Following the phenomenal twin successes of La bohème (1896) and Tosca (1900), Puccini was on a roll. His high-impact, supercharged operatic barnstormers chimed exactly with contemporary tastes for the exotic and shocking. Yet work on the much-anticipated follow-up was hampered by skirmishes in his personal life, and as the curtain went up on the La Scala Milan premiere of Madam Butterfly on 17 February 1904, his troubles rapidly got even worse.
When did Puccini write Madam Butterfly?
Puccini began work on Madam Butterfly in 1901, initially looking at integrating traditional Japanese melodies into the score. Soon, however, he had a major distraction in his life: the arrival of his first motor car, a splendid De Dion Bouton. And within no time, he managed to slide his new pride and joy off the road into a ditch when, one particularly foggy evening, his chauffeur took a bend too fast and ended up rolling it down an embankment. Puccini was discovered lying under the overturned car, suffering from shock and with a broken shin that left him with a permanent limp. As if to rub salt into his wounds, tests at the time showed he was also suffering from diabetes.
Despite being thrown out of the vehicle, Puccini’s illegitimate son Antonio and long-suffering partner, Elvira, were left relatively unscathed – although his chauffeur suffered a fractured femur. For Elvira this was almost the final straw, as her relationship with Puccini had already been tested severely by his dalliance with a young Turin woman known simply as Corinna. Pretty, vivacious and playfully enchanting, Corinna restored the middle-aged composer’s fading youth in a way that Elvira – who at the time was still married to someone else – couldn’t hope to compete with.
Elvira had suspected Puccini of playing away for some time, but the situation came to a head after she discovered a letter that left the full extent of the relationship in no doubt. He promised to break things off with Corinna, although behind the scenes he kept fanning the flames of love until, following the death of Elvira’s husband, he was compelled by friends and family to do the ‘right thing’ and marry her. But at least he now had a new motorboat to take his mind off things.
What happened at the premiere of Madame Butterfly?
Continuing problems with Madam Butterfly’s structure and constant friction with Puccini’s publisher Giulio Ricordi, who was never happy with the subject matter and considered Corinna a ‘harlot’, hardly helped matters. Yet, despite these considerable distractions, he somehow managed to carry on composing. As the curtain rose on the 17 February premiere, Puccini and his supporters sat with baited breath, blissfully unaware that his enemies and detractors had turned out in force, determined to turn the premiere into the wrong kind of spectacle.
As a result, those moments designed to bring the audience emotionally to its knees – including Butterfly’s heart-breaking ‘Un bel di’ (‘One fine day’) aria – were greeted with stony silence. Other passages were drowned out by jeers, whistles and boos, and the final scene’s poignant depiction of dawn breaking was punctuated by farmyard noises. To cap it all, Rosina Storchio, the stoutly built Butterfly of the night, had a major costume failure when a gust inflated her kimono, inspiring cries of ‘Pregnant!’ from the stalls.
The press had a field day, castigating not only the production but also Puccini’s music as uninspired and derivative. A lesser man might have thrown in the towel, but Puccini cancelled further performances, went back to the drawing board, made several changes and three months later emerged in Brescia with a sure-fire winner that would take the operatic world by storm. It remains one of the most-performed operas of the 20th century
We named Puccini as one of the greatest opera composers of all time
Recommended recording: Madame Butterfly by Mirella Freni, Plácido Domingo, Christa Ludwig, VPO/Karajan; dir
CATALOGUE NO: 073 4037
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