Madama Butterfly at a glance
Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca, Tuscany, on 22 December 1858. The fifth of seven children, he was born to a family that had supplied his native city with musicians –church organists, conductors and composers, mainly of sacred music– for the previous four generations. He remains to this day one of the most renowned composers of Italian opera, as his works are regularly performed throughout the world. His musical style was already clearly developed by his third opera, Manon Lescaut (1893), while his next three compositions, La bohème (1896), Tosca(1900) and Madama Butterfly (1904), firmly established Puccini as Verdi’s heir. The beautiful melodies and intense theatricality that define his operas successfully met the demands of their time. His last opera, Turandot (1926), remained incomplete due to his death in 1924.
A tragedia giapponese to a libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, Madama Butterfly is based on the one-act play Madame Butterfly (1900) by American playwright David Belasco, itself based on an 1898 short story by another American writer, John Luther Long. This, in turn, was partly based on Pierre Loti’s French novel Madame Chrysanthème (1887). The opera recounts the tragic love of Cio-Cio-San, a fifteen-year-old geisha, for Pinkerton, an American naval officer. After a three-year absence the officer returns to Japan with his American wife, having learned that he has a son by Butterfly. She agrees to give Pinkerton the child, but commits suicide shortly afterwards.
Madama Butterfly’s first, two-act version received its premiere at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, on 17 February 1904. A revised, three-act version was performed on 28 May 1904 at the Teatro Grande, Brescia. The version in which the opera is usually presented nowadays is based on the Opéra Comique version, which was staged in Paris on 28 December 1906.
Nagasaki, early 20th century. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, a lieutenant in the United States Navy, is arranging with Goro, a Japanese marriage broker, the last details of his upcoming marriage with Cio-Cio-San, a fifteen-year-old geisha also known as Butterfly. Pinkerton informs Sharpless, the United States consul, that in Japan a husband can break up his marriage anytime. In vain Sharpless tries to warn him that the adolescent girl is bound to take the marriage seriously.
The bride arrives with her friends and relatives. She shows Pinkerton her few possessions, including the narrow sheath that contains the dagger with which her father killed himself. Right after the ceremony the Bonze, Butterfly’s uncle, arrives and denounces her for having forsworn her faith, urging the rest of her relatives to do the same. Cio-Cio-San is left alone with Pinkerton, who tries to comfort her. Suzuki, her maid, helps her dress for her wedding night and Butterfly joins Pinkerton in the garden.
Three years later, in the same residence, Cio-Cio-San is alone with Suzuki. Even though Pinkerton left for his home country shortly after the wedding and never returned, Cio-Cio-San remains faithful to him and dreams of the day that she will see him once again. Sharpless appears: he wants to prepare her for Pinkerton’s return with his American wife. Cio-Cio-San refuses to listen and shows Sharpless her son by Pinkerton. She decorates the house for his arrival and settles to a night of waiting next to Suzuki and the child.
As morning breaks, Cio-Cio-San, who stayed up all night, takes her son to another room and sings him to sleep. Pinkerton and Sharpless appear and ask Suzuki to speak to the former’s American wife. Pinkerton recalls the past. Filled with remorse, he chooses not to face Cio-Cio-San and leaves. Butterfly enters, looking for her husband. Much to her dismay she sees the strange woman in the garden and is informed by Sharpless and Suzuki that Pinkerton will never return to her. She seems to accept the situation and even agrees to give Pinkerton their son, if he comes to take him himself. She then asks to be left alone and decides to end her life. In an effort to stop her, Suzuki sends in her son. Butterfly bids him farewell, ties his eyes and commits suicide just as Pinkerton arrives