When Puccini saw a London production of the American playwright David Belasco’s drama about a Japanese geisha he was moved to tears, even though he didn’t understand a word of English. His choice of the theme meant that in the opera Madama Butterfly he had to master new forms of musical expression, as later on was the case of Turandot too. Puccini researched the local customs and music of faraway Japan and had numerous gramophone discs brought from Tokyo to familiarise himself with Japanese folk music. He dedicated great effort to rendering Japanese colour. Madama Butterfly is a masterpiece when it comes to minute depiction of atmosphere and poetry.
The opera’s premiere on 17 February 1904 at Milan’s La Scala ended with stamping, booing and merciless criticism – it was upbraided for its lengthy scenes, redundant episodes in Act 1, and a general lack of drama. Puccini subsequently revised the opera, dividing it into three Acts and adding the tenor aria “Addio, fiorito asil” (Farewell, flowery refuge), in which the American officer Pinkerton bids farewell to the places where he has experienced beautiful moments of fatal happiness with the fifteen-year-old geisha Cio-Cio-San, alias Butterfly. The work’s new version was first performed on 28 May 1904 in Brescia to great acclaim. Its triumphant journey across the world was launched by the English premiere at Covent Garden in London on 10 July 1905, with Ema Destinnová and Enrico Caruso in the lead roles.