For years I've wondered why Cio-Cio San refers to her bridegroom as F.B. Pinkerton when the Imperial Commissioner names him as Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton in the wedding ceremony. Was she alphabetically challenged? But it turns out that in the original version of Madama Butterfly, premiered at La Scala in 1904, the American Lieutenant went by the unlikely name of Sir Francis Blummy Pinkerton. Who knew? That world première comes under the category of first night fiascos, ambushed by a well-prepared audience, possibly led either by rivals of Giulio Ricordi, Puccini's publisher, or by a claque of Mascagni supporters.
“A brutal judgement” is how Riccardo Chailly, La Scala's current music director, described the response to that single performance. Butterfly didn't return to La Scala's fabled stage until 1925, conducted by Arturo Toscanini, exactly a year after the composer had died. This was in Puccini's revision, hastily made for Brescia in 1904 and refined in Paris in 1906, which we're used to hearing today. For the opening night of its 2016/17 season, La Scala made amends by presenting Puccini's original 1904 score in a picturesque new production by Alvis Hermanis.
Act I features more examples of “local colour”, not least the short arioso for the tipsy Yakusidé which immediately precedes the dramatic entry of Cio-Cio San's other uncle, the Bonze. Pinkerton's cynicism was originally even stronger, complaining about Japanese cuisine and casting insults about Butterfly's family. The tenor also loses the brief aria “Addio, fiorito asil”, an attempt to soften Pinkerton's crass character by adding a dash of regret to the naval officer's eventual return. If the “new” music for Act I feels inconsequential, the Act II restorations deepen the tragedy. Kate, Pinkerton's American wife, has a more expanded role, while the consul, Sharpless, tries to assuage his friend's guilt by offering Butterfly money, which she refuses. Puccini originally cast the opera in just two acts, and playing what we now know as Acts II and III together makes much more sense, linked by the Humming Chorus (with a truncated ending) and an extended intermezzo, brilliantly played by the Scala orchestra. Act II's length wasn't best suited for a fidgety prima audience which seemed to prefer the media circus in the foyer to the actual opera.
Hermanis presents this Ur-Butterfly in the most faithful of productions, surely the right choice given its homage to Puccini's original intentions. The set features the usual shoji paper screen doors, but on three tiers, allowing for effective entrances for Butterfly, and later Kate, from the second level, or the Bonze from the third. Ineta Sipunova's video projections show us Nagasaki Harbour or, as the shoji peel back like doors to a giant Advent calendar, flowers, birds, or a gallery of Cio-Cio San's relatives. The most magical moment was when Butterfly's 'American' décor slid away to reveal a garden of cherry trees dripping with gorgeous pink blossom which tumbled to the ground when their branches were shaken for the Flower Duet.
While the vocal performances were nicely taken, the lead roles hardly matched some of their illustrious predecessors at La Scala, thoroughly catalogued in the luxurious programme. Uruguyan soprano Maria José Siri phrased nicely, especially during the Love Duet, but was emotionally detached. Ideally the title role requires more spinto heft than she was able to muster, but the fragile wisps of tone in “Un bel dì” were very touching. Butterfly's death was particularly powerful, an extended orchestral scene during which dancers, cheeks streaked with tears of blood, attend Butterfly's jigai – female suicide by slashing the jugular – thus extending the sense of ritual.
Bryan Hymel's Pinkerton initially sounded tight and reedy, but the voice opened up better as the evening went on, ringing out thrillingly at the end, the naval officer discovering Butterfly's suicide and then, removing the child's blindfold, seeing his son for the first time on the dramatic closing chords. Annalisa Stroppa's sensitive Suzuki, blending beautifully with Siri in the Flower Duet, and Carlos Álvarez, whose flinty baritone suited the role of Sharpless, the amicable US consul, both gave strong performances. My peak potential “weepy” moment comes in Act II when Butterfly brings in her child; here, we see Sharpless' shocked reaction first and it cut me to the quick. Nicole Brandolino made much of the brief role of Kate, her mezzo rich and full, and Carlo Bosi's stentorian Goro was wonderfully oily.
The star turn, however, came from the cavernous pit where Chailly coaxed the most ecstatic playing from the orchestra. Every time there was a solo string line, it sang with voluptuous warmth. From the daintiest flute motif to the glittering depiction of dawn, Chailly revealed the brilliance of the writing. Puccini was the biggest winner here.
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