, Puccini’s next opera, received its premiere in Rome (where the piece is set) in January of 1900. The verismo
parallels between art and life have led people to think of these early operas as Puccini’s response to the urgent “slice of life” drama that had become all the rage, thanks to contemporaries such as Mascagni, Leoncavallo (who also wrote a version of La Bohème
), and Giordano. Puccini was, however, different. Although La Bohème
show marked signs of theatrical verisimilitude—take the hustle and bustle of Christmas Eve in Paris in the former or the specific bells that announce dawn across the Eternal City in the latter—there is a parallel seam of deliberately heightened drama within these works.
While no one would doubt the power of either La Bohème
, both flaunt a “staged” quality. In Act Two of La Bohème
, for instance, the musician Schaunard repeatedly says “la commedia è stupenda” (“the comedy is marvelous”), viewing his friends’ fractious relationships much as we, the audience, do. Having watched the drama unfold, Schaunard signposts the finale with “siamo all’ultima scena!” (“we are at the last scene”). Puccini and his librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa (who went on to write the texts for Tosca
and Madama Butterfly
) seem to be commenting on the nature of opera performance here. And with Tosca, of course, they had a diva on their hands, continuing that theme of art reflecting life (reflecting art).
The heroine of the trio’s next opera, Madama Butterfly
, is a much more fragile creature, though one whose tale mounts to no less tragic a conclusion. But while this is clearly not an opera concerning an artist, it is one in which the protagonist’s role, that of a geisha, is similarly founded on a fiction; she is, exoticism aside, a prostitute. Even what she is called in the opera underlines that essential fabrication. As a Japanese girl, our heroine is named Cio-Cio-San, repeated furiously by her relatives when they burst in on her arranged marriage to Pinkerton. Her new husband, on the other hand, calls her Butterfly, in English, as if she were a delicate commodity that he can buy, keep in a box, and then discard.
Bridgeman Art Library
This shocking story came to Puccini’s attention while he was in London for the British premiere of Tosca
in the summer of 1900 (just six months after that opera had first been produced in Rome). Puccini was largely tied up with rehearsals and swanky dinners, but he managed to find a free evening to attend a double bill of Jerome K. Jerome’s Miss Hobbs
and David Belasco’s Madam Butterfly
at the Duke of York’s Theatre. It was the second of these plays that caught his attention. The San Francisco-born Belasco wrote, directed, and produced more than one hundred dramas on Broadway during his lifetime and was revered on both sides of the Atlantic for the intense naturalism of his productions. So famous was he that F. Scott Fitzgerald included a tongue-in-cheek reference to Belasco’s theatrical trickery in The Great Gatsby
. Hiding in Gatsby’s library during a party, Nick discovers a drunken “middle-aged man with enormous owl-eyed spectacles” looking through thousands of books, having doubted their substance.
“Absolutely real—have pages and everything. I thought they’d be a nice durable cardboard. Matter of fact, they’re absolutely real. Pages and—Here! Lemme show you.” Taking our scepticism for granted, he rushed to the bookcases and returned with Volume One of the “Stoddard Lectures.” “See!” he cried triumphantly. “It’s a bona fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop too—didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?” He snatched the book from me and replaced it hastily on its shelf muttering that if one brick was removed the whole library was liable to collapse.
This suspension of disbelief, the brilliant artificiality of it all, these are the tenets of Belasco’s art, made manifest in the fourteen-minute transition from dusk to dawn that herald Pinkerton’s arrival in Butterfly
. Puccini, like the visitors to Gatsby’s library, like the thousands of audience members who packed theaters in New York and London, was duly impressed. Indeed, the theatrical effects in the London production of Madam Butterfly
must have been particularly powerful, as Puccini spoke very little English. Belasco later maintained that the composer rushed to his dressing room in order to acquire the rights immediately. It is a charming anecdote that when Puccini returned to Milan and put his publisher Ricordi onto the business of contacting Belasco’s representatives. Finally, by March 1901, Puccini had ensnared Belasco’s Butterfly
and his colleague Illica began work on the scenario for a new opera, with Giacosa again writing the sung text.
But just as Puccini had struggled to understand Belasco’s English, there were to be further cultural misapprehensions during the creation of Madama Butterfly
. The title’s conflation of the Italian and American nicknames for a Japanese geisha deftly demonstrates the national plurality within the piece. Writing to Ricordi in April 1902, Puccini said that “I am laying stone upon stone and doing my best to make F.B. Pinkerton [as Cio-Cio-San incorrectly calls B.F. Pinkerton] sing as much like an American as possible.” The following month he said that “I have composed the passage for the entry of Butterfly and am pleased with it. Apart from the fact that they are slightly Italian in character, both the music and the scene of this entry are very effective.” Perhaps the most insurmountable difficultly with this opera was that neither Puccini nor his librettists had ever been to Japan, whereas they had visited Paris and Rome (the locations of their previous collaborations). Indeed, after the comparatively straightforward work on La Bohème
, Madama Butterfly
would endure a constant process of revision. Composed between 1901 and 1903, it was revised in 1904. Further modifications were made in 1905, before a definitive version was created for Paris, in three acts (rather than the original two), in 1906.
But regardless of the edition performed, Puccini, Illica, and Giocosa continued to view Cio-Cio-San and her culture from afar. Perhaps equally ersatz is Puccini’s interpretation of America, with its all-too-blaring insistence on the national anthem. When writing Butterfly
, Puccini had likewise yet to make his first journey across the Atlantic, which eventually bore valuable commissions from the Metropolitan Opera and an enthusiastic new audience for his work. Viewed instead from the comforts of his home in Torre de Lago, neither Nagasaki nor the S.S. Abraham Lincoln
was remotely familiar to Puccini and, tellingly, Illica’s early scenario featured a decidedly two-dimensional account of the Japanese. And though Puccini searched for more information about indigenous folk music, examples were few and far between. Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado
(1885)—a copy of which is in Puccini’s library—had offered a decidedly supercilious glance at the East yet, like most of the great Savoy Comedies, it was intended as an allegorical slight at English rather than Japanese manners.
Ultimately Puccini made a virtue of his Western view on matters Oriental and the heightened tone of Madama Butterfly
became its most ingenious meta-theatrical trait. After all, the kernel of the tragedy is ethnic misconception, which operates both on the surface and within the structure of Puccini’s opera. When Pinkerton quotes The Star-Spangled Banner
his text changes from Italian (the opera’s lingua franca
) to American English, just as do his cries of “Butterfly” that cap the tragedy. His music and language are meant to sound out of place. Decidedly more “native” is the music that precedes Cio-Cio-San’s entrance, in which Puccini employs those Japanese folk-tunes for which he had searched, with their distinct modalities and pentatonicism. But when Cio-Cio-San finally appears, she is accompanied by a cloud of Western chromaticism. She is already cocooned in Pinkerton’s (and our) view of her and she duly signs the marriage contract Madama F.B. Pinkerton. But the unknowing reversal of her husband’s initials is revealing; as noted scholar Julian Budden has suggested, she is “never more Japanese than when she imagines herself American.”
Cio-Cio-San’s uncle bursts in, reminding her of her real name and her origins (accompanied by an Oriental gong), but, sadly, the illusion is more attractive to “Butterfly” than the reality and the lovers’ duet, closing Act One, seals Cio-Cio-San’s fate. Another pentatonic melody emerges, though again it is significantly “Westernised” by underlying chromaticism. East and West meet through their equally tenuous views of each other. Cio-Cio-San repeats her new name, again cuing another orchestral statement of her family’s motif. The warnings are all there, but the lovers are entranced and are quickly swept up in one of Puccini’s most remarkable duets. In the original version, the composer included another glowering statement of The Star-Spangled Banner,
jarring with Cio-Cio-San’s family’s music, though later revisions suppressed that clash, instead building to a dreamy climax, with the two lovers singing in unison.
The finale to Act One is but a brief moment of happiness in the drama. As the curtain rises on Act Two, Cio-Cio-San finds herself alone, stranded between “here” and “there.” In her famous aria, “Un bel dì,” she continues to fabricate dreams out of desire, though the illusion, suspended in time by the “Humming” chorus, finally comes crashing down when she is confronted by Pinkerton’s new wife. “Tutto è morto per me” (“All is over for me”) she says to Sharpless, the man who doubted Pinkerton’s intentions in the first place. Her admission provides the springboard to the horrific final scene, where artificiality falls by the wayside and a new urgent realism takes over. As Cio-Cio-San prepares to draw a knife across her throat, her and Pinkerton’s child, fittingly named Sorrow, runs in. She bids him farewell and Sorrow goes off to play, blindfolded, holding the American flag. Butterfly’s first picturesque theme sounds again, played slowly and unnervingly by the violas and English horn. The façade, so perfectly fashioned in the first act, has dissolved before us, as Puccini unravels its constituent motifs. Pinkerton, ignorant to the last, screams Cio-Cio-San’s name, again in English, while one of their yearning wedding-night themes crashes through the texture. But it is a Japanese folk tune, called “Pathetic Melody,” that accompanies Butterfly’s demise, sealed by a garish final chord, capturing the tragedy like a camera flash or a pin finally fastening Butterfly to the board.
Though it took Puccini and his librettist five years to establish the final form in which Madama Butterfly
has been performed around the world, they eventually arrived at a structure that brilliantly underlines the culture clash at the heart of its tragedy. That misunderstanding is present throughout the motifs and melodies that constitute Puccini’s vivid score and though Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton briefly find a common language in their duet, it is just pretense—a specious “Un bel dì” view of the world that eventually turns to dust.
Gavin Plumley is a British writer, broadcaster, and musicologist. He has written extensively about musical culture around the turn of the last century. Gavin appears regularly on the BBC and he commissions and edits the English-language program notes for the Salzburg Festival