Madama Butterfly had its premiere at La Scala on Feb. 17, 1904. Given that his previous three operas, Manon Lescaut, La Boheme, and Tosca had been successes, it must have come as quite a shock to Puccini that Butterfly was a flop. It was more than a flop; it was a complete fiasco, with a degree of audience hostility rarely seen in an opera house, even in Italy.
It is still not clear why Butterfly was such a failure at its premiere. The overly long second act has been blamed (for the second performance that May in Brescia--a success this time--Puccini divided the second act into two). Other theories have to do with the excessive "Japanese" character of the score, toned down for the second performance, as well as the completely contrary idea that Butterfly's music sounded too much like that of Boheme and Tosca for the audience's taste. However, Ernest Newman in his book Great Operas opines that Puccini's rivals were responsible.
Whatever the reason for its original failure, the revised version of Butterfly went on to become one of the most frequently performed of all operas. It might be given even more often but for the difficulty in finding a soprano with an adequately mature voice to cut through Puccini's lush orchestration and at the same time sufficiently young-looking to play the part of a fifteen-year-old girl.1 But one either loves Butterfly or hates it, apparently. In a poll conducted by the magazine Opera News a number of years ago readers were asked to vote for their favorite and least favorite operas. Madama Butterly scored near the top in both polls!
It's interesting that in virtually all Puccini operas the protagonist is a woman; this is in contrast, say, to Verdi whose central characters may be either male (Ernani, Rigoletto) or female (La Traviata, Aida). Doctoral dissertations have been written on the reason for this with the usual dissertation result--nobody really knows. But Puccini was definitely a ladies' man, renowned for his love affairs, so perhaps he was just writing on his favorite subject!
From the early 1900's until fairly recently it was fashionable to regard Puccini as a second-rate composer, definitely inferior to Verdi. He was criticized, inter alia, for his over-sentimentality and his rudimentary skill in orchestration. More recently a different view of Puccini's skills has emerged. His insistence on choosing highly dramatic libretti (as distinguished, say, from Verdi's melodramatic libretti like Il Trovatore and Rigoletto) is now widely recognized. And after a century or so of suffering with the many musical "isms" --chromaticism, serialism, minimalism, etc.-- the opera-going public has become delighted with works whose tunes can actually be hummed and whose chords are truly consonant. So Puccini has come into his own as one of the great opera composers, ranking along with Verdi in the Italian Pantheon.
Newman has pointed out how hard Puccini worked to make Butterfly authentically Japanese. He read a great deal about Japanese customs and got hold of some fragments of Japanese music, attempting to work these into the score. But a number of inaccuracies crept into the text anyway. These include the name of the Butterfly's would-be suitor Prince Yamadori. (Japanese given names ending in the letter o tend to be feminine). Also, Chocho san's renunciation by her family for her conversion to Christianity does not ring true at all. Japanese are quite tolerant of other religions. More likely Chocho san would have been renounced for getting involved with a foreigner, with no regard to religious issues. In that case her relatives would not have been attending the wedding ceremony near the beginning of Act I. And the Japanese character of the music is probably no more realistic than is the Egyptian character of the music in Aida. Composers manage to suggest a foreign land by introducing a little chromaticism, a few atypical cadences and some unusual dotted rhythms into an otherwise conventional score.
But the real subject of Butterfly may be the culture clash between America and Japan. Prior to1853 Japan was closed to the outside world; there was no trade, travel to and fro, or any other communion. However in 1854 Commodore Matthew Perry, exerting some intimidation, negotiated a treaty with the shogun government of Japan allowing for trade and supplies at the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate. In 1857 the port of Nagasaki (where Butterfly takes place) was added to the original treaty, and up into the early 1900's trade relations between Japan and the U.S. flourished. By 1867 the Emperor had taken the government back from the shoguns; the faction supporting the Emperor was opposed to continuation of the trade with the U.S. However, thanks to presence of the United States Navy (in which our anti-hero, Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, served as a Lieutenant)2 the trade relationship continued.
The cavalier attitude Pinkerton takes toward his marriage (while waiting for Chocho san to appear for the wedding he toasts the day he will marry a true American wife); as well as his cruel determination to take their child "Sorrow" from Butterfly are indicative of the patronizing attitude of the United States toward Japan. And Chocho san's sincerity, exemplified by her becoming a Christian and by her faithful and patient vigil for her husband's return, symbolize Japan's na´ve trust of the U.S., a country ruthlessly exploiting it. The anti-American focus of the opera is softened somewhat by the sympathetic figure of the American consul, Sharpless, whose disapproval of Lt. Pinkerton's actions is as strong as the audience's.
1 In the standard repertoire, the only heroine known to be younger than Butterfly (or, to give her her correct Japanese name Chocho san) is the fourteen-year-old Juliet Capulet; there are casting problems similar to those of Butterfly for Gounod's Juliet.One young singer who had the vocal equipment to cope with Buttrefly's music was the 22 year-old Maria Callas who, in 1946, was offerd the role at the Met. But Callas turned it down since her appearance was that of a much older woman (she was seriously overweight at the time).
2 Pinkerton is such a despicable rat that it is traditional for audiences to boo him during his curtain calls at the end of the opera. Feel free!