Programme Article


Cio-Cio San: sola, perduta, abbandonata

George Fleeton

This article was first published in the programme for Lyric Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly in the National Concert Hall Dublin on 18, 19 & 21 February 2017

The day Pavarotti died, nearly ten years ago, I was at the Teatro Grande in Brescia researching Margaret Burke Sheridan’s ten performances there (in 1926) of Puccini’s third opera Manon Lescaut.

That morning’s rehearsal (Così fan Tutte) had been cancelled as a mark of respect to Pavarotti and so we had the place to ourselves.

He had performed in Brescia many times, I noticed, often with his childhood friend, and fellow Modenese, soprano Mirella Freni.

After some time leafing through the theatre’s records, I flipped back to 1904 to note that Puccini’s revised version of Madama Butterfly, given there on May 28 that year, had been a huge success,  and that this had happened just over three months  after its disastrous opening night, and its only previous performance, at La Scala Milan.

Given the news that day in Brescia we discussed at lunch how Pavarotti had made his professional UK debut singing his first Pinkerton in Butterfly in the Grand Opera House Belfast in May 1963.

He then gave a recital in Dundalk Town Hall on his way to sing his Irish operatic debut in Rigoletto at the Gaiety Theatre Dublin.

For her part Castlebar-born Margaret Burke Sheridan sang her first Butterfly in Milan at the end of December 1919; her final performance in this opera would be at Covent Garden in 1930.

Puccini, who was completing a revised Rondine for Palermo, and considering  a story called ‘Turandot’ as his next project, took time off to hear her in Milan, having previously only met her socially:

‘It was an  interpretation that is completely new to me, yours not mine,’ Puccini told her backstage, ‘full of dramatic intensity and childlike appeal; this could never have been learnt from anyone; it’s the instinct that comes from an old race like the Irish, with its temperament and  spiritual vision.’

Now this may sound to us today like a bit of Puccini waffle, but Sheridan lapped it up and later he would coach her personally for Manon Lescaut which she eventually sang on its 30th anniversary, at the Rimini Carnevale in September 1923; Puccini, then struggling with Turandot and deteriorating health, was not present.

Manon is perhaps the most melodramatic of Puccini’s little women in love – his piccole donne innamorate – who dies sola, perduta, abbandonata (alone, lost and abandoned) and so sets a trend in his operas that is reinforced by the deaths of Tosca, Cio-Cio San, Angelica and Liù.

When Sheridan died in 1958 at Vincent’s Hospital, then on Stephen’s Green, it was, serendipitously, the opening night of a Dublin Grand Opera Society production of Manon Lescaut in the Gaiety Theatre close by.

And that week at La Scala Milan (where she had sung between 1922 and 1924) they said her death spread ‘a veil of sorrow’ over their centenary celebrations of Puccini’s birth.

Years later Renata Tebaldi recalled that Puccini’s step-daughter, Fosca Gemignani, told her that her step-father considered Sheridan the most outstanding Manon and Butterfly of them all.

The original version of Madama Butterfly was too long, there was no tenor aria, and orientalism – so popular in France – was not to Italian taste then.

Furthermore, staging the tale of a fifteen-year-old Japanese giving birth to an American naval officer’s child was to invite outrage; remember the opera is set in ‘present day Nagasaki’ - therefore 1904, the year of its first production.

It was not in the verismo style opera audiences were used to; at its première in Milan Puccini’s detractors and rivals had packed the audience with hecklers who proceeded to disrupt the performance, scene by scene; later we learnt that rehearsal time at La Scala was less than adequate for a much anticipated production of a new Puccini opera (his sixth) and this may well have fuelled the ire of the claque that night.

The earlier successes of Bohème and Tosca were easily ignored by the partisans in what turned out to be Puccini’s only opening night fiasco.

The following day the composer withdrew the opera, handed back his fee, took the score to his retreat in Torre del Lago in Tuscany and calmly revised it for Brescia; he cut act 2 into smaller units, separated by the ‘Humming Chorus’, and  he also wrote a short, endgame aria for Pinkerton.

After its ‘second' opening night in Brescia Butterfly’s place in music history was assured and Puccini’s place on the pinnacle of Italian opera was never again in doubt for a further twenty years until Turandot and his death, and indeed in the nine decades since then.

Cio-Cio San is his youngest and most vulnerable creation, with none of the resilience of Manon, for example, or Tosca’s strength of character.

But for the lyrico-dramatic soprano voice she is one of the most demanding roles in the late Italian repertory, moving from childlike simplicity to determined maturity in just two hours.

I must say that my favourite passages from this opera are not necessarily her act 2 aria Un bel dì nor her ‘Flower’ duet with Suzuki; rather it is the quarter hour love duet with Pinkerton which closes act 1; the final trio (which does not involve her); and her searing monologue at the point of death.

The self-righteous racism of Pinkerton and the tired inadequacies of Sharpless may help either to underscore this or to destroy my argument; for Puccini, like Mozart, was infatuated by his little women in love and his most beautiful music was reserved for them.

The plot of Butterfly is very poignantly centred on the community rejection and persecution of a single mother; for three years, alone and abandoned, she steels herself to believe in her redemption, one fine day; when that moment of truth arrives, her naïve hopes are turned inside out, she is a lost soul whose light, according to Japanese seppuku rituals, must be self-extinguished.

As in most of Puccini’s work, this opera’s fusion of words, music and action exploits our expected emotional responses, in this case to the pathetic spectacle of a young woman’s love being trivialised by a heartless egocentric male. 

But then opera has always been something much more than a theatrical diversion which appeals to its dedicated followers; on stage, as here, it can be subversive, dangerous and fatal.

‘All art is at once surface and symbol’, wrote Wilde in his preface to Dorian Gray: ‘those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril’.

Puccini’s operas invite us to take that uncomfortable journey, and we do,  fascinated by  his taste for high drama, his natural instinct for what works well in theatre, his facility to write memorable melodies and his genius for emotional manipulation.

And all this we get from a diffident, melancholic and irascible individual who was often accused of misogyny and decadence and whose compositional style – even in his most acclaimed works - actually evolved very little across the spectrum of twelve operas and forty years’ work.

He may not be in the premier league of Mozart, Wagner and Verdi, but there has been no one like him since.

For listening purposes it is impossible for me to select for you one indispensable recording; so I recommend three, which I have used with students over the years, one for each decade from the heyday of recorded opera:

Renata Tebaldi (Decca 1958), conducted by Tullio Serafin – tender and cruel, Tebaldi at her peak;

Leontyne Price (RCA, 1962), conducted by Erich Leinsdorf – pungent and heart-breaking; 

Mirella Freni, with Pavarotti (Decca 1974), conducted by Herbert von Karajan – intoxicating, prodigious singing.

There is also a recording made by Sheridan in Milan at the end of 1929 which I have never heard; perhaps someone reading this and who knows it may wish to comment?

© georgefleetonmmxvii