Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Monday, April 21, 2014

The First "Butterfly"

The Met’s latest Cio-Cio-San, Kristine Opolais, has had an unusual success, no surprise to those who heard her in the role in London in 2011.

The notorious world premiere of Madama Butterfly at La Scala on February 17, 1904 is one of the best known fiascos in operatic lore. A revised version was presented two months later in Brescia, and the rest is history. The opening night brouhaha comes alive in this translation from the Italian of a page from the March 15, 1904 issue of Musica e Musicisti, a magazine published by the powerful Casa Ricordi, also the publisher of Puccini’s scores. Ricordi had a high stake in the newest work of arguably the most popular living opera composer.

“Grunts, catcalls, bellows, honks, guffaws, and scattered shouts of ‘Encore’ designed to excite the audience even further: that was the reception the La Scala public gave the new work by Maestro Giacomo Puccini.

Following the pandemonium, during which it was impossible to hear anything at all, the audience left the theatre happy as a clam. Never before had so many smiling, self-satisfied faces been in evidence, as if to reflect the collective triumph. Joy overflowed in the lobby. The rubbing of hands here and there was accompanied by these words: “Consummatum est!  Parce sepulto.”  [It is done. Let the dead be forgiven.] The spectacle in the auditorium appeared to be as carefully choreographed as the one on the stage; it started just as the performance began. We might have been witness to a battle, such as those now underway, where a host of enemy Russians, arrayed in tight battalions, launch an assault on the stage so as to sweep away all of Puccini’s Japanese.

Madama Butterfly was wonderfully rendered by the orchestra which under the baton of Maestro Campanini played superlatively. Storchio was delightful, fabulous, and more, in fact peerless in the difficult role of the protagonist. No less remarkable were the others in the cast, Sig.ra Giaconia, and Sig.ri Zenatello, De Luca, Gaetano Pini-Corsi, and their colleagues. As always, the décor and staging were splendid, noteworthy for their scrupulous attention to the many details demanded by the characteristic setting.

This is a true account of the evening.  After which, Puccini, Giacosa, and Illica, in accord with the publisher Ricordi, withdrew Madama Butterfly, and returned the fee they had received from the directors of the theatre. All this despite the management’s heated insistence that the opera be given again.”

Here are images of the original production.

Rosina Storchio, the first Cio-Cio-San, created leading roles for other verismo composers, Leoncavallo, Giordano, and Mascagni, but was also known for lyric-coloratura parts in operas of Donizetti and Verdi.

Storchio's agility, vitality, and sweet tone are fully evident in an aria from the La Bohème of Puccini’s rival, Leoncavallo.

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