In the summer of 1900, Giacomo Puccini was in London to supervise a performance of Tosca at Covent Garden. During his visit, he went to see a new play that was on at the Duke of York’s Theatre on nearby St Martin’s Lane: David Belasco’s Madame Butterfly.

What is the storyline of Madame Butterfly?

Though Puccini understood almost no English, the essence of the plot was simple enough to grasp. Pinkerton, an American naval officer stationed in Nagasaki, ‘marries’ a 15-year-old Japanese girl, Cio-Cio-San (Madam Butterfly). She believes their union to be legally binding, adopts American customs and gradually becomes isolated from her friends and relatives. For Pinkerton, however, the marriage is nothing but a game, and he casually abandons Cio-Cio-San, only to return later, ‘proper’ Western wife in tow, to retrieve his infant son. The only honourable course of action the distraught Cio-Cio-San can see is to end her life.

Puccini found Belasco’s play deeply moving and was particularly attracted to its vigil scene: a prolonged wordless passage during which Cio-Cio-San awaited the return of her lover, the transition from dusk to dawn depicted by elaborate coloured lights. The play’s setting, too, was appealing: a vogue for Japanese art, ceramics and textiles was sweeping Europe and Puccini’s rival Mascagni had recently turned to an Eastern subject for his opera Iris. Puccini believed he had spotted in Belasco’s play all the ingredients for a guaranteed hit.

The composer teamed up for a third time (following La bohème and Tosca) with the writers Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, who based their libretto both on Belasco’s play and on its source text: a story by John Luther Long recounting events witnessed by his sister when doing missionary work in Japan. The opera’s genesis was protracted, as the three men disagreed over its dramatic structure. However, Puccini threw himself enthusiastically into the composition of the music, reading voraciously about Japanese culture and listening to early recordings of Japanese folk songs, a number of which he incorporated into the score. The opera’s ‘oriental’ music – which makes liberal use of the pentatonic scale and employs instruments such as the tam-tam and Japanese bells – is set against the resolutely Western music of Pinkerton and Sharpless, with Puccini even quoting ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. Cio-Cio-San’s music initially sounds non-Western, but following her ‘conversion’, her most effusive (and famous) melodies are in unmistakeably Italian vein.

When was Madam Butterfly first performed?

The premiere of Madam Butterfly its first performance at La Scala on 17 February 1904. A stellar cast had been assembled, rehearsals had gone well and all of Milanese high society had rushed to buy tickets. Nobody could have foreseen what would happen that night. ‘Madam Butterfly flopped, irremediably flopped,’ reported the Giornale d’Italia the next day. ‘Last night’s performance at La Scala was not just a failure; it was what one might frankly call a disaster, a catastrophe.’ The audience – or at least a portion of it, now thought to have been a hired claque – had booed, cackled, made animal noises and shouted personal insults at the leading lady, Rosina Storchio.

Critics muttered about Puccini lazily recycling musical ideas from his earlier works and about the work’s ‘excessive’ length. Though bewildered and distressed – he was never a composer to deal well with bad press – Puccini set about revising the opera, fuming to a friend, ‘I’ll have revenge, when it’s performed somewhere less vast, less full of hate and passion.’ The second version of the opera was duly performed in Brescia three months later and was a huge success in its new incarnation, though Puccini would continue to tweak the score over the next few years.

Madam Butterfly soon established a position at the apex of the operatic canon – and thanks to its guaranteed crowd appeal became a lifeline for financially stretched opera companies the world over. But now, in the 21st century, the work is prompting controversy once more. As opera gets dragged ever deeper into today’s culture wars, Butterfly has become an obvious target for outrage: as a representation of the East through a Western lens; on account of its supposed misogyny; and because of the politics surrounding its casting and standard manner of presentation.

Some have even suggested censorship. In 2006, the American musicologist Susan McClary wrote ‘I look forward to the day when we can pin this opera up in the museum of strange cultural practices of the past, when we can mount Puccini’s Butterfly once and for all as a historical exhibit.’ The themes presented in the opera certainly cannot be read in the 21st century as they were in 1904, but ‘cancelling’ this much-loved opera is surely neither constructive nor likely. Imaginative contemporary productions, supported by educational events, offer an opportunity to explore the complex political issues that operas such as this address. Meanwhile, Butterfly’s abundant melodic richness, its sensitively characterised heroine and its sheer effectiveness as a piece of drama remain worthy of our admiration.

We named Puccini one of the greatest opera composers of all time, while 'Un bel vedremo' from Madam Butterfly was named one of Puccini's best arias ever

What is the best recordings of Madam Butterfly?

Victoria de los Angeles (Butterfly)

Jussi Björling, Antonio Sacchetti et al; Orchestra del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma/Gabriele Santini

Warner Classics 763 6342

It feels invidious choosing a ‘best’ Madam Butterfly with so many fine interpretations available, most of them big-budget affairs from the golden age of long-play recording. One cannot help but notice, incidentally, how few contemporary singers are being given the opportunity to record the work, bar the occasional megastar such as Angela Gheorghiu (creamily gorgeous on the 2009 Warner set, though Jonas Kaufmann is too baritonal a Pinkerton for my taste). Happily, the great singers of mid-century were superlative in this opera and any of the ‘runners up’ (right) would make an equally worthy top choice.

But decisiveness is required here, and my personal preference is for the 1959 set from Victoria de los Angeles and Jussi Björling under the baton of Gabriele Santini. I’ll confess: this is the recording that introduced me to Puccini’s opera, so it is, to my mind, the ‘urtext’ and my affection for it is boundless, though the Freni/Pavarotti set – one of the two recordings conducted by Herbert von Karajan – gives it a very close run for its money. The orchestral details of Santini’s recording may not be quite as vividly captured in the remastering here as in the two Karajan sets, but the Italian conductor’s reading of the score is highly expressive and often playful. It is a performance that exudes tremendous warmth, both orchestrally and vocally, and there is an ease and naturalness to the sound-quality that gives the listener a sensation akin to wallowing in a comforting bath.

This was the second studio recording de los Angeles made of Butterfly with the Opera di Roma (the first being made in 1954 with tenor Giuseppe di Stefano) and to my ears it is the more emotionally engaging of the two. De los Angeles is a singer to whom you lose your heart – velvet-voiced and beguiling whether in romantic, coquettish or grief-stricken mode. Her ‘Un bel dì’ is initially vulnerable, growing in maturity and confidence across its course. Björling is a dignified but far from cold Pinkerton, thrilling on the high notes and boasting a beautifully smooth, even line. Above all, nowhere else on disc is Puccini’s heady love duet sung with such palpable ecstasy, bringing out the sheer eroticism of the piece to tremendous effect as the voices ebb and flow, rising inexorably to their fever-pitch of excitement. This performance never fails to ravish.

3 other great recordings of Madam Butterfly

Mirella Freni (Butterfly)

Decca 417 5772

This 1974 recording is all about the glorious voice. Luciano Pavarotti, unmistakeable as ever, is plausibly libidinous – though he can do tenderness too – and his ‘Addio fiorito asil’ is as electrifying as they come. Freni, so often the Puccini soprano par excellence, is perfect here, exuding immense tenderness but without feigned childishness. Every line is beautifully shaped, her multi-hued ‘Un bel dì’ a tour de force. As in the Callas set below, conductor Herbert von Karajan gives us one of the most vivid orchestral readings of the score available.

Maria Callas (Butterfly)

Warner Classics 2564634099

Cio-Cio-San was not an obvious role for Callas, but in this 1955 recording she makes a nuanced shift from naïve girl – singing with surprising lightness – to knowing woman, coming into her own with a real sense of foreboding in her exchanges with Sharpless. Nicolai Gedda is a gorgeous Pinkerton: all sweetness and charm, making Butterfly’s devotion actually credible. Karajan’s detailed, flexible reading of Puccini’s score coaxes out its ‘inner Wagner’ and highlights details that usually go unnoticed. The ending is at once chilling and impassioned.

Renata Scotto (Butterfly)

Warner Classics 567 8852

John Barbirolli's riposte to operatic snobs who sneer at those who enjoy Madam Butterfly was this loving and honest interpretation of the work, recorded in 1966. Carlo Bergonzi is slightly formal as Pinkerton, even uptight, though he offers exquisite vocal shading. Scotto is a highly affecting Butterfly: endearingly gentle, the despair in her voice as she sings to her son at the end utterly devastating. The shimmeringly lovely flower-gathering duet with Suzuki (Anna di Stasio) is a highlight, as is the casting of Rolando Panerai as a rich-voiced Sharpless.

And one to avoid…

Montserrat Caballé, if a rather ‘full-throttle’ Butterfly, offers vocal opulence and a believable account of a woman in distress. Her real-life husband Bernabé Marti – a rather neurotic-sounding Pinkerton – blossoms in the final show of remorse. The 1968 audience went wild, but this live recording suffers from ragged ensembles, noisy feet, ill-timed coughs and muffled sound-quality.

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Professor Alexandra WilsonWriter and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Alexandra Wilson is a musicologist and cultural historian, specialising in Italian opera and operatic culture from the 19th century to present day. She is a professor of music and cultural history at Oxford Brooks University and a regular opera critic for BBC Music Magazine.