In honor of the upcoming La Scala season kicking off on 7 December, Musement shares some curiosities about Giacomo Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” and the theaters around the world that have produced the opera.
December 7, St. Ambrose Day, marks an important tradition for the Milanesi: the kick off of Teatro alla Scala’s new season. Each year, celebrities, politicians and jet setters dress to the nines to attend the legendary opera house's season premiere. Loggionisti, on the other hand, tend to wait until the third performance, which they know will be better as the cast will have overcome the opening night jitters but are not yet worn out. In the past, opera was reserved for the nobility, however Toscanini eventually made it accessible to commoners by permitting them to sit in La Scala’s galleries.
Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is Teatro alla Scala's 2017 season opener. The three-act opera is set in Japan and tells the story of a young geisha, Cho Cho-san, who is in love with Lieutenant Pinkerton, a U.S. Navy officer. The February 1904 La Scala premiere was dedicated to Elena of Montenegro, Italy's queen, but unfortunately was not a success: Critics tore the opera apart and the audience greeted it with roars, screams and laughter. In a nutshell, it was a fiasco. Puccini immediately withdrew the work and subjected it to careful review, splitting it into three acts and removing and adding new parts including Farewell, Flowery Refuge, the famous aria. Madame Butterfly then toured Italy and the world, garnering much critical acclaim along the way.
The spectacular interior of La Fenice Theater in Venice
1) Fenice Theater, Venice
Madame Butterfly played at Venice’s prestigious Fenice Theater in 1909. Dedicated opera connoisseurs swarmed the theater despite the cold spell that enveloped the city during the opera's successful run.
Today, Fenice Theater is Venice's main opera house. A devastating fire destroyed the venue in the early nineteenth century, after which it was rebuilt and restored with special glitzy details such as the majestic stone staircase, Corinthian columns, gilded stucco, and the signature gold and azure theater sign. The world premiere of Giuseppe Lillo's Rosmunda in Ravenna inaugurated the theater after its restoration and throughout the nineteenth century, it hosted world premieres of operas by Gioachino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini and Giuseppe Verdi. The twentieth century saw a multitude of contemporary productions that included world premieres of works by Stravinsky and Prokofiev.
Opéra-Comique; photo by Zinneke – Opera propria CC BY-SA 3.0, Collegamento
2) Opéra-Comique, Paris
Puccini resided in Paris to oversee the 1906 staging of Madame Butterfly at the Opéra-Comique, a trying time for the composer; documents and letters from that period describe him as "exhausted and dejected". Puccini was afraid of Parisian audiences who, in his opinion, were used to "flat" operas and works with similar plots to that of his Madame Butterfly. Moreover, he didn't consider Madame Carré – the chosen soprano – skilled enough to play Cho Cho-san. His fears faded away on the premiere's eve, and he became certain that the production would be a hit.
Located in the second arrondissement, the Opéra-Comique, was founded on December 26, 1714 by Catherine Baron and Gautier de Saint-Edme, and featured a repertoire based on pantomimes, parodies and lyrical works. The theater underwent several temporary closures, some of which were paradoxically caused by the venue's huge success, as it had created problems for other Parisian theaters. The nineteenth century was a prosperous era, thanks to composers such as Bizet, David and Massanet.
The Civic Opera House of Chicago
3) Civic Opera House, Chicago
From Europe's old theaters to the New World, more specifically to Chicago's Civic Opera House, a venue set in an unprecedented and very evocative location: a 45-story Art Deco skyscraper. The opera house opened in 1929 with Verdi's Aida, and in 1955 the unforgettable Maria Callas played the role of Cho Cho-san on three occasions: 11, 14 and 17 November, before which she made the famous Madame Butterfly recording that all opera lovers own and still hum along to today. The Greek soprano said she didn't feel comfortable in the role of the young geisha, and that is why she only performed Cho Cho three times.
The illuminated facade of New York’s Metropolitan Opera House
4) Metropolitan Opera House, New York
The Metropolitan Opera House (also known as the Met) is located at Lincoln Center on New York City’s Upper West Side. Founded in April 1880, the Met is considered the world’s largest opera house. Its first location, a yellow brick industrial building between West 39th and 40th Streets, was destroyed by a fire, so it was rebuilt in 1966 beside Lincoln Center. Madame Butterfly was staged at the Met in February 1907 with Puccini present. The positive reviews included praise from New York Times music critic Richard Aldrich who wrote that the opera "combined emotion and gentleness", the atmosphere was Puccini's "finest", and the composer had "perfectly and thoroughly fused music, action, feelings and scenography". Fun fact: The inaugural opera of the Met's second location was Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West.
The Khedival Opera House of Cairo, 1869; Unknown This image comes from the Bibliotheca Alexandrina
5) Khedival Opera House, Cairo
In 1966, the Fenice Theater company took Madame Butterfly on tour to Cairo with Mietta Sighele playing Cho Cho-san. The city's Khedival Opera House was built to commemorate the construction of the Suez Canal and it was inaugurated in 1871 with a performance of Verdi's Rigoletto. Sadly, one hundred years after opening, a devastating fire completely destroyed the theater, leaving just two statues behind. Cairo was left without an opera house until the 1988 opening of the Cairo Opera House.