PUCCINI: Madama Butterfly
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GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Io sono la fanciulla più lieta del Giappone,
anzi del mondo
I am the happiest girl in Japan,
in the whole world
Madama Butterfly, Act 1
As every audience in the world must know, happiness does not prove to be Cio-Cio-Sans lot in life, but as she and her friends make their way uphill in Act 1 to meet her bridegroom, one of the most exquisite operatic entrances ever composed, a blissful future seems assured. Marriage was also topical in Puccinis own life at the time of Madama Butterflys première, for just six weeks earlier he had finally wed Elvira Gemignani, his mistress of twenty years; their relationship was, alas, destined to be almost as tragic as that of Butterfly and Pinkerton, but early in 1904 things seemed set fair for the Puccinis happiness too.
The origins of Madama Butterfly go back further than Belascos play, which is generally held to be the source of the operas plot. It was on a visit to London in 1900 that Puccini first saw the one-act Madame Butterfly, itself based on a short story by John Luther Long, and it was certainly no coincidence that an even earlier novel, Pierre Lotis Madame Chrysanthème, published in 1887, had a story that is reflected very closely in the opera. The plot, centring on the tragedy of betrayed love in an exotic Japanese setting, must have appealed to all four men, particularly at a time when nineteenth-century japonaiserie was still much in vogue.
Cio-Cio-San is one in the series of fragile, ill-fated heroines around whom Puccini composed his beguiling melodies, and with whom he fell more than just a little in love; Manon Lescaut and Mimì were her predecessors, Angelica and Liù her successors in the composers canon. As was the case with much of his work, the creation of Madama Butterfly was plagued by dispute with his librettist Giacosa and, on this occasion, a temporary halt to composition caused by a car accident, in which Puccini was badly injured. It was not an auspicious start.
Once the libretto was finished to Puccinis satisfaction, he started with enthusiasm on the operas composition, which was completed at the end of 1903. The première at La Scala, Milan, was to feature three of Italys finest singers, Rosina Storchio, Giovanni Zenatello and Giuseppe de Luca, in the leading rôles. To Puccinis horror the evening was a disaster and the composer suspected that some of his musical rivals had organized a hostile claque to disrupt the performance; making a virtue of the fiasco, he took the opportunity to revise several sections of the score, ready for a re-launch at Brescia three months later. He excised a section of Act 1 in which Cio-Cio-Sans family played a prominent part, added the short aria for Pinkerton in Act 2 and divided that act into two scenes, rather than retaining the over-long first version of ninety minutes playing time; indeed, he continued to make further minor revisions over the next two years, ready for new productions in various European cities. Covent Garden first saw Madama Butterfly in July 1905 with Emmy Destinn and Enrico Caruso in the leading rôles; at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in February 1907 it was Caruso again, with Geraldine Farrar as Butterfly.
The present historic set offers us a unique opportunity to hear Gigli as Lieutenant F.B. Pinkerton; (the initials of Benjamin Franklin are often discreetly reversed for the sake of propriety). Unlike some of his other operatic rôles, from which he recorded extracts on two or three occasions, this is the only example of his singing any of the music from Madama Butterfly. In dal Montes case the recording is even more treasurable, for this is her only complete recorded operatic rôle, though she made many solo and ensemble records from her extensive repertory. Eight of these are included on CD2 and give us an aural glimpse of her art over a thirteen-year period. Evident here is the light flexibility for which she was admired; the magic of Nannettas aria from Falstaff, the sweetness of the Don Pasquale duet (with the equally endearing Schipa), the poignancy of Aminas Sleepwalking Scene from Sonnambula. These, and the other arias and songs, show this most charming of sopranos at her best; and, in the company of Giglis genial Pinkerton, she creates one of the most vividly moving interpretations of Cio-Cio-San ever recorded.
Madama Butterfly was first performed in its original version on 17th February 1904 at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan; and in its revised version at the Teatro Grande, Brescia on 28th May 1904.
Toti dal Monte, one of the finest light lyric sopranos of her day, was born in Mogliano Veneto in 1893; after training initially as a pianist, she first sang at La Scala in 1916 in Zandonais Francesca da Rimini and then assumed rôles such as Violetta, Gilda, Lucia, and Rosina, singing the latter two at Covent Garden in 1925. Dal Monte appeared at the Met in 1924-25, in Chicago and Buenos Aires and in 1928 famously joined Dame Nellie Melba on her Farewell tour of Australia. She retired in 1943 and became a voice teacher, dying in Treviso in 1975.
Beniamino Gigli, a native of Recanati, Italy, was born in 1890 and in 1914 made his début in Rovigo in La Gioconda. He soon sang throughout Italy and, from 1919, in South America; 1920 saw his phenomenal début as Faust in Mefistofele at the Met, where he stayed for twelve seasons. First heard at Covent Garden in 1930 in Andrea Chénier, he returned both before and after the war, and sang in many European cities in opera and concert. At his best in Verdi and Puccini, his golden tone made him universally popular throughout the world. Gigli died in Rome in 1957.
Mario Basiola was born near Cremona in 1892; he studied in Rome and made his début there in 1918. In 1923 he toured the United States, then sang at the Met, where he appeared for eight seasons, returning to Italy in 1935. His career, notably in Rome and Milan, included principal Italian rôles such as Gérard, Rigoletto and Amonasro, but when he sang at Covent Garden in 1939 he was suffering from the effects of an illness from which his voice never fully recovered. In 1946 Basiola toured Australia and taught there for some years, dying in Annico in 1965.
Oliviero de Fabritiis was born in 1902 in Rome, where he also studied at the Conservatory. He made his début at the Adriano Theatre there in 1920 and subsequently conducted extensively throughout Italy. Appointed Artistic Secretary of the Teatro dellOpera, and conducting several notable premières, in 1938 he led the opening season of opera at Romes Caracalla Baths. De Fabritiis made his Covent Garden début in 1965 and in 1971 was appointed Artistic Director of the Vienna Festival. He was an imaginative and expressive maestro, well represented by complete operas on record. He died in Rome in 1982.
The period is the present (1904). The scene is outside a small Japanese house, set on a hill overlooking the port of Nagasaki. There is a terrace and a garden, and, in the distance below, the harbour and city.
1 The orchestra introduces Act I with a busy opening theme, followed by a second theme of more overtly Japanese character. As the curtain rises, the obsequious marriage-broker Goro is seen showing Pinkerton the delights of the lit