Santa Fe Opera’s 54th season
The night of Feb. 17, 1904, was not one of opera’s golden moments. Giacomo Puccini was expecting that the elite opera-lovers of the Teatro alla Scala in Milan would accord a huge ovation to his new opera, Madama Butterfly. It was the culmination of nearly four years of work. He had been captivated by David Belasco’s one-act play
Madame Butterfly (adapted from a story by John Luther Long that was itself built on a tale by Pierre Loti) when he saw it in London in the summer of 1900, and he went backstage to ask Belasco’s permission to develop it into an opera. The playwright later recalled, “I agreed at once … because it was impossible to discuss arrangements with an impulsive Italian who has tears in his eyes and both arms round your neck.”
Proper arrangement needed to be discussed, of course, but the necessary contracts were drawn up without undue delay. Puccini promptly embarked on the project with his tried and true librettists, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, who had previously joined him on the path to success with La Bohème and Tosca. He immersed himself in researching things Japanese in order to inject what he considered a realistic flavor into the sad tale of the young Japanese girl who marries an American serviceman and then finds herself deserted and left with a baby, named Dolore (“Trouble”), as a memento. A terrific cast was assembled, headed by the soprano Rosina Storchio as Cio-Cio-San (the Madame Butterfly of the title — at least, the form of the title Santa Fe Opera is using), the tenor Giovanni Zenatello as Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, and the baritone Giuseppe de Luca as the American consul Sharpless, who tries to keep things on an even keel as the sorry tale unfolds.
Rehearsals went smoothly, and the accomplished conductor Cleofonte Campanini had everything well in hand in the orchestra pit. Puccini’s longtime publisher Giulio Ricordi had some misgivings about the new work, but La Scala’s general manager Giulio GattiCasazza (who would go on to head the Metropolitan Opera for nearly three decades) was enthusiastic. Ricordi’s son Tito was appointed as producer-director, and he put together a production that infused the current craze for japonisme with truly operatic opulence.
Nonetheless, Madame Butterfly was hissed and booed practically from the moment the curtain went up. Instead of ovations, Puccini spent the evening hearing whistles, catcalls, and shouts of derision. According to Gatti-Casazza, the cast behaved with extraordinary poise, singing through the din as if nothing unusual was happening. The audience kept quiet only at the opera’s end, which, he recalled, was greeted by “absolutely glacial silence.” Giacosa launched into a backstage tirade
Kelly Kaduce as Cio-Cio-San and Elizabeth DeShong as her maid, Suzuki, at the dress rehearsal for Madame Butterfly, which, as of this new production, has figured into 10 of Santa Fe Opera’s 54 seasons