Madama Butterfly: Opening night fiasco
By John Rizzo
 

In the few days leading to the Feb.17, 1904 La Scala premiere of Madama Butterfly, all the signs unmistakably pointed to yet another resounding triumph for Giacomo Puccini. He certainly had the cast he wanted. In the title role was the respected soprano Rosina Storchio with Giovanni Zenatello as the tenor Pinkerton and the legendary Giuseppe de Luca in the baritone role of Sharpless. He also had the right conductor in Cleofonte Campanini and La Scala was completely sold out. All the rehearsals went extremely well and many of the numbers of the score were heartily applauded by the orchestra and stage hands - a sure harbinger of success.

It had been 15 years since Puccini's last La Scala premiere, that of Edgar, the composer's second opera. That 1889 premiere did not go all that well (although it was not really a fiasco) and almost resulted in the abrupt end of Puccini's career. At that time, based on the success of his first opera, Le villi (1884), the Ricordi publishing firm had been paying Puccini a monthly stipend of 300 lire per month, counting on the substantial revenues that would be realized on the expected success of his next opera. When Edgar fizzled, Ricordi's shareholders demanded that Puccini be dropped from the payroll. But Giulio Ricordi insisted that Puccini had the potential to be a truly great composer and the company would reap great financial rewards when the composer finally achieved stardom. Nevertheless, Ricordi agreed to repay the firm from his own pocket if Puccini did not succeed with his third opera.

But Puccini scored a decisive success with the Turin premiere of Manon Lescaut in 1893. And with the incredible triumph that was La bohème in 1896 and yet another success with Tosca in 1900, Puccini was universally recognized as the reigning King of Italian opera, the sole heir to the exalted position occupied for so long by the great Giuseppe Verdi. Bcause Puccini viewed his work on Madama Butterfly as his very best, and everything seemed to be going so well, he had no doubt whatsoever that his opera of Japan would prevail mightily. True, as with his previous operas, Madama Butterfly endured a tortuous and very lengthy creative process that featured frequent and violent arguments with his librettists, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, who helped him finish Manon Lescaut and collaborated with him on La bohème and Tosca. In the creation of all of these works, Puccini proved extremely difficult to work with, constantly changing his mind and demanding revision after revision from Illica and Giocosa. Both men threatened to quit more than once during all these projects and it was only due to the patience and stamina of Giulio Ricordi (who often had to act like an adult amongst children, or even a fight referee) that the composer/libretto team was preserved.

In preparing the text, the two librettists' particular skills complemented each other's neatly. Illica was the more purely theatrical of the two and it was he that was responsible for the scenic structure and choice of episodes and character development. Giacosa, one of the most celebrated poets in Italy and a close friend of Verdi, versified the text into suitable form for Puccini's music. But many a time, after long discussions and heated arguments, when it seemed that an artistic solution was achieved, agreed upon by all, Puccini would change his mind and complain to Ricordi that his librettists were not cooperating! In the case of Madama Butterfly, there really was a major conflict between composer and librettists.

Let us digress for a moment and consider how Puccini chose a subject. This process too was a tortuous affair with the composer mulling over numerous possibilities, sometimes even settling on one to the extent that he would give it to a librettist, only to soon discard it and continue searching for another subject. If we look at the works from the composer's most productive period 1893-1910 we might conclude that Puccini may have been somewhat insecure about his ability to judge the dramatic appeal of a subject. Manon Lescaut was surely chosen not only because the Abbe Prevost's novel had remained so popular for over a century, but also because Jules Massenet had been so successful with his operatic treatment of the subject, Manon, in 1883. Not only was La bohème based on a successful novel and play, but a rival composer, Ruggero Leoncavallo, had revealed to Puccini that he was working on an opera on this subject, no doubt heightening Puccini's interest. Tosca had been a wildly successful play that Puccini had first wanted to adapt, then lost interest when the musical rights were not quickly secured. But when he heard that another of Ricordi's composers, Alberto Franchetti, was set to compose a Tosca to a libretto by Illica that had deeply impressed Verdi, Puccini successfully convinced Ricordi to get the rights re-assigned to him.

In the wake of the enormous public acclaim for Tosca, in the spring of 1900 Puccini went to England to supervise its first London production. There he attended a performance of a very popular one-act play called Madam Butterfly by David Belasco, the foremost American producer/director/playwright of the time. He certainly couldn't have understood much of the dialogue, often couched in pidgin-English, but he definitely understood the searing drama of the work, its exoticism and, most importantly, its suitability for his own peculiar theatrical inclinations. For once it took only a short time for Puccini to find an inspiring subject. Although Belasco later recalled that he agreed to give Puccini the musical rights on the spot, it took almost a year before the adaptation could legally begin. Now Puccini had strictly Belasco's play in mind when he contemplated his opera, expanded, of course into a full length Italian opera in multiple acts, but still basically a musical setting of Belasco's play. And this is where the main conflict between composer and librettists arose.

Belasco had adapted Madam Butterfly from a short novel by John Luther Long, a Philadelphia lawyer. Although Long claimed that is was based on a true story, he appropriated some details from another novel (again supposedly based on a true story) Pierre Loti, Madame Chrysanthème (1887), which also told the tale of a geisha's arranged marriage to a Westerner who leaves her when his fleet departs. Given historical realities, this scenario was probably repeatedly played out in real life. There are also three earlier operas that depict the clash of Western and exotic cultures. In each case the story describes a heroine who falls in love with a Western man, who deserts her, and after which, she kills herself - Myerbeer's L'Africaine (1865), Delibes' Lakme (1883) and Mascagnis's Iris (1898). In Long's story, the scene of Cio-cio-san's wedding is included and, at the end, she wounds herself, but not mortally. Belasco's play, however, begins with the start of what is the opera's Act II and ends with the heroine committing suicide. In the middle of his play Belasco included a fourteen-minute episode that has only lighting and sound effects with no dialogue - the "vigil" scene. (Belasco eagerly took on a difficult theatrical challenge here, namely to have an extended scene with no characters talking, yet without losing the interest of the audience!)

It is totally understandable that the librettists, assigned as they were to expand the plot of the play, would seek additional material from Long's story and even from Loti's novel. Thus the opera's original first act has vivid characterizations of Cio-cio-san's relatives, including a drunken uncle and a precocious child. Also in the original concept of the librettists was division between acts after the vigil scene, with a setting in the last act in the consul's office. At first Puccini went along with the ideas of his collaborators but ultimately, after the libretto had been virtually finished, he had a change of heart and not only insisted that the consul's office scene be removed but that the opera should be presented in two acts, with no break between the vigil scene and the rest of the opera. He also resisted any extension of the tenor role in the last act. Illica and, especially, Giacosa were beside themselves. Even though, as usual, Ricordi sided with the composer, Giacosa insisted on having his unscored verses that he had written for tenor included in the printed libretto.

But despite the grumbling of his librettists, and aware that Italian audiences did not like long acts without a break, Puccini was more confidant of success than he had ever been before. He even invited a couple of his sisters to the premiere, and he had never brought family members to any of his earlier premieres, because he was always nervous about something going wrong - but not this time. What happened that night almost exactly 100 years ago was one of the most catastrophic fiascoes in the annals of opera history, "A real lynching," as the composer himself put it. The performance was such a disaster that the opera was pulled from the boards immediately and Puccini's fees were refunded to the management!

The trouble began that fateful evening at the entrance of Butterfly, whose entrance music shares a melodic (but not rhythmic) similarity to “Quando m’en vo’.” Immediately some members of the audience cried out "That's from La bohème!" Now virtually all Italian opera composers of the 18th and 19th centuries made a practice of plagiarizing themselves - and oftentimes others! - taking a particular piece of music from an earlier opera, disguising it to some extent and inserting it into a new work. And even though Italian audiences abhorred hearing what they considered warmed-over music, the composers usually got away with it, given that the music was pleasing, no matter where it had been heard before. (Note there were no recordings then.) Puccini also had plagiarized himself before without anyone taking note. The "Bohemians' theme" from La bohème is taken almost note-for-note from his 1883 Capricco sinfonico, the instrumental piece that was composed to satisfy his graduation requirements from the Milan Conservatory. And in that same opera, the most important theme from the second act, Quando m'en vo'", or "Musetta's Waltz", had actually been composed for the launching of a battleship in Genoa a couple of years earlier. With the third act of Tosca, despite a stern warning from Ricordi not to do so, Puccini used music from the discarded fourth act of Edgar.

We can never know for sure, but I think it is very unlikely that Puccini consciously used any earlier material for Madama Butterfly. Furthermore, I strongly suspect (as did the composer and Ricordi) that the premiere was intentionally sabotaged. By whom? Well, there was probably the infamous claque at work. This was that singular institution of Italian opera whereby, for a fee, a strategically placed group of spectators would try to ruin an opera by continually creating disturbances during a performance, or break out with excessive applause or cheering to make the opera a success. A particularly roguish claque leader might also solicit a fee for doing nothing. The claque was probably active on the opening night of Butterfly because of the unusually large number of enemies the composer had made. When Puccini first appeared on stage, he was hissed and ridiculed because he needed two canes to walk with, the result of a near fatal auto accident in 1903. Things were not helped either when a gust of air caused the prima donna's skirt to billow up, provoking a cry of, "Butterfly is pregnant!" and another "She's carrying Toscanini's baby!" (because it was well known that Rosina Storchio, like so many women, had a more-than-professional relationship with the famous conductor). Even Tito Ricordi, Giulio's son, who was the opera's stage director, unwittingly contributed to the fiasco. During the vigil scene, with Puccini's famous "Humming Chorus," no doubt to make things more interesting, Tito Ricordi had directed that, as dawn approached, there should be some bird calls sounded. At the premiere, these were met by a cacophony of animal sounds from the audience. From this point on, the performance was an utter shambles and the audience became so loud that the singers could not hear the orchestra.

And who hired the claque? The main suspect (although it could have been others) is Edoardo Sonzogno, a publisher and rival of Ricordi. Puccini responded by making some revisions to the opera. Mainly, he cut the material that made up the characterizations of Butterfly's relatives from the first act. Then he inserted a full break with the curtains to fall after the vigil scene, thus making Butterfly a three-act opera. The final major revision was to add a short cavatina for tenor in the third act as Giacosa had wanted. He also had Pinkerton's part appear kindlier and gentler, made him more of a lover than a villain. About three months later, in Brescia, with a new prima donna, Salomea Kruceniski, the revised Madama Butterfly was performed and this time it was a huge success. Within a couple of years, it would be performed all over the world and stands to this day as one of the great operas of all time.

Back to Top