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A Dramatic Improvement: Puccini and the creation of Madama Butterfly

With this tragedy, Puccini transcended the role of composer by incorporating touches that mark him as a dramatist of genius.

By Kate Hopkins (Content Producer (Opera and Music))

16 March 2015 at 12.10pm | 4 Comments

Giacomo Puccini believed that God had commanded him to write ‘only for the theatre’, and looking at his operas, one can see why. Puccini had the knack of finding the perfect subject to suit his talents. A highly literate man, he worked in depth with his librettists, and though he drove them to despair with his demands, he had sound dramatic instincts.

Puccini and librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica based their three collaborations (La bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly) on popular plays and stories. However, none of these original works are familiar to modern audiences other than through their connection to Puccini’s operas. The many Butterfly-inspired dramas – Miss Saigon among them – all take their lead from Puccini’s opera, rather than David Belasco’s play and John Luther Long’s story Madame Butterfly.

In fact, Puccini didn’t want Giacosa and Illica to use Long’s story as the principal source for their libretto. Certainly its mixture of sentimentality and bleak satire would not make a good opera. Long’s Lieutenant Pinkerton is an opportunistic cad who marries Butterfly out of boredom. Butterfly soon conceives a masochistic devotion for her husband – who meanwhile treats his ‘wife’ like a pet. Butterfly’s story is a grim example of how a selfish person can destroy a weak, naive one.

The short story may be bleak, but it lacks sufficient pathos to be an effective tragedy, largely because Butterfly is such a stereotypical passive heroine – to modern eyes, a deeply racist and sexist caricature, who giggles every few sentences and makes remarks such as: ‘I tell you who loog lig’ an emperor… that Mr B.F. Pikkerton when he got that unicorn upon him, with gole all up in front!’ Only in the final few pages of her story does Long’s Butterfly attain dignity. For the rest, she’s a near-parody of an infantile, submissive oriental woman.

Belasco made many improvements to Long's story. The play format meant that he could employ an expressive language of gesture and stage effects, at which, as a true man of the theatre, he excelled. Puccini (who spoke no English) was drawn to the play for its striking visual aspects. These include a spectacular vigil for Butterfly – a 14-minute mime with subtle lighting shifts to show the passage of dusk to dawn.

However, it’s clear why Belasco’s Madame Butterfly has not endured in the theatre repertory — we never see Pinkerton and Butterfly together, and thus never get a clear idea of their relationship. Belasco lifted much text direct from Long, which means that Butterfly has too many monologues, and other characters – Suzuki in particular – remain underdeveloped.

Puccini, Giacosa and Illica triumphantly addressed all the weaknesses of the Butterfly story and play. Puccini could breathe life into the smallest role, and he gave all his characters distinct personalities. The brief, terrifying appearance of the Bonze (invented by Illica) gives the opera a hint of classical tragedy. Both Sharpless and Suzuki become fully rounded individuals, and Pinkerton is much more interesting than his callous Long and Belasco predecessors.

But it is Butterfly who undergoes the greatest transformation from her literary origins. She loses her babyish lingo, becoming far more articulate than in Belasco or Long's versions. Puccini’s decision to cast her as a lirico spinto (heavy lyric) soprano associates the character with womanly passion rather than childish naivety. Nor is Puccini’s Butterfly portrayed as stupid. The tragic tone of her second Act II aria ‘Che tua madre dovrà prenderti in braccio’ (That your mother should take you in her arms) hints that she already suspects that Pinkerton has abandoned her and her beloved son; her ecstatic outburst when she spies his ship is as much surprised relief as joy.

Madama Butterfly is rare among Puccini operas in having one character the central focus throughout – and Puccini, Giacosa and Illica’s complex and sympathetic exploration of Butterfly’s character ensured their opera’s dramatic success. Butterfly’s profound capacity for love, her moments of playfulness, her dignity and courage, all make her a compelling, loveable protagonist, and one who continues to fascinate us long after her literary and theatrical forebears have faded into obscurity.

This is an extract from Kate Hopkins’s article ‘Puccini the Dramatist’ in The Royal Opera’s programme book, available during performances and from the ROH Shop.

The production is a co-production with Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona. It is sponsored by Coutts, with generous philanthropic support from Mr and Mrs Christopher W.T. Johnston and The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund.

Madama Butterfly runs 20 March–25 April 2017. Tickets will be available soon.

This article has 4 comments

  1. william glynne hughes responded on 16 March 2015 at 6:55pm Reply

    I am looking forward to receiving my programme by Post so that I can read the full article. Only here and there do I disagree with Kate Hopkins, it may be a single word but enough to make a difference! I can claim 70 years of regular listening to all of Puccini's operas.Thank you for your sound scholarship.

  2. william glynne hughes responded on 16 March 2015 at 8:39pm Reply

    There are flashes of greatness in all of Puccini's operas.This realisation can be determined by the number of times you are prepared to listen to his early works.
    Dr Mosco Carner in a letter, dated 1974 to me said Puccini was a born opera composer after he had visited Treviso to see for the first time performances of Le Villi and Edgar.I could never subscribe that Madama Butterfly is Puccini's first opera that marks him out as a dramatist of genius!Last night I put on twitter a complete recording of Manon Lescaut with Gianna Galli as Manon. Please listen to it.

  3. Michael Boys responded on 17 August 2015 at 9:47am Reply

    Not related to this article but I am looking for a performance of Madama Butterfly (I was there) 1974/75ish when the leading lady was indisposed and, to huge excitement from the audience a replacement was flown in from Italy at the last moment.
    Could you remind me please of the names of the the two opera singers

    • Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager) responded on 17 August 2015 at 4:55pm

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks for your query. I've checked with ROH Collections and they've found a press cutting from The Financial Times that mentions how on 9 June 1975 American soprano Marcella Reale was flown in to replace an indisposed Jeannette Pilou as Cio-Cio-San at very late notice. A number of other singers took the role in that run, including Teresa Kubiak and Sung Sook Lee. I hope this helps.

      All best,

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