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Giacomo Puccini And The Struggle With Madama Butterfly

February 17, 1904 Madama Butterfly had its premiere at La Scala in Milan—“a date that marks one of the worst fiascos in the history of opera,” Mary Jane Phillips-Matz writes in The Puccini Companion. “The premiere was greeted by ‘roars, howls, laughter, bellowing, and guffaws.’ Almost none of his music could be heard, and any applause was answered with shouts of protest and jeers. Puccini described the experience as ‘a real lynching.’ According to The New York Times the opera was “booed off the stage.” . “The audience found its Wagnerian-length acts too long, and objected to the absence of a tenor aria. Some derided the Japanese folk elements.” Trouble began when listeners detected similarity between Butterfly’s entrance and the Act III duet of Bohème. “Puccini’s detractors cried out, ‘Bohème, Bohème!!,’” writes music theorist Chadwick Jenkins. “The Act I curtain fell to a mixture of hissing and scattered applause.” Cast and composer came out to “torrents of derisive laughter.” The Butterfly, Rosina Storchio, was heckled for looking pregnant, presumably from her publicized affair with conductor Arturo Toscanini.

Jump back 4 years to 1900, while in London, Puccini attended a performance of American theatrical producer and playwright David Belasco’s one-act play Madame Butterfly, which recounted the tale (derived from a short story of the same name by American author John Luther Long) of a Japanese girl’s ill-fated love for an American sailor. Although he knew no English, Puccini responded to the play’s poignancy and asked his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, to obtain the story’s operatic rights. Early in 1901 the composer and his favourite librettists, Illica and Giacosa, with whom he had previously worked with success on Manon Lescaut, La Bohème, and Tosca, set about creating Madama Butterfly.

Giacomo Puccini, 1908.

Puccini and his librettists took steps to introduce an element of realism into the new opera. Illica even travelled to Nagasaki to investigate local colour, while Puccini set about researching Japanese music. He visited with the wife of the Japanese ambassador to Italy, who sang Japanese folk songs to him. She also acquired for him sheet music for further study. Puccini’s music for the opera reflects what he had learned and even makes a few direct references to the Japanese songs he had been exposed to. To delineate the American characters, Puccini often used a bluff forthright manner of expression, and he occasionally worked in bits of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

For all his care in composing the opera, Puccini was stunned at its reception. The opening-night audience openly jeered, booing and hissing throughout the performance. Madama Butterfly’s Japanese theme was mocked, and its tragic heroine was derided as a secondhand copy of Mimì from La Bohème. Puccini withdrew the opera from performance after opening night, but he was not discouraged. Perhaps he was aware that jealous rivals had filled the house with their own noisy supporters. Nevertheless, he and his librettists began extensive revisions, most notably dividing the opera’s overly long second act. The new Madama Butterfly, which reached the stage in Brescia, Italy, on May 28, 1904, was a great success. Two more revisions would follow, in 1905 and 1906, before the opera reached its definitive form. All versions included “Un bel dì,” which remains one of the best-known arias in the soprano repertoire.

Setting and story summary

Madama Butterfly is set in and around a house on a hill overlooking the harbour at Nagasaki, Japan, in 1904.

Act I

On the flower-filled terrace of a Japanese house overlooking the harbour.

Goro, a marriage broker, is showing Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, an American naval officer, the house that Pinkerton has just bought for his honeymoon with his new Japanese bride, Cio-Cio-San (Madame Butterfly). After introducing the servants, including Suzuki, Goro describes the upcoming wedding—as well as the long list of relatives who will attend. Sharpless, the American consul, arrives, out of breath from his walk up the hill. The two Americans relax with drinks as Sharpless admires the view and the flimsy little house. Pinkerton has leased it for 999 years, with the option to cancel each month; contracts are flexible in Japan, he says. Pinkerton sings the praises of the “vagabond Yankee” who travels the world, taking his pleasure at every shore (“Dovunque al mondo”). He ignores Sharpless’s warning that such a shallow way of life can lead to sadness, and he boasts that his marriage contract, like the house, is for a term of 999 years but can be canceled any month. The two men toast “America forever” (to a few bars of “The Star-Spangled Banner”). When Sharpless asks Pinkerton if the bride is pretty, Goro interrupts and says she is not only beautiful but also cheap: only 100 yen, less than 50 dollars. Pinkerton orders Goro to bring his bride to him. Sharpless remarks on Pinkerton’s restlessness and asks if he is really in love. Pinkerton replies that he is not sure whether he acts on love or a whim (“Amore o grillo”) but that he knows his bride is as delicate as a figure on a Japanese screen, a little butterfly that he must chase and capture, even if it means breaking her wings.

Sharpless recalls Butterfly’s visit to the consulate a few days earlier. Although he never saw her, he was captivated by her voice and felt that she was really in love. He points out that it would be a shame to break her heart. But Pinkerton does not see the harm in his brand of “love.” Sharpless proposes a toast to Pinkerton’s family, and Pinkerton toasts the day on which he will marry, in a “real” wedding, an American bride.

Solomiya Krushelnytska as Butterfly c1904

Goro rushes in, announcing the arrival of Butterfly and her attendants. She is the happiest girl in Japan, she tells her friends, for she is answering the call of love. They all bow to Pinkerton, who is enchanted with Butterfly. She tells him about her family, which had once been prosperous; reversals had forced her and her friends to become geishas to support themselves. Her mother, though noble, is also very poor. When Sharpless asks about her father, she replies curtly, “Dead.” To break the tension, Sharpless asks how old she is. She engages in a little guessing game with the men, but finally she says that she is 15: “I am already old!” Sharpless is shocked, but Pinkerton thinks that she is at just the right age for marriage.

A parade of officials and relatives begins to arrive for the wedding: the Commissioner, the Registrar, Butterfly’s mother, her drunken uncle Yakuside, and her jealous and nitpicking cousins. As Goro vainly tries to quiet them, Sharpless remarks on how lucky Pinkerton is to have such a beautiful bride, and Pinkerton expresses his passion for her. Sharpless warns him that the marriage is no joke, for Butterfly believes in it. Pinkerton takes her aside for some private conversation. She shows him all of her possessions—a few trinkets, including a mysterious narrow box that she will not show him. When she brings it into the house, Goro whispers to Pinkerton that the box contains a knife; the emperor had given it to her father with the invitation to kill himself, and he had obeyed, committing ritual suicide. Butterfly returns to show Pinkerton figures that he thinks are dolls, but to Butterfly they represent hotoke—the souls of her ancestors. She tells him that she had secretly gone to the Christian mission the day before to convert to her new husband’s religion, for she wants to pray to the same god as he. For him, indeed, she would give up her family; she passionately throws herself into his arms.

Upon prompting by Goro, the brief marriage ceremony proceeds. As the relatives gather around Butterfly to congratulate her, Sharpless, as he is leaving, advises Pinkerton to be careful. After the guests have drunk a toast to the couple, the frightening voice of Butterfly’s uncle, the Bonze, is heard, accusing Butterfly of committing an abomination. Ignoring Pinkerton, the Bonze rushes in and announces to the shocked family that Butterfly has renounced their ancient religion. Pinkerton throws him out, and the Bonze leads the guests off, shouting imprecations at the weeping bride. The couple is finally alone, and Pinkerton comforts Butterfly. She goes into the house to undress for her wedding night, assisted by Suzuki. Pinkerton cannot believe that this “toy,” this child-bride, is his wife, and he is consumed with desire. When she returns, she urges him to love her, just a little. He kisses her hands and says that her name is right for her. She replies that she has heard that in other countries butterflies are caught and pinned to a board. He reassures her and urges her to come into the house as she gazes with ecstasy at the night sky. They sing a passionate duet and go into the house.

Act II

Three years later, in Butterfly’s house. Suzuki is sitting before a figure of Buddha, praying to the Japanese gods. Butterfly remarks that those gods are lazy, for she is convinced that her husband’s god will answer prayers much more quickly. They have not seen Pinkerton in three years. They are nearly out of money. Suzuki warns that if Butterfly’s husband does not return soon, they will be ruined. Butterfly is adamant that he will return, in spite of Suzuki’s belief that foreign husbands never do. She recalls that on their last morning together, he told her that he would return when the robins make their nest. When Suzuki begins to weep, Butterfly comforts her and says that one lovely day they will see his ship in the harbour, and he will come to her (“Un bel dì”).

Sharpless arrives, and Butterfly welcomes him to her “American” house. He tries to show her a letter, but she is so delighted over the consul’s visit that she continually interrupts him to offer a tobacco pipe or American cigarettes. He tells Butterfly that Pinkerton has written a letter announcing his marriage to an American woman, but she prattles on and asks him when the robins will build their nests. Goro is heard laughing outside. She tells Sharpless that Goro is a bad man, for as soon as Pinkerton left, he besieged her with marriage offers from other men, including one from the rich Prince Yamadori. But Butterfly has rejected them all, despite her extreme poverty and isolation from her family.

Yamadori arrives (accompanied by strains of the Japanese national anthem) to repeat his proposal, but Butterfly firmly states that she is already married. When Goro points out that Pinkerton’s abandonment is equivalent to a divorce under Japanese law, she firmly states that her law is that of the United States, where, she believes, a judge would throw an erring husband into prison. She then goes to help Suzuki with the tea. Sharpless tells Goro and Yamadori that Pinkerton, who will soon arrive in Japan, does not want to see Butterfly. Sharpless has come to make sure she understands. Yamadori leaves with a heavy heart when Butterfly repeats her refusal.

Sharpless begins to read the letter, with joyful interruptions from Butterfly (“Letter Duet”). Pinkerton writes that perhaps Butterfly has forgotten him—she is astounded that he might think that—and that he is relying on Sharpless “to prepare her.” At this, Butterfly jumps up and cries out with excitement that finally he is returning to her. Sharpless gives up, cursing Pinkerton, and asks Butterfly what she would do if Pinkerton never came back. Shocked, she replies that she could do one of two things: either go back to being a geisha or, better, die.

Embarrassed for her, Sharpless begs her to accept Yamadori’s proposal, but Butterfly is stunned and hurt and asks him to leave. Then, crying, “Has he forgotten me?” she runs out of the room and returns with her child, a blond, blue-eyed, curly-haired little boy. Pinkerton does not know about the child, for he left before her pregnancy was evident. She urges Sharpless to write to Pinkerton with the news. Then she imagines having to beg and sing in the streets to earn their living, and she swears that she would rather die. She tells Sharpless that today the child’s name is Trouble, but when his father returns, he will be called Joy. Sharpless takes his leave, promising to write to Pinkerton. Moments later, Suzuki rushes in, dragging Goro and cursing him, for he has been spreading the lie that no one knows the identity of Trouble’s father. Butterfly pulls out her father’s knife, shouts that Goro is a liar, and threatens to kill him; then she throws him out.

As she reassures the child that Pinkerton will take them far away, a cannon shot is heard. Butterfly and Suzuki rush to the door to look at the harbour; it is Pinkerton’s ship, the Abraham Lincoln. Butterfly’s love is vindicated. They fill the room with flowers (“Flower Duet”). Butterfly dresses in her wedding clothes and, with Suzuki and Trouble, sits by the door and waits, watching the harbour, throughout the night. (The “Humming Chorus” is heard in the distance.)


Dawn the next day, in Butterfly’s house.

Butterfly is still keeping vigil, standing motionless. Suzuki and Trouble are asleep. Sailors’ voices carry from the harbour. Suzuki awakens and taps Butterfly on the shoulder. “He’ll come,” Butterfly says. Suzuki urges her to rest. Butterfly takes her sleeping child into his room. Answering a knock at the door, Suzuki is astonished to see Pinkerton and Sharpless. She wants to call Butterfly, but they stop her. Then Suzuki spies a woman in the garden and is devastated to learn that she is Kate, Pinkerton’s new American wife. Sharpless urges her to help them persuade Butterfly to give up her child to Kate. Pinkerton, filled with remorse, rushes out (“Addio, fiorito asil”).

Kate Pinkerton comes in from the garden with the heartbroken Suzuki, promising to take good care of the little boy. Butterfly is heard calling for Suzuki; Kate leaves the room. Suzuki tries in vain to keep Butterfly from coming in, but Butterfly is frantically looking for Pinkerton. She sees only Suzuki, Sharpless, and a strange woman in the garden. When she is told that Pinkerton has arrived but will never return to her, Butterfly realizes that the woman in the garden is his wife and that she has come to take Butterfly’s son. She suppresses her anguish, for she must obey her husband. Kate timidly approaches and asks her forgiveness. Butterfly tells her, “Don’t be sad for me,” and asks that Pinkerton himself come for the child in a half hour.

When Kate and Sharpless leave, Butterfly is overcome by grief. She orders Suzuki to leave with the child. Before a lit lamp in front of a statue of Buddha, she takes out her father’s knife and reads the inscription: “Die with honour, when it is impossible to live with honour.” She is about to stab herself when Suzuki sends in Trouble. Butterfly drops the knife and gathers the child in her arms, kissing him and urging him to remember his mother’s face (“Tu? tu? tu?”). Tearfully saying goodbye and telling him to go play, she sits him by the door, places in his hands an American flag and a toy, and blindfolds him. She then returns to the altar and stabs herself. Dying, she crawls toward the child, embraces him, and falls beside him as Pinkerton is heard shouting for her. He and Sharpless rush into the room; Butterfly points to her child and dies as Pinkerton falls, sobbing, to his knees. Sharpless takes the child into his arms and kisses him.

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