Simanaitis Says

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RICHARD WAGNER VISITED the underworld Nibelheim and the upperworld Valhalla in his epic Ring Cycle, but a much more practical world tour is offered by Giacomo Puccini in his Madama Butterfly set in Nagasaki, La Fanciulla del West in the California Gold Country, and Turandot in what used to be called Peking.

Our tour is arranged in order of these operas’ premieres, Part 1 today with Butterfly, 1904, and tomorrow’s Part 2 with Fanciulla, 1910, and Turandot, 1926.

I’ve enjoyed all three of these Puccini visits through the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series. These operas are shown at more than 2000 venues in 73 countries in six continents, which, being transmitted live, call for very hardy opera goers in some of the world’s time zones. Daughter Suz and I, being morning types, have no problem with high culture at 9:55 a.m. U.S. Pacific (and even earlier, if it’s Wagner’s Ring Cycle).

Tidbits for this Puccini World Tour are gleaned from Sir Denis Forman’s A Night at the Opera: An Irreverent Guide to the Plots, the Singers, the Composers, the Recordings, Random House, 1994.

Madama Butterfly made its world debut February 17, 1904. It was initially a disaster, howled off the La Scala stage in Milan. Three months later in Brescia, though, it was a big success.

Original 1904 poster by Adolfo Hohenstein.

Sir Denis Forman notes, in keeping with the “Irreverent” part of his title, “The original Butterfly story was written by an American lawyer, one John Luther Long, and is said by people who have seen it to be so simple as to be embarrassing. This was the unlikely basis for a one-act play by David Belasco which retained a lot of the Jim Crow (or Him Clow) Japanesy dialogue and which Puccini saw in London in the summer of 1900.”

Gestation of the Puccini opera had a hiatus while the composer recuperated from being severely injured in a car crash. He was a notoriously reckless automobilist.

Puccini in his De Dion-Bouton, 1902. Image from “Puccini A to Z—The Cars.”

“Musically,” Forman notes, “Butterfly tends to move in fits and starts; gone are the long gloriously unfolding melodies of Bohème and Tosca, and although always easy on the ear, there is not much in Butterfly that is easy to whistle. There is a lot of coitus interruptus: the fragments are teasing, too short to give satisfaction.”

Sort of like this Part 1 presentation. Tomorrow in Part 2 we’ll get to my favorite Puccini opera: the California Gold Country adventure/romance Fanciulla del West.

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

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