Audience reception of opera premieres has always been unpredictable. For example, three of the most popular Italian operas today—The Barber of Seville, La Traviata, and Madame Butterfly—were resounding failures on their opening nights. Perhaps none was more striking than that of Madame Butterfly. On the evening of February 17, 1904 at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, everyone – from the singers, to the orchestra players, to the stagehands – confidently expected nothing short of a great triumph for the composer of La Bohème and La Tosca.
At the outset, Butterfly was greeted with silence; and silence from an Italian audience was an ominous thing at best. Later in the first act, there were cries of “That’s from Bohème…Give us something new!” Hisses greeted the first-act curtain, and the second act was peppered with groans, boos, catcalls, and obscenities. The reviews were not much better; in its inimitable understated manner, The Times (London) reported that the opera had been “received rather coldly.”
Puccini was bewildered and heartbroken; he compared the experience to a “lynching.” He canceled the other scheduled performances at La Scala even though he had to fork over a hefty payment. He made a number of revisions to the opera, including dividing the long second act into Acts II and III and introducing a remorseful aria to soften the lieutenant. Three and a half months later the revised version was staged in Brescia under the baton of Arturo Toscanini. It was a huge success. The audience loved the scenery at the outset and demanded numerous encores for arias and other musical numbers. Puccini was finally able to go onstage and take a lengthy bow along with the singers.
But why the resounding failure of the premiere? The cast was considered absolutely first-class. Some people surmised that rivals of Puccini had organized groups to embarrass him. Others cited the opera’s subject matter: An unsympathetic American naval officer impregnates and abandons a Japanese teenager, later driving her to suicide. And still others point to the nature of Italian opera audiences who love nothing better than to express their opinions unmistakably.
In 2016, La Scala staged the rarely seen original version, perhaps as a symbolic act of contrition.