There is a small exhibition in La Scala's museum which looks at the theatre's previous productions of Madama Butterfly, an opera that had its world premiere at the theatre in 1904. What is surprising is that in all the many concepts and designs there has always been a kimono and fan when so many other operas have received the jeans and piercings treatment, or been given the high-tech and laser look. La Scala's new production by the Latvian director Alvis Hermanis, which opens the season on 7 December, is similarly reserved and respectful; justly so for the return to Puccini's original score which was reworked many times after its disastrous reception at La Scala at the beginning of the last century.
There are many reasons for this. Certainly, the culture clash between East and West, a 15-year-old seduced and abandoned by a ‘wicked American', and the two acts instead of three, were all not liked. This was already something anticipated by Richard Strauss and not loved by a public used to the traditional three acts.
Conductor Riccardo Chailly — talking to the Corriere della Sera's Giuseppina Manin — continues,
To return to the original score is a way for me to compensate for that initial setback and to rehabilitate a work that has accompanied me all my life. Back in '96, when I was conducting the version directed by [Keita] Asari, I added in six sections from the first edition. Now there will be over a thousand new musical phrases. A large puzzle that was assembled thanks to Casa Ricordi, which sees a cimbalom in the pit, capable of evoking the sounds of traditional Japanese music which Puccini studied with great passion. An exotic background that is prominent in the first act with the geishas for sale for 100 yen, Butterfly's uncle ‘The Bonze', and other racial stereotypes of the time, which is offset by negative musical undertones, tense, and full of echoes from the beginning of the 1900s.
The failure at La Scala led to Puccini not wanting to stage other premieres at the Milanese theatre. It was only after his death twenty years later, that Toscanini conducted the first performance of the incomplete Turandot.
The Butterfly experience hurt him greatly. Despite the success that the opera received, with some modifications, later in Brescia, he remained bitter about its reception at La Scala. He was a simple man, solitary, tormented by insecurity and depression.
Puccini's relationship with women was complicated; he was said to have had many relationships, but always ephemeral. But no one understood the feminine soul as he did. This “first” Butterfly is the proof. Puccini shows the secret aspects of Cio Cio San, and highlights her greatness, her despair, her generosity. Even her suicide become more bitter: her only way to recover her honour is to follow the rite of her ancestors.
Kate Pinkerton, who in an unset phrase from the libretto is said to be unable to have children (which explains a lot) is, however, a sympathetic character, and Suzuki's character is scrupulous. This contrasts with the male figures:
Cowardly [Pinkerton] sends his wife ahead of him, while the consul Sharpless, trying to compensate for Butterfly's suffering by offering financial compensation. Money will be given ample space in this production.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.
Some years ago I copied several orchestral interludes from Madame Butterfly onto a tape and asked my opera and music-loving friends to listen to it and tell me what they thought it was. Not one person named Puccini or Madame Butterfly. The score is truly amazing, and along with Fanciulla, I think it is the composer’s finest and most mature work.
Thank you. Would love to see the theater and the museum one day.