So Madama Butterfly has finally had the triumph at La Scala that Puccini was hoping for in 1904 when the opera received its world premiere. Instead, 112 years ago, it was greeted with whistles and boos. Puccini was so disillusioned that he would never again collaborate with La Scala. His last and unfinished opera, Turandot, was premiered in Milan, but after his death. He wrote,
The public hasn’t welcomed Butterfly, but my artistic conscience is unperturbed.
In another letter, he stated,
They can say whatever they like but they will not bury or kill my Butterfly, which will rise again stronger than before.
In front of God and the angels, I swear that this work is my most heartfelt and sincerely written, and one day its detractors will be forced to swallow the bile they have heaped upon it.
Why, if a short time after Puccini had reworked the opera for Brescia – which was a success – then later for London and again for Paris, would Riccardo Chailly want to return to the unsuccessful version? After last night’s performance, which opened the opera and ballet season, the reason is clear: it works. It works exceptionally well.
There are two main reasons for this. Here, Pinkerton is unlikeable, he’s racist and sexist and sends his American wife to do his dirty work. Revised editions made him more of a likeable rogue. This, of course, maybe one of the reasons for the opera’s initial failure… baritones and basses were the villains, not tenors. Yet dramatically it makes more sense.
Also, the path that takes Butterfly from joyful expectancy to death is longer and more intricate. The second act lasts an hour and a half, and in subsequent versions Puccini would divide the second act into two parts to give the audience the three acts that was expected for an Italian opera. Here, Kate Pinkerton and Butterfly sing together and Kate directly asks Butterfly if she can take Pinkerton’s child, and look after him lovingly, “It’s sad, very sad, but do it for his own good.” Her motives are laid out clearly, decisions are made, and there is an inevitability about Butterfly’s final gesture. Director Alvis Hermanis makes the suicide a choreographed ritual which Butterfly follows intensely, though calmly; her heart is already dead. It is painful to watch, and Maria José Siri as Butterfly was so utterly convincing in her gestures and intentions that the audience wiped away the tears long before the last bars were played.
It was magnificent to hear an audience united in applause in contrast to the contestations that usually take place on 7 December. This year, after 40 years, La Scala’s opening night was transmitted on the main television channel, instead of the niche Rai5 arts and documentary channel. One Italian in five followed at least part of the broadcast, with an average audience of more than two-and-a-half million. The most viewed opera on Italian television ever.
A late night local TV channel recorded reactions in the foyer as the audience left the theatre: opera fans loved it; a couple of television personalities found it ‘a little heavy’. It is certainly not heavy for its length or its music, but the subject is… and it should be. Sexual tourism, the abuse of women, and the arrogance of power and wealth, are just as relevant a century on.