Saturday, February 21, 2009

The history of the story...

From Tabloid to Opera: The Genesis of Butterfly’s Story. The road to the creation of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly begins with a reportedly true story, and continues through a series of re-tellings to become one of operas iconic works. The story began as a true account of the life of Tsuru Yamamura, a Japanese woman who had a son with an English merchant. Abandoned, she attempted suicide, and ultimately the child was taken not to America, but to Nagasaki. John Luther Long, an American lawyer, romanticized and inflated the story and published it as an article in Century Magazine in 1898. His story is very close to Madama Butterfly, save the fact that Butterfly’s suicide is not successful, and she disappears with the child rather than allow him to be taken by his father. His story was undoubtedly influenced by the 1887 faux memoir Madame Chysanthème by French naval officer Pierre Loti. Loti takes a far less kind view of his Japanese geisha, who is interested only in the riches she can extract from him, and the final scene shows Chrysanthème counting her money and waiting for her next “husband”. Felix Regamey, outraged at the tone of the novel, wrote the reactionary novel in 1894, Le cahier rose de Mme Chrysansthème, a sympathetic reaction told from geisha’s perspective. These stories, and many like them, were at the forefront of popular culture. David Belasco, an American playwright and producer, was inspired to write a one-act play in 1900 as a companion piece to a farce Naughty Anthony. In Belasco’s version, the play begins with the abandoned Butterfly of Act II, and three elements, Butterfly’s silent vigil, her ultimate suicide and Pinkerton’s delayed return were added by Belasco to build the dramatic thrust of the piece. Puccini, who saw the play performed in English and could scarcely understand the dialogue, was intensely moved by the arch of the story. In the hands of his librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, the events of Act I were created, as well as text far more poetic than Belasco’s sensational drama. At one point during the exploration of libretto, Illica had created an additional act set in the consulate, but Puccini demanded its omission, insisting that “the drama must close without interruption – rapid, effective, horrible.” Ultimately, the story, realized in so many ways, found its most sensitive home in Puccini’s opera, imperfect in its Japanese references perhaps, but most certainly true to the tragic events that befell the original characters.

From: Orchestra London, 609 Wellington Street, London, ON, N6A 3R6 519-679-8778

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