Program Notes: Madame Butterfly

Program Notes: Madame Butterfly

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Full program notes:

Giacomo Puccini

Giacomo Puccini
Born: December 22, 1858, Lucca, Italy
Died: November 29, 1924, Brussels

Madame Butterfly

Shakespeare aficionados will recall that famous line in Othello where the title character observes that he “loved not wisely, but too well.” Much the same could be said for tonight’s opera heroine. Gentle, delicate, intensely loyal and totally trusting, Butterfly is only a temporary plaything to the American naval officer whom she loves deeply. How this love begins, develops and ends is the subject of one of the most popular operas in the repertory.

This was Puccini’s own favorite among his operas. Into Butterfly he poured the utmost effort and devotion. In preparation, he immersed himself in the music, religion, customs and language of Japan. He listened to gramophone records of authentic Japanese music provided by the Italian branch of HMV. He traveled to Milan to interview a Japanese actress visiting there to familiarize himself with vocal inflections of the language. He even sampled Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, though this hardly provided an authentically Japanese experience.

Puccini had a penchant for setting his operas in “exotic” foreign lands: Amiens and Paris for Manon Lescaut, Paris again for La Bohème and Il Tabarro, New Orleans for the final act of Manon Lescaut, California for The Girl of the Golden West, and ancient Peking for Turandot. His choice of Japan for an operatic setting was timely. Japan had opened its doors to the West only a few decades earlier, and all things Japanese were now of fascinating interest to Europeans.

from rocky start to roaring success

In early 1900, while he was in London to oversee a Tosca production, Puccini saw David Belasco’s one-act play Madame Butterfly and was immediately struck by its potential for an opera. A contract was arranged, and his collaborators for La Bohème and Tosca, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, were reengaged to prepare the libretto. The premiere, at La Scala on February 17, 1904, should have been a big success, but the opera failed miserably. The most blatant faults cited were the length of the second act, moments of mirth caused by malfunctioning props, and a large contingent of the audience predisposed to ensuring failure.

But Puccini had faith in his work. “Don’t worry, Madame Butterfly is alive and will soon resurface,” he wrote to a friend. Indeed, within a few months he had prepared a revision that included, among other things, separation into three acts, a big new aria for Pinkerton in Act III and a trio for Suzuki, Pinkerton and Sharpless, also in Act III. On May 28, 1904, Madame Butterfly got its second chance in Brescia. Five scenes had to be repeated. The roaring success it enjoyed that night has been sustained now for more than a century.

Butterfly fluttered over to American soil in 1906, when it was given in Washington, D.C., in English, at the Belasco Theater. It entered the repertory of the Metropolitan Opera in New York a year later with an all-star cast that included Geraldine Farrar, Louise Homer, Enrico Caruso and Antonio Scotti. The Japanese first saw a portion of Butterfly in 1914 at the Imperial Theater in Tokyo, the complete opera was not seen there until 1936. When war broke out between Japan and the U.S., Butterfly was not performed in either country until after hostilities ceased.

Today Japan welcomes the opera ardently. In Nagasaki, where the story takes place, there is a “Madame Butterfly” house, based on a real-life model of the presumed original. In 1996, a statue of Puccini was erected nearby. And for the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, the opera’s most famous number, “Un bel dì,” was performed while the flame was lit.

What makes Madame Butterfly so hugely popular? For starters, all those wonderful tunes, of course. Then there is the sumptuous orchestration, the alluring evocations of Japan, the highly sympathetic title character, and the vile Pinkerton, the kind of cur you love to hate.

But above all, Butterfly stands out for the psychological truth with which Puccini imbued his heroine. There is an unforgettable air of fragility to Butterfly, a fragrance emitted by the magical, perfumed air in which she moves. Yet her calm, gentle exterior belies an inner toughness and resilience. “Even the strongest among us find sympathy for Mimi or Butterfly,” writes opera scholar Sandra Corse, “because Puccini’s music effectively transforms the sentimentality of the text; the death, loss, and grieving which make the librettos almost insufferable when read alone are transformed by the music into great drama.”


ACT I – American Navy Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton has come to Nagasaki, where he is about to take possession of a house purchased for him by Goro—who, also a marriage broker, has arranged a Japanese-style ceremony for Pinkerton with 15-year-old Cio-Cio-San (Japanese for “Miss Butterfly”). Pinkerton is accompanied by the American consul Sharpless. Over a glass of whiskey, Pinkerton shares with Sharpless his callous, carefree attitude to love (“Dovunque al mondo”). He is a navy man who roams the world in search of pleasure. Sharpless cautions him that what he takes casually—the marriage bond—Butterfly takes with total sincerity.

Pinkerton brushes this admonishment aside and drinks to the day when he will have a “real” American wife. Butterfly arrives with an entourage of friends and relatives, who make a great, noisy fuss over the nuptials about to take place. Butterfly shares an intimate moment with Pinkerton, showing him her few cherished, worldly possessions—the dagger with which her father committed hara-kiri, some dolls for ritual events, a sash. She also tells him that she is prepared to forsake the religion of her people and to accept his. The Imperial Commissioner arrives and conducts the ceremony. Immediately afterward, Butterfly’s uncle, the priest Yakuside, bursts in, cursing Butterfly for renouncing her faith. Pinkerton orders the old man to be gone. It is now time for the big love duet, the longest in any Puccini opera, and one of the loveliest, progressing through several clearly defined moods to its passionate conclusion at the end of the act.

ACT II – Three years have passed. Butterfly waits patiently for the return of Pinkerton, by whom she has had a son. Her maid Suzuki gently reminds Butterfly that money is fast running out, and that foreign “husbands” never come back to Japan. At these words Butterfly bristles and almost attacks Suzuki, for the first time showing the steel beneath her gentle exterior. To the opera’s most famous number, “Un bel dì,” Butterfly paints a rosy picture of how she imagines Pinkerton’s return will be. Sharpless enters with a letter from Pinkerton.

Before he can read her the bad news, Butterfly asks when robins nest in America— that is when Pinkerton promised to return to Japan. Goro, standing nearby, snickers. Ever practical, and probably looking to earn more fees, he has been prospecting for suitable Japanese men to marry Butterfly. One of these is Prince Yamadori, who puts in a brief appearance. When confronted with legal technicalities, Butterfly blithely asserts that she is still married under American law. Sharpless returns to his sad duty to inform Butterfly that Pinkerton is about to return to Japan, but not to her. Furious at Pinkerton for his callow behavior, Sharpless stops short of telling Butterfly the truth. He asks her what she would do, theoretically, if Pinkerton abandoned her. “I would return to the entertainment trade,” she replies, “or I would die.”

When Sharpless delicately suggests perhaps it would be for the best if she accepted Yamadori, she is deeply hurt. A cannon short in the harbor announces the arrival of Pinkerton’s ship. It is evening. In preparation for receiving her husband after his long absence, Butterfly orders Suzuki to decorate the house with blossoms (“Scuoti quella fronda”). As night falls, Butterfly, Suzuki and the child hold a vigil to the exquisite strains of the Humming Chorus.

ACT III – At dawn, Butterfly rouses Suzuki but lets the child continue sleeping. As Butterfly goes into another room, there is a knock at the door. Suzuki admits Pinkerton and Sharpless and learns that Pinkerton’s American wife (Kate) has accompanied him to Japan. In the only individual ensemble number in the opera, Suzuki and the two men discuss how to break the news to Butterfly and how her son should be cared for.

Sharpless berates Pinkerton for the grief that Butterfly will soon know, and Pinkerton meekly acknowledges his crime against morality in the aria “Addio fiorito” (Farewell, flowery refuge of happiness and love”). In a tense scene punctuated by silences, Butterfly inquires where her husband is hiding and who this strange woman (Kate) is. With a shock of disbelief, she realizes the truth. All leave except Butterfly. She gets the knife with which her father had committed suicide, kisses it, and reads the inscription: “In honor dies he who cannot live in honor.” Butterfly sings a heartfelt farewell to her son, who has come running in (“Piccolo Iddio!”), then sends him out to play while she ends her life.

Conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli, who was also a licensed psychiatrist, commented on how “Butterfly is a prime example of loss and deprivation. She is always losing something: her home, her religion, her family, her society, her culture. Later on she loses Pinkerton, and even her son. Finally she loses her will to live, and commits suicide. Far from being merely a theatrically spectacular ending, it is the apex, and the nadir, of the drama of psychological development.”

Robert Markow

About the author

Montreal-based Robert Markow, whose program notes have appeared in Showcase for more than 15 years, is a former horn player with the Montreal Symphony who also taught at Montreal’s McGill University for many years. He is a program annotator for numerous orchestras and musical organizations in Canada, the U.S. and Asia, in addition to writing for leading music journals including Fanfare in the U.S., Opera in London and Der neue Merker in Vienna. He has led music tours to several countries and continues to travel regularly to Europe, Asia and Australia in search of musical stimulation, and to bakeries throughout the world for gustatory stimulation.