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Float Like a Butterfly : Puccini's Tragedy of Lost Innocence Has Soared, Despite Its Sting

January 10, 1991|CHRIS PASLES | Chris Pasles covers music and dance for The Times Orange County Edition.

Of all Puccini's tragic heroines, Cio-Cio San--"Madama Butterfly"--elicits the most pathos.

Mimi in "La Boheme," after all, is a bit of a flirt. Manon Lescaut, in the opera named after her, finds love and luxury equally appealing--to her ruin.

Tosca, the diva who dominates that opera, brings catastrophe upon herself and her lover because of her easily ignited jealousy. Turandot, the icy princess, repels many with her bloodthirsty sense of vengeance against all men.

But the 15-year-old Cio-Cio San is a trusting innocent. She gives up everything for love--her family, her religion, her Japanese identity--and is left with nothing.

The opera is based on David Belasco's one-act play, which was derived from a magazine story by John Luther Long supposedly based on a real incident. (In Nagasaki today, a visitor can take a tram ride up to the "Madame Butterfly" house on the hill overlooking the harbor, although the memorial to the victims of the atom bomb more rightfully captures attention.)

Puccini knew little English when he saw Belasco's play in London in 1900, but he knew enough to be touched by the story.

Cio-Cio San, a young geisha, marries Lt. B.F. Pinkerton, an American naval officer. Pinkerton regards his marriage as one of the conveniences available during his tour of duty in Japan. But Butterfly takes it as a lifetime contract.

After Pinkerton is recalled to the United States, Butterfly, with their child Trouble, faithfully waits for him for three years. When he returns, she finds he is married to an American. She agrees to give up their child to be raised in the United States and kills herself before Pinkerton arrives to take him.

A four-hanky tear jerker, "Madama Butterfly" actually was a disaster when it received its premiere at La Scala opera house in February, 1904.

The audience, probably stirred up by the composer's jealous rivals, audibly complained of similarities between the music for Butterfly's entrance and Mimi's first act aria in "La Boheme," and found the sheer length of the second act wearying.

Puccini withdrew the work after one performance and revised it by making cuts in text and music, and recasting the opera into three acts, with an orchestral prelude to Act III.

Gone were a scene with Butterfly's drunken uncle and Pinkerton's later efforts--through Sharpless, the American consul--to buy off Butterfly with money before he returns to Japan.

The revised version proved triumphant when presented the following May in Brescia. But Puccini kept making changes.

Ricordi, the composer's publisher, issued four scores to coincide with first productions at La Scala, Brescia, Covent Garden (in 1905) and Paris (1906), and it is the fourth that most productions now utilize.

The theme of the abandoned war bride is a perennial one, of course, and parallels between "Butterfly" and such recent works as the London and Broadway-bound musical "Miss Saigon" can easily be seen.

Few such works, however, contain such emotional blockbusters as Butterfly's aria, "Un bel di vedremo," in which she imagines the scene of Pinkerton's return. (Often excerpted from the opera, the aria has even seen an incarnation as a rock-music piece.)

But the opera is full of memorable outpourings of tender and soaring melodies, as well as startling coloristic effects, from the delicate percussive chords during the wedding scene to the ineffable sadness of the letter duet between Cio-Cio San and Sharpless, who is left to clean up the mess of the headstrong, passionate and immature American serviceman.

What Opera Pacific presents Puccini's "Madama Butterfly." When Saturday, Jan. 12, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 13, at 2 p.m. Also Jan. 17-19 at 8 p.m. and Jan. 20 at 2 p.m. Where Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Whereabouts One block east of South Coast Plaza shopping center. Wherewithal $20 to $70. Where to call (714) 556-2787.

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