With Tosca, first staged in Rome in January 1900, Giacomo Puccini had explicitly approached topics of clearly ‘verismo’ nature. With his next opera, Madama Butterfly, the composer felt a compulsion to return to more intimate, psychological themes that were more congenial to his own sensibilities. The search for a subject that would fully do justice to the talents of this refined painter of feeling and of female characters took Puccini quite some time: the discovery of Madama Butterfly was, in many senses, fortuitous. In 1900 the musician from Lucca was in London, for a performance of Tosca at Covent Garden. Despite the fact that he could hardly understand any English, the composer went one evening to watch a play be the American composer by the American playwright David Belasco, Madama Butterfly, presenting the tragic story of a Japanese geisha, married to and the abandoned in Westerner.
With his infallible instinct, Puccini immediately understood that the character in the title role, fragile and ingenious, yet also capable of unsuspected, tragic determination, would offer him the stimulus he needed to create an unforgettable opera. Contacts were taken up immediately with Belasco, but it took the American writer a year to grant permission for the operatic transposition of this Madame Butterfly. When this permission at last had been obtained, the work was passed to Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, Puccini’s two trusted librettists, who had already worked with him on Manon Lescaut (1893) and Tosca (1900).
Producing the score took Puccini about two years, with an interval of about eight months caused by a serious car accident that he was involved in. The first performance of the opera took place at La Scala in Milan, on the evening of 17th February 1904, featuring Rosina Storchio (Madama Butterfly), Giovanni Zenatello (Pinkerton) and Giuseppe De Luca (Sharpless). It was probably the most clamorous fiasco in Puccini’s entire career, and certainly the contribution of the claque played its part. Puccini immediately withdrew the opera from La Scala and set about revising the score, making a number of cuts and dividing the second act into two scenes. The composer also added what was to become one of the most famous pages in the opera, the short tenor arioso Addio, fiorti asil. In its new version the opera was stages in Brescia on 28th May of the same year, and here won enormous success. Puccini always considered it his best opera.