William Dart: Clash of cultures

By William Dart

Geisha meets US navy officer - Antoinette Halloran as Madam Butterfly and Piero Pretti as Pinkerton. Photo / Supplied
Geisha meets US navy officer - Antoinette Halloran as Madam Butterfly and Piero Pretti as Pinkerton. Photo / Supplied

The 1904 La Scala premiere of Madame Butterfly in Milan was one of opera's more fiery fiascos, incurring a riotous response from a highly unsympathetic audience.

Three months later, in Brescia, the rewritten opera was the success Puccini had hoped for, going on to become one of the key works of the repertoire.

Samuel Johnson, in his 1755 Dictionary, famously labelled opera as an exotic and irrational entertainment.

Butterfly is certainly exotic, inspired by a wave of Orientalism that had brought about such diverse theatre pieces as Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado (1885) and Mascagni's Iris (1898).

Puccini, as early as 1900, was "irresistibly attracted" to David Belasco's play, Madame Butterfly, which had just had its premiere in New York. He saw the potential for a full-act opera about the ill-fated love between a Japanese geisha and a callous American navy man.

Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa came up with a libretto that caught this highly charged clash of cultures.

It worked perfectly as both intimate drama (the relationship of the two lovers) and a powerful political statement (confrontation between the old and new worlds, the East and West.)

In 1983, maverick film director Ken Russell went further with his stage production of Madame Butterfly, which was staged in Auckland 11 years later.

Russell's synopsis boldly uses words such as prostitute, fixer and pimp. In his Epilogue he blasted the audience with a soundtrack of explosions along with the glare of stadium lights and a landscape of neon brand names.

This barrage symbolised a subsequent "history" of Pearl Harbour, Hiroshima and now iconic Japanese brand names that Butterfly would not live to see.

Above all, Puccini has written a glorious opera for singers.

American soprano Licia Albanese remembered a teacher describing it as a lyric Tristan und Isolde. Italian soprano Renata Scotto, having debuted in the title role at the age of 19, claimed it would be five or six years before she was able to pace the character to get to the end of the opera fresher than she was at the beginning.

Puccini's score is eternally fresh; luscious melodies are coloured with exquisite orchestrations; clever use of traditional Japanese music sits alongside adventurous moments that look forward to his later Turandot.

An opera which, in the words of American composer Virgil Thomson, is "a masterpiece of effective musical theatre" perhaps because "not once does the composer lose interest in the plot and start writing hubbub".

- NZ Herald

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