Music with Ease > 19th Century Italian Opera > Madame Butterfly (Puccini) - Synopsis
Madame Butterfly -
(Original Italian title: Madama Butterfly)
An Opera by Giacomo Puccini
Opera in two acts, by Giacomo Puccini, words after the story of John Luther Long and the drama of David Belasco by L. Illica and G. Giacosa. English version by Mrs. R.H. Elkin. Produced unsuccessfully, La Scala, Milan, February 17, 1904, with Storchio, Zenatello, and De Luca, conductor Cleofante Campanini. Slightly revised, but with Act II divided into two distinct parts, at Brescia, May 28, 1904, with Krusceniski, Zenatello, and Bellati; when it scored a success. Covent Garden, London, July 10, 1905, with Destinn, Caruso, and Scotti, conductor Campanini. Washington, D.C., October, 1906, in English, by the Savage Opera Company, and by the same company, Garden Theatre, New York, November 12, 1906, with Elsa Szamozy, Harriet Behne, Joseph F. Sheehan, and Winifred Goff; Metropolitan Opera House, New York, February 11, 1907, with Farrar (Butterfly), Homer (Suzuki), Caruso (Pinkerton), Scotti (Sharpless), and Reiss (Goro).
MADAM BUTTERFLY (Cio-Cio-San)
SUZUKI (her servant)
B. F. PINKERTON, Lieutenant, U.S.N
SHARPLESS (U. S. Consul at Nagasaki)
GORO ( a marriage broker)
THE BONZE (Cio-Cios uncle)
THE IMPERIAL COMMISSIONER
THE OFFICIAL REGISTRAR, member of the Chorus
CIO-CIO-SANS MOTHER, member of the Chorus
THE AUNT, member of the Chorus
THE COUSIN, member of the Chorus
TROUBLE (Cio-Cio-Sans Child)
Cio-Cio Sans relations and friends. Servants.
Time: Nineteenth century.
Madame Butterfly, Act I, with Francis Maclennan, Renée Vivienne, and Thomas Richards.
Although "Madama Butterfly" is in two acts, the division of the second act into two parts by the fall of the curtain, there also being an instrumental introduction to part second, practically gives the opera three acts.
Act I. There is a prelude, based on a Japanese theme. This theme runs through the greater part of the act. It is employed as a background and as a connecting link, with the result that it imparts much exotic tone colour to the scenes. The prelude passes over into the first act without a break.
Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton, U.S.N., is on the point of contracting a "Japanese marriage" with Cio-Cio-San, whom her friends call Butterfly. At the rise of the curtain Pinkerton is looking over a little house on a hill facing the harbour. This house he has leased and is about to occupy with his Japanese wife. Goro, the nakodo or marriage broker, who has arranged the match, also has found the house for him and is showing him over it, enjoying the Americans surprise at the clever contrivances found in Japanese house construction. Three Japanese servants are in the house, one of whom is Suzuki, Butterflys faithful maid.
Sharpless, the American Consul at Nagasaki, arrives. In the chat which follows between the two men it becomes apparent that Sharpless looks upon the step Pinkerton is about to take with disfavour. He argues that what may be a mere matter of pastime to the American Naval lieutenant, may have been taken seriously by the Japanese girl and, if so, may prove a matter of life or death with her. Pinkerton on the other hand laughs off his friends fears and, having poured out drinks for both, recklessly pledges his real American wife of the future. Further discussion is interrupted by the arrival of the bride with her relatives and friends.
After greetings have been exchanged, the Consul on conversing with Butterfly becomes thoroughly convinced that he was correct in cautioning Pinkerton. For he discovers that she is not contemplating the usual Japanese marriage of arrangement, but, actually being in love with Pinkerton, is taking it with complete seriousness. She has even gone to the extent, as she confides to Pinkerton, of secretly renouncing her religious faith, the faith of her forefathers, and embracing his, before entering on her new life with him. This step, when discovered by her relatives, means that she has cut herself loose from all her old associations and belongings, and entrusts herself and her future entirely to her husband.
Minor officials whose duty it is to see that the marriage contract, even though it be a "Japanese marriage," is signed with proper ceremony, arrive. In the midst of drinking and merry-making on the part of all who have come to the wedding, they are started by fierce imprecations from a distance and gradually drawing nearer. A weird figure, shouting and cursing wildly, appears upon the scene. It is Butterflys uncle, the Bonze (Japanese priest). He has discovered her renunciation of faith, now calls down curses upon her head for it, and insists that all her relatives, even her immediate family, renounce her. Pinkerton enraged at the disturbance turns them out of the house. The air shakes with their imprecations as they depart. Butterfly is weeping bitterly, but Pinkerton soon is enabled to comfort her. The act closes with a passionate love scene.
The Japanese theme, which I have spoken of as forming the introduction to the act, besides, the background to the greater part of it, in fact up to the scene with the Bonze, never becomes monotonous because it is interrupted by several other musical episodes. Such are the short theme to which Pinkerton sings "Tutto e Pronto" (All is ready), and the skippy little theme when Goro tells Pinkerton about those who will be present at the ceremony. When Pinkerton sings, "The whole world over, on business or pleasure the Yankee travels," a motif based on the "Star Spangled Banner," is heard for the first time.
In the duet between Pinkerton and Sharpless, which Pinkerton begins with the words, "Amore o grillo" (Love or fancy), Sharplesss serious argument and its suggestion of the possibility of Butterflys genuine love for Pinkerton are well brought out in the music. When Butterfly and her party arrive, her voice soars above those of the others to the strains of the same theme which occurs as a climax to the love duet at the end of the act and which, in the course of the opera, is heard on other occasions so intimately associated with herself and her emotions that it may be regarded as a motif, expressing the love she has conceived for Pinkerton.
Full of feeling is the music of her confession to Pinkerton that she has renounced the faith of her forefathers, in order to be a fit wife for the man she loves:-- "Ieri son salita" (Hear what I would tell you). An episode, brief but of great charm, is the chorus "Kami! O Kami! Lets drink to the newly married couple." Then comes the interruption of the cheerful scene by the appearance of the Bonze, which forms a dramatic contrast.
It is customary with Puccini to create "atmosphere" of time and place through the medium of the early scenes of his operas. It is only necessary to recall the opening episodes in the first acts of "La Bohème" and "Tosca." He has done the same thing in "Madam Butterfly," by the employment of the Japanese theme already referred to, and by the crowded episodes attending the arrival of Butterfly and the performance of the ceremony. These episodes are full of action and colour, and distinctly Japanese in the impression they make. Moreover, they afford the only opportunity throughout the entire opera to employ the chorus upon the open stage. It is heard again in the second act, but only behind the scenes and humming in order to give the effect of distance.
The love scene between Pinkerton and Butterfly is extended. From its beginning, "Viene la sera" (Evening is falling),
to the end, its interest never flags. It is full of beautiful melody charged with sentiment and passion, yet varied with lighter passages, like Butterflys "I am like the moons little goddess"; "I used to think if anyone should want me"; and the exquisite, "Vogliatemi bene" (Ah, love me a little). There is a beautiful melody for Pinkerton, "Love, what fear holds you trembling." The climax of the love duet is reached in two impassioned phrases:-- "Dolce notte! Quante stelle" (Night of rapture, stars unnumbered),
and "Oh! Quanti occhi fisi, attenti" (Oh, kindly heavens).
Act II. Part I. Three years have elapsed. It is a long time since Pinkerton has left Butterfly with the promise to return to her "when the robins nest." When the curtain rises, after an introduction, in which another Japanese theme is employed, Suzuki, although convinced that Pinkerton has deserted her mistress, is praying for his return. Butterfly is full of faith and trust. In chiding her devoted maid for doubting that Pinkerton will return, she draws in language and song a vivid picture of his home-coming and of their mutual joy therein: - "Un bel di vedremo" (Some day hell come).
In point of fact, Pinkerton really is returning to Nagasaki, but with no idea of resuming relations with his Japanese wife. Indeed, before leaving America he has written to Sharpless asking him to let Butterfly know that he is married to an American wife, who will join him in Nagasaki. Sharpless calls upon Butterfly, and attempts to deliver his message, but is unable to do so because of the emotions aroused in Butterfly by the very sight of a letter from Pinkerton. It throws her into a transport of joy because, unable immediately to grasp its contents, she believes that in writing he has remembered her, and must be returning to her. Sharpless endeavours to make the true situation clear to her, but is interrupted by a visit from Yamadori, a wealthy Japanese suitor, whom Goro urges Butterfly to marry. For the money left by Pinkerton with his little Japanese wife has dwindled almost to nothing, and poverty stares her in the face. But she will not hear of an alliance with Yamadori. She protests that she is already married to Pinkerton, and will await his return.
When Yamadori has gone, Sharpless makes one more effort to open her eyes to the truth. They have a duet, "Ora a noi" (Now at last), in which he again produces the letter, and attempts to persuade her that Pinkerton has been faithless to her and has forgotten her. Her only reply is to fetch in her baby boy, born since Pinkertons departure. Her argument is that when the boys father hears what a fine son is waiting for him in Japan, he will hasten back. She sings to trouble, as the little boy is called:-"Sai cos ebbe cuore" (Do you hear, my sweet one, what that bad man is saying). Sharpless makes a final effort to disillusion her, but in vain. If Pinkerton does not come back, there are two things, she says, she can do -- return to her old life and sing for people, or die. She sings a touching little lullaby to her baby boy, Suzuki twice interrupting her with the pathetically voiced exclamation, "Poor Madam Butterfly!"
A salute of cannon from the harbour announces the arrival of a man-of-war. Looking through the telescope, Butterfly and Suzuki discover that it is Pinkertons ship, the "Abraham Lincoln." Now Butterfly is convinced that Sharpless is wrong. Her faith is about to be rewarded. The man she loves is returning to her. The home must be decorated and made cheerful and attractive to greet him. She and Suzuki distribute cherry blossoms wherever their effect will be most charming. The music accompanying this is the enchanting duet of the flowers, "Scuotti quella fronda diciliegio" (Shake that cherry tree till every flower). Most effective is the phrase, "Gettiamo a mani piene mammole e tuberose" (In handfuls let us scatter violets and white roses.)
Butterfly adorns herself and the baby boy. Then with her fingers she pierces three holes in the paper wall of the dwelling. She, Suzuki, and the baby peer through these, watching for Pinkertons arrival. Night falls. Suzuki and the boy drop off to sleep. Butterfly rigid, motionless, waits and watches, her faith still unshaken, for the return of the man who has forsaken her. The pathos of the scene is profound; the music, with the hum of voices, borne upon the night from the distant harbour, exquisite.
Act II. Part II. When the curtain rises, night has passed, dawn is breaking. Suzuki and the baby are fast asleep, but Butterfly still is watching. Again Puccini employs a Japanese melody (the "vigil" theme).
When Suzuki awakes, she persuades the poor little "wife" to go upstairs to rest, which Butterfly does only upon Suzukis promise to awaken her as soon as Pinkerton arrives. Pinkerton and Sharpless appear. Suzuki at first is full of joyful surprise, which, however, soon gives way to consternation, when she learns the truth. Pinkerton himself, seeing about him the proofs of Butterflys complete loyalty to him, realizes the heartlessness of his own conduct. There is a dramatic trio for Pinkerton, Sharpless, and Suzuki. Pinkerton who cannot bear to face the situation, rushes away, leaving it to Sharpless to settle matters as best he can.
Butterfly has become aware that people are below. Suzuki tries to prevent her coming down, but she appears radiantly happy, for she expects to find her husband. The pathos of the scene in which she learns the truth is difficult to describe. But she does not burst into lamentations. With a gentleness which has been characteristic of her throughout, she bears the blow. She even expresses the wish to Kate, Pinkertons real wife, that she may experience all happiness, and sends word to Pinkerton that, if he will come for his son in half an hour, he can have him.
Sharpless and Mrs. Pinkerton withdraw. In a scene of tragic power, Butterfly mortally wounds herself with her fathers sword, the blade of which bears the inscription, "To die with honour when one can no longer live with honour," drags herself across the floor to where the boy is playing with his toys and waving a little American flag, and expires just as Pinkerton enters to take away the son whom thus she gives up to him.
For examples that already have been given of modern Italian opera, it is clear that "atmosphere," local colour, and character delineation are typical features of the art of Italys lyric stage as it flourishes today. In "Madama Butterfly" we have exotic tone colour to a degree that has been approached but not equaled by Verdi in "Aida." Certain brief scenes in Verdis opera are Egyptian in tone colour. In "Madama Butterfly" Japanese themes are used in extenso, and although the thrilling climaxes in the work are distinctively Italian, the Japanese under-current, dramatic and musical, always is felt. In that respect compare "Madama Butterfly" with a typical old Italian opera like "Lucia di Lammermoor" the scene of which is laid in Scotland, but in which there is nothing Scotch save the costumes -- no "atmosphere," no local colour. These things are taken seriously by modern Italian composers, who do not ignore melody, yet also appreciate the value of an eloquent instrumental support to the voice score; whereas the older Italian opera composers were content to distribute melody with a lavish hand and took little else into account.
In character delineation in the opera Butterfly dominates. She is a sweet, trusting, pathetic little creature -- traits expressed in the music as clearly as in the drama. The sturdy devotion of Suzuki is, if possible, brought out in an even stronger light in the opera than in the drama, and Sharpless is admirably drawn. Pinkerton, of course, cannot be made sympathetic. All that can be expected of him is that he be a tenor, and sing the beautiful music allotted to him in the first act with tender and passionate expression.
I "did" the first night of David Belascos play "Madam Butterfly" for the New York Herald. The production occurred at the Herald Square Theatre, Broadway and Thirty-fifth Street, New York, March 5, 1900, with Blanche Bates as Butterfly. It was given with "Naughty Anthony," a farce-comedy also by Belasco, which had been a failure. The tragedy had been constructed with great rapidity from John Luther Longs story, but its success was even swifter. At the Duke of Yorks Theatre, London, it was seen by Francis Nielsen, stage-manager of Covent Garden, who immediately sent word to Puccini urging him to come from Milan to London to see a play which, in his hands, might well become a successful opera. Puccini came at once, with the result that he created a work which has done its full share toward making the modern Italian lyric stage as flourishing as all unprejudiced critics concede it to be.
The Milan production pf "Madama Butterfly" was an utter failure. The audience hooted, the prima donna was in tears. The only person behind the scenes not disconcerted was the composer, whose faith in his work was so soon to be justified.
Madame Butterfly Poster
The beautiful cover of an early Italian edition of the music and words for Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly (Madame Butterfly).
Artist: Leopoldo Metlicovitz. Date: 1904.
Buy this Madame Butterfly poster