Opera Buff in 20 Minutes: Madam Butterfly

Setting: Nagasaki, Japan, at the turn of the century

Plot in three sentences: Lt Pinkerton, US Navy, fancies a bit of rest’n’recreation and goes through a mock marriage with geisha Cio-Cio San (known as Madam Butterfly). She takes it very seriously, even cutting herself off from her family and friends, and when he leaves she brings up his child and waits faithfully for him. Three years later he returns, with his American wife, so Butterfly commits harakiri and the Pinkertons take the boy back to the US.

Reputation: The original setting and musical touches in Butterfly show the trends of the early twentieth century. The follow-up to Tosca, Puccini found writing Butterfly heavy going; things weren’t helped by a serious car accident. After, Puccini became embroiled in a sordid court case in which his wife accused him of an affair with a servant girl (unproven). His last opera, Turandot, was set in China.

Critical reaction: A first night fiasco, thanks to carefully orchestrated public heckling. ‘Groans, explosions… laughter, shouting, sniggers, this is the welcome of La Scala’s audience… After this pandemonium the public left the theatre as happy as can be.’

Classic performers: Victoria de los Angeles, Renata Scotto.

Highlights: ‘Un bel di’ (One fine day) – which has turned up in countless places, even being transformed into ELO’s Rockaria (1976) and a Malcolm McLaren epic (1984).

Death toll: Just the one – Butterfly herself, harakiri, Act 3.

What to say in a loud voice in the interval bar: ‘Of course, the authentic Oriental touches are the same ones Sullivan used in The Mikado.’

What to say quietly in the pub: ‘So do they have surtitles during the Humming Chorus, then?’

Rob Ainsley, Classic CD magazine, 1995


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