VIRGINIA OPERA’S MADAMA BUTTERFLY WORKS PUCCINI MAGIC

Madama Butterfly, the lovely opera presented by the Virginia Opera,  began as a stage hit, but took a rollercoaster ride to its pre-eminence as a world-favorite opera.

The crowd-pleasing Virginia Opera production of Madama Butterfly carried traces of the opera’s long and unpredictable historic journey to Norfolk’s Harrison Opera House.

As near perfection as anything else which had been seen in New York for a long time[i]

Those words appeared after the New York premiere of the great David Belasco’s new play Madame Butterfly at the Herald Square Theater on 5 March 1901.

But  Madama Butterfly had begun as an afterthought.

Belasco was looking for something to fill out the second half of a theatrical double bill featuring his new  farce Naughty Anthony, starring Blanche Bates doing a modified striptease for a group of Salvation Army girls. He happened to read a short story called Madame Butterfly by Philadelphian John Luther Long in an old copy of Century Magazine. He decided to transform the story into a two scene play, but with two major changes: Lieutenant Pinkerton would return to Japan and his bride Cio-Cio San, and Cio-Cio San would successfully commit  suicide. The play’s two scenes would also feature a trademark spectacular David Belasco lighting effect – a fourteen-minute change from sunset one day to dawn the next day. Blanche Bates would play the tragic heroine after transforming herself from the goofy shop clerk in the first playlet. Her success made Ms. Bates the talk of the town.

Fortunately for opera history, producer Charles Frohman needed a second half to his London production of the comedy Miss Hobbs by Jerome K. Jerome. He talked Belasco into bringing Madame Butterfly to London to finish out his double bill, and to use the star of the Jerome comedy, Evelyn Millard, a popular London comedienne, in place of Blanche Bates.

In London to stage Tosca at Covent Garden, Giacomo Puccini saw the Frohman produced plays. He agreed with the London Daily Telegraph critic:

The man who misses Madame Butterfly should never be allowed to enter a theatre again for the remainder of his life.

Puccini determined to make Butterfly’s tale into an opera. But the cagey Belasco waited until September of 1901 to agree with music publisher Tito Ricordi’s negotiated agreement with Puccini.

The new opera opened on February 17, 1904 at Milan’s La Scala with Giulio Gatti-Casazza as the stage director.

Madama Butterfly found Luigi Illica (1857-1919) producing the libretto, devising the incidents, and setting out the dialogue in prose.  Then Giuseppe Giacosa (1847-1906) put Illica’s text into polished verse.

The production team, including music publisher Tito Ricordi (1865-1933), and conductor Arturo Toscanini, had visited Puccini while he was composing  Madama Butterfly. Toscanini  expressed reservations. Ricordi warned the composer of “antipathy and hostility” toward Puccini in Milan. Puccini assumed that Arturo Toscanini would conduct the premiere. But Toscanini left La Scala due to a dispute about encores during  performances. As a result, Cleofante Campanini would conduct the premiere.

Everyone thought the production had an ideal hand-picked cast. Rosina Storchino (1872-1845) as Cio-Cio San  had a “plaintive and fragile” voice and demeanor. Her lyrical, refined, and gentle style of singing had led her to debut as Micaela in Carmen. The tenor who began his career as a baritone, Giovanni Zenatello (18876-1948) presented Pinkerton, while the  elegant baritone Giuseppe DeLuca (1876-1950) offered Sharpless. Giovanni Zenatello (1876-1949) and Giuseppe DeLuca rounded out the cast.

Despite advice to the contrary, Madama Butterfly opened in only two acts after unusual secrecy in rehearsals. No musical scores were allowed to leave the rehearsal room. Only the composer and librettist could attend rehearsals.  And finally, the unheard-of ban of the press from the dress rehearsal alienated the very people Puccini needed for his new opera to succeed.

The result was, according to Gatti-Casazza “a clamorous failure.” The public “laughed, interrupted, shouted, and cat-called’ throughout. “Glacial silence” greeted the opera’s final note. There was “not one iota of applause”. Composer Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945), crying, went before the curtain to upbraid the audience for their behavior.

Gatti-Casazza noted the press reaction: “The press was ferocious. I do not recall, in all my experience, having read anything to match it.”

Undaunted, Puccini remarked, “My Butterfly remains what it is: the most heartfelt and evocative opera I have ever conceived.”[ii] Immediately afterward, Puccini and his librettists reworked the opera into three acts, made some cuts, some additions, and some changes. Two months later Madama Butterfly enjoyed two huge successes – one conducted by Campanini in Brescia, and another conducted by Toscanini in Buenos Aires. At Brescia every aria and duet received demands for multiple encores, and at each encore Puccini was brought onto the stage to acknowledge the applause. Nevertheless, Toscanini continued to believe that “Cio-Cio was the reason for the success – “that little woman holds the hearts of the entire audience, but the music is rubbish.”[iii]

For the London production on July 10, 1905 Puccini prepared a third version of the work.  Emmy Destinn sang Cio-Cio San and Enrico Caruso Pinkerton. The Times of London[iv] enthused:

The final scene is almost too harrowing for ordiinary susceptibilities, and as the music to which the book is set is of the highest degree of dramatic truth, though it never oversteps the line of artistic restraint, the denoument is wonderfully powerful. It is not by any means the only striking moment in the opera ; the charming love-duet with which the first act concludes is masterly in conception…The work has been largely revised since its first production in Milan last year…Its successes all over the continent  in its new shape will more than have compensated the composer for the non-success with which it met at first at the Scala.”

 However, a fourth version, prepared by Puccini for the Paris premiere of 26 December 1906 presented the opera as the world knows it today.

New York’s Metropolitan Opera opened  Madama Butterfly on February 11, 1907 with Geraldine Farrar as Madama Butterfly, Louise Homer as Suzuki, Caruso as Pinkerton, and Antonio Scotti (1866-1836) as Sharpless. The premiere was conducted by the “barely competent”[v] Arturo Vigna (1863-1927), the Met conductor until 1907 when Arturo Toscanini took over the position. However, when later conducted by Toscanini under a new Met regime, the critic Henry Theophilus Finck noted that the conductor “added several inches to the artistic stature of Giacomo Puccini with his interpretation” of the music.[vi]

Geraldine Farrar, the Boston-born diva daughter of a Philadelphia Athletics’ infielder, was the star of the show. Rehearsal tensions ran high due to Farrar’s habit of singing in half-voice. The Italians accused her of cheating. Puccini wanted to hear her at full voice because he feared, correctly, that her voice was too small for the Met house. Toscanini called her “one of the most interesting personalities that ever appeared on the stage of the Metropolitan.”[vii] Nevertheless, their clashes became operatic legend.

Calling Farrar “a bundle of concentrated quicksilver”, the dispute found its way into the office of Met director Gatti-Casazza. Farrar was nervous because Caruso and Scotti had created Butterfly the preceding summer, with Emmy Destinn (1878-1930) as Cio-Cio. (Destinn was absent from the Met because she was not offered a large enough performance fee.) Farrar refused to attend some rehearsals. Casazza ordered the soprano to  rehearsal. Farrar replied to Toscanini, ”I am a star. How dare you criticize me in that way?” To which Toscanini retorted, “ The stars are all in the heavens, mademoiselle. You are a plain artiste and you must obey my directions.”[viii] End of argument. Farrar bristled because she had been spending long hours in her suite at the Hotel Netherland preparing with a Japanese actress, wearing kimonos, and obis, tabis, even practicing the proper use of the fan. Farrar had learned accurate bowing, gesturing, and facial expressions, all of which were soon dismissed by Puccini. She  kept her shaved eyebrows, however, and penciled in a thin line. Farrar later said she grew to hate the sound of Puccini’s voice. She resented the fact that Caruso and Scotti seemed immune from Puccini’s criticism. Puccini also fretted that the inept Vigna could not maintain discipline in the orchestra.

On the day of the dress rehearsal the  theater was filled with invited guests. Chief among the attendees was the great Bishop of Broadway, David Belasco himself. Naturally Belasco wore his “Bishop” black suit and white clerical collar.

After the first night Richard Aldrich of the New York Times found the performances superlative:

Upon the representative of Mme. Butterfly depends much, she carries the weight of the whole dramatic fabric after the first act, and in the large part of that Miss Farrar puts a notable impersonation to her credit in it. She is charming in appearance as scarcely need be said; and her bearing, transformed into the Japanese character, is full of grace and sinuous subtleties, of smiling eagerness, and submission, of tenderness and gentle longing, as well as of tense and self-contained anguish at the end. She has an infinity of plastic poses and postures that she knows how to make count at every point. The steady crescendo of emotional tension she expresses with ample dramatic resources and her accent of heartbroken despair and of tragic resolution is fully expressive. The music she sings with charm, with intense dramatic fervor. The part of Pinkerton is unsympathetic, necessarily, and Mr. Caruso is not the man to impart distinction to such a one. But his singing of this music is of much beauty. It is as though written for his voice and fits him to perfection, and of such music he is the very man to make the most. Mme. Louise Homer made the part of Suzuki carry its full weight through her remarkably intelligent and carefully modeled impersonation.

There is more in the part of Sharpless, the American Consul, which Mr. Scotti interprets with an admirable dignity and such chivalrous tenderness as it admits of. It is at least the representation of a gentleman, and Mr. Scotti deserves thanks for finding this in it, and the means of establishing it, as well as for singing the music with such power and finish.

Henry Krehbiel of the New York Herald raved about Ms. Farrar:

Madama Butterfly has brought to Miss Farrar another opportunity to disclose her splendid gifts of dramatic representation. Freed from occasional extravagance of action, which robs it of repose, which is as essential in tragic moments of the second and third scenes as in the comedy of the first, her impersonation would be almost ideal. In pose, gesture, vocal interpretation, facial expression, movement, it is full of eloquence and grace. She sounds the note of deep pathos in both action and song convincingly, and last night won the tribute of tears from many eyes. Her growth into womanhood and from womanhood to tragic stature is beautifully presented without abruptness and with real power. As she is a beautiful vision, her triumph was complete.

Farrar would go on to sing Cio-Cio San at the Met more than any other soprano. In 1916 W.J Henderson surveyed Farrar and the role:

        She has had her ascents and her descents in the part, for there have been periods in which she seemed to abandon all attempt at sincerity and played with the impersonation as if it were her personal toy. But Miss Farrar has changed her attitude toward Madama Butterfly in recent seasons. She has realized Cio-Cio San is one of her best roles and that in order to keep her popularity in it she must bring to it the best resources of her art. The impersonation which she gave last evening was one of great charm and of high musical merit. She was in excellent voice and sang the flaming measures of Puccini with beauty of tone and with elegance and style.

Just a month earlier Farrar had been blasted for omitting the high B at the end of “Un bel di” at a Kansas City performance.

The Virginia Opera’s 2019 production holds vestiges of this opera’s long production history.

Soprano Danielle Pastin creates a Cio-Cio San devoid of the refinement, fragility, delicacy, and the classic Japanese manner which had characterized the interpretations of Rosina Storchino and Geraldine Farrar. Ms. Pastin’s Butterfly can’t wait to become an All-American girl. Not only does she adopt the American’s Christian religion, her Cio-Cio’s manner seeks to be completely American. Ms. Pastin’s Butterfly is a sassy, perky teenaged girl.  Her strong voice revels in an open, atypical display of emotion. By Act II, her Americanization is complete. Her Japanese makeup and kimono have been replaced by Western makeup and dress. She has added the Virgin Mary to the Buddha on her prayer table. She wants  to be an American as much as she wants to be Mrs. Pinkerton. The two are inseparable in her mind. In this way, Ms. Pastin harkens back to the Butterflys of Blanche Bates and probably Evelyn Millard. Ms. Pastin’s interpretation  stresses  Cio-Cio San’s enlivening asprirations rather her deadening reality. In the lobby before Act I a patron was overheard saying, “I’ve only come for “Un bel di.” Given Ms. Pastin’s sterling aria within her bold interpretation of the role, the patron was probably delighted to have attended.

When Ms. Pastin and her Pinkerton sing together,  their voices blend beautifully, as the couple suggests a Western Jeanette MacDonald Nelson Eddy type romantic duo. Butterfly’s dream is her reality in those moments.

When not with Pastin, Matthew Vickers’ Pinkerton is appropriately thoughtless and insensitive to all but his own needs and desires. When his voice is on the mark it is quite effective, but early on he seemed to have trouble being heard over the orchestra. Mr. Vickers’ performance received a backhanded tribute  at the curtain call, as the audience booed his character in appreciation for his skill as a performer.

The supporting cast is simply outstanding. One can’t imagine a more effective Suzuki than that of Kristen Choi. The character’s deferential role is no obstacle to Ms. Choi’s ability to command the stage with her excellent acting and singing. Likewise, Levi Hernandez’ Sharpless sings up a storm of beautiful music as the weakling hero’s strong Nagasaki representative. In the cameo of all cameos, Hidenori Inoue stops the show as The Bonze, while Catherine Goode as Kate Pinkerton and Brayden Livengood as the Child do all that can be done with two underwritten, but necessary, roles.

Director Richard Gammon moves the actors around the stage with ease and purposefulness. The performances he oversaw were all effective and some even outstanding. However, the long transition from Act II to Act III needed some visual interest to accompany the anticipatory music. Belasco provided the famous sunset/sunrise. Robert Wilson invented inspired miming by the Child. Mr. Gammon needs to find his own visual counterpart to the Puccini musical transition.The lovely setting by the late Wally Coberg serves the action with great style and meaning. Not so the costumes of Candice Donnelly, none of which do much to reveal anything of a character other than whether they hail from Japan or from America. The impressive entrance procession preceding Butterfly’s arrival creates great anticipation. Unfortunately, Cio-Cio’s dress at that climactic moment is seen as neither more significant nor more dominant  than the lesser women surrounding her. Consequently, her arrival amounts to an anticlimax. Not even the superb lighting of Kaitlyn Breen can provide the necessary heroic emphasis for that major plot moment.

The Richmond Symphony provides the music for the production this time. Maestro Adam Turner wasn’t quite able to get the same pinpoint sensitivity and responsiveness from them as he has through his extensive work with the Virginia Symphony. Nevertheless, professionals as they are, the orchestra acquitted itself quite well.

The fine magical production of Madama Butterfly concludes a terrific season for the Virginia Opera. Street Scene, Don Giovanni, and The Elixir of Love, with Madama Butterfly, made a season of opera for which the state of Virginia should be grateful.

[i] The Brooklyn Eagle March 6, 1900, p. 6.

[ii] A. Marchetti, Puccini com’era. Milan, 1973, p.292.

[iii] Harvey Sachs, Toscanini. Musician of Conscience. New York: Liveright Publiching,2017.

[iv] Times of London, 11 July 1905, p. 5.

[v] Mary jane Phillips- Matz, Puccini.A Biography. Boston: Northeastern University Press,2002, p. 173.

[vi] Sachs.

[vii] Sachs.

[viii] Sachs.

 

 

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