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ClassicsOnline Home » PUCCINI, G.: Madama Butterfly (Highlights)
"Naxos adds yet another feather to its multi-plumed cap."
"No matter how many Butterflies you have in your collection make sure you net this one..... Frankly a devastating bargain."
Giacomo Puccini (1858 -1924)
Madama Butterfly (Highlights)
Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica
Madama Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San) ………………………………. Miriam
F. B. Pinkerton ………………………………………………….
Goro ………………………………………………………….... Jozef
Mother of Cio-Cio-San ………………………………………… Anna
Aunt of Cio-Cio-San ……………………………………………
Cousin of Cio-Cio-San ……………………………………….… Elena
Slovak Philharmonic Chorus
Jan Rozehnal, Chorus-Master
Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava)
Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca in 1858 into a family with long-established
musical traditions extending back at least to the early eighteenth century. It
was natural that he should follow this tradition and become a musician, and
after the death of his father, when the boy was five, it was arranged that he
should inherit the position of organist at the church of S Martino, which
meanwhile would be held for him by his uncle. He was trained as a chorister and
as an organist, and only turned to more ambitious composition at the age of
seventeen. A performance of Verdi's opera Aida in Pisa in 1876 inspired
operatic aspirations, which could only be pursued adequately at a major musical
centre. Four years later he was able to enter the conservatory in Milan,
assisted financially by an uncle and by a scholarship. There his teachers were
Antonio Bazzini, director of the conservatory from 1882 and now chiefly
remembered by other violinists for one attractive addition to their repertoire,
and Amilcare Ponchielli, then near the end of his career.
Puccini's first opera was Le villi, an operatic treatment of a subject
better known nowadays from the ballet Giselle by Adam. It failed to win
the competition for which it had been entered, but won, instead, a staging,
through the agency of Boito, and publication by Ricordi, who commissioned the
opera Edgar, produced at La Scala in 1889 to relatively little effect. It
was in 1893 that Puccini won his first great success with his version of the
Abbé Prévost's Manon Lescaut, a work that established him as a possible
successor to Verdi. La bohème followed in 1896.
Tosca was first staged in Rome in 1900, and was followed four years later
by Madama Butterfly. A sensational court case, after the suicide of a
servant-girl falsely accused by Puccini's wife of a close relationship with her
husband, was partly instrumental in delaying further composition, until the
completion of La fanciulla del West, a work set in the Wild West and
first performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1910. La rondine was
staged at Monte Carlo in 1917 and the triple-bill Il trittico in New York
the following year. Puccini's last opera, which he was unable to complete before
his death in 1924, was Turandot, set in China, but based on a play by the
18th century Venetian dramatist Gozzi.
The remoter origin of Madama Butterfly was a short story by the
American writer John Luther Long, who himself had a certain debt to the French
writer Pierre Loti, a more significant literary figure. Loti's Madame
Chrysanthème takes a very cynical view of the temporary marriage of a
foreigner and a Japanese girl, and this novel provided the substance of an opera
by André Messager in 1893. Long's magazine story was dramatized by David
Belasco, and Puccini saw the play during the course of a visit to London in
1900. At the time he was in search of a new subject for opera, considering in
turn Daudet's Tartarin de Tarascon, a Zola novel and the fate of the
French Queen Marie Antoinette. By March 1901 matters had advanced far enough for
Puccini to send his librettist Illica a translation of Long's story, while
assuring him that changes made by Belasco for the play were distinct
improvements. Illica started work on the basis of the story, which has distinct
differences from the play and, in the end, from the opera. Puccini's publisher,
Giulio Ricordi, and Illica were finally convinced of the viability of the
subject only when they had read an Italian translation of Belasco's play, which
they first saw in June that year. The first part of the libretto reached the
composer in October and the completed version the following summer. As in
earlier libretti, Illica collaborated with the well known dramatist Giuseppe
Giacosa, the latter responsible for versification of the scenario provided.
Puccini's work on Madama Butterfly, hampered at first by delays in the
completion of the libretto, was further interrupted when the composer, an
enthusiastic motoring pioneer, was injured in an accident. It was with some
difficulty that he was able to complete the orchestration of the opera in time
for rehearsals for the première at La Scala. In the event 17th February 1904
brought an operatic disaster, with hostile members of the first-night audience
claiming to find immediate repetitions of La bohème, and increasing
disapproval shown as the work continued. The evocation of the Japanese
countryside by the placing of bird-noises in the auditorium inspired members of
the audience to add their own farmyard imitations, and the performance continued
amid uproar. It was suspected that the supporters of Mascagni had some hand in
this hostile reception at a time when La Scala remained plagued by contending
There were to be various revisions of the work for subsequent performances.
At the composer's request, Madama Butterfly was immediately withdrawn
from the season at La Scala. Performances in Brescia in May were successful,
however, and Puccini himself insisted that future productions should allow him
control over casting, a provision that both delayed and ensured the opera's
continued success in Italy and abroad.
Madama Butterfly deals with the liaison between the American Pinkerton
and his Japanese wife, Cio-Cio-San, an arrangement that she sees as permanent
but which he regards as a matter of temporary convenience. Pinkerton deserts
Cio-Cio-San, who bears him a son, returning finally with his new wife, Kate, to
whom Butterfly surrenders the boy, before choosing death for herself. Problems
arose with the character of Pinkerton, whose rôle can hardly be heroic, while
attention and sympathy inevitably must centre on the fifteen-year-old geisha,
Cio-Cio-San, a rôle allotted finally to a dramatic soprano. Sympathetic
understanding of both is embodied in the American consul Sharpless, while, in
the final version of the opera, the part of Kate is considerably reduced. The
tragedy deals, in fact, with a series of misunderstandings. Cio-Cio-San, with
her idealised view of America, remains truly Japanese in outlook, while
Pinkerton fails completely to understand or value her own simpler view of life.
Sharpless alone can hold a balanced view of events and their predictable
The period is the present (1904). The scene is outside a small Japanese
house, set on a hill overlooking the port of Nagasaki. There is a terrace and a
garden, and, in the distance below, the harbour and city. The obsequious
marriage-broker Goro shows the American Pinkerton the delights of the little
house on the hill, and he is surprised at what he sees, to the delight of Goro,
who explains further. Goro gives the signal for the new servants to come in his
wife's servant, a cook and a man-servant, Gentle Cloud, Rising Sun and Wafted
Spices. The first of these, Suzuki, remains kneeling and embarks on a long
speech, praising Pinkerton’s smile. Pinkerton shows impatience and Goro,
sensing this, claps his hands again, and the three servants retire at once into
the house. All women are alike. Pinkerton remarks, and Goro now expects the
imminent arrival of Cio-Cio-San, since all is now ready. Goro now announces the
approach of the wedding-party. Pinkerton is joined by the American consul
Sharpless, telling him of the variable nature of Japanese contracts, for houses
or in marriage. Pinkerton now sings in praise of the life of a roving Yankee (Dovullque
al Imondo), anchoring where he will. He offers sharpless milk punch or
whisky, and goes on to explain how some day he will sail away; life is to enjoy,
a view that sharpless finds a simple gospel, but destroying the heart.
Pinkerton, however, is happy to enjoy an arrangement that he has undertaken,
like the house, on a lease of 999 years that may be abrogated at a month’s
notice. They raise their glasses to America, to the continued strains of The
Pinkerton and Sharpless sit once more, and the latter asks if the bride is
beautiful (Ed’e bella la sposa?), bringing from Goro praise of her
beauty, comparable to a garland of fresh flowers, a star with golden beams, and
only costing a hundred yen. He offers sharpless an assortment of such beauties.
Pinkerton impatiently tells him to fetch Butterfly and he hurries away.
Sharpless warns Pinkerton that, once married, he will find Butterfly a tartar,
but Pinkertoll will not believe him. Pinkerton sings of his love or passing
fancy, the delicacy of Cio-Cio-San, like a figure on a Japanese screen, a
graceful butterfly (Amore o grillo). Sharpless warns Pinkerton
that the girl's love is not to be taken lightly. The latter offers his guest
whisky and they drink to Pinkerton's family in America and to his future wife, a
Goro rushes in to announce the imminent arrival of the wedding-party (Ecco!
Son giunte al sommo del pendio). Butterfly's friends are heard
praising the beauty of the scene, the sky, the sea, with Butterfly adding her
own voice to their admiration: she is the happiest girl in Japan, in the world,
at the call of love. The procession gradually comes into view, many of the girls
carrying different coloured parasols. They see Pinkerton, shut their parasols,
and, after Butterfly, greet him.
The marriage ceremony takes place, interrupted only by the appearance of
Cio-Cio-san's uncle, a Bonze, who curses her for rejecting her own religion and
country and urges the guests to leave at once. Cio-Cio-san is disturbed by what
her uncle has said: now she is isolated, a renegade. Pinkerton tells her not to
cry (Bimba, bimba, non piangere), since all her family and all the Bonzes
in Japan are not worth her tears. She begins to be comforted, kissing his hand,
a sign, she thinks, of respect among educated people. The voice of Suzuki is
heard, at her prayers, as Butterfly explains to Pinkerton. It grows darker, as
he leads her towards their house. Now the evening is drawing on (Viene la
sera), but she cannot forget what she has heard. Pinkerton claps his hands
and the servants come running in. He tells them to shut the house for the night.
Now they are alone, she says, and with no mad Bonze to worry them, he adds.
Suzuki comes to prepare Butterfly for the night. She takes off her bridal dress
and dons a white robe. Sitting on a cushion, she looks at herself in the glass.
Pinkerton tells her of his love for her, now she is his alone: dressed in white
she is like the goddess of the moon (Bimba dagli occhi pieni ci malìa). They
stand together looking at the heavens. She has a moment of fear, as if hearing
again the cries of her family, but then turns again to Pinkerton, whose love
will put to flight all sorrow.
Night has now fallen and Butterfly kneels before Pinkerton and looks at him
with tender supplication, seeking his love, but when he compares her with a real
butterfly, she takes fright: in America butterflies are caught and killed with a
needle through the body, fixed to a board. That, Pinkerton assures her, is so
that they do not fly away. Comforted she looks again at the beauty of the stars,
as Pinkerton leads her into the house.
The scene of the second act takes place some time later. Pinkerton has long
gone, and Butterfly and her servant Suzuki pray for his return, Suzuki praying
to her gods, but Butterfly claiming superiority for the American god. Suzuki
thinks Pinkerton's return unlikely, but Butterfly remains hopeful. One fine day
we shall see smoke on the horizon and then his ship will appear, white in the
harbour (Un bel dì, vedremo levarsi un fil di fumo). Butterfly will wait
for him and will see a little white figure emerge from the city, gradually, as
he climbs the hill, revealing Pinkerton. For a moment she will tease him by
hiding and then reveal herself, and all will be as before.
Sharpless, the consul, comes to tell her that he has had a letter from
Pinkerton, but they are interrupted by Goro, who introduces the old suitor
Yamadori. Sharpless knows, but dare not reveal the true situation, the
intentions of Pinkerton, while Butterfly, married, as she supposes, to
Pinkerton, indignantly rejects Yamadori's proposal. Sharpless tries to read her
Pinkerton's letter, but breaks off, asking what she will do if her husband does
not return. Her answer is either to earn a living singing to people or to die.
Sharpless urges her to accept Yamadori, but she rejects this idea with
indignation. She goes out and returns carrying her child, something that
Pinkerton cannot ignore. Suzuki drags Goro in. He has been spreading rumours
about the child, and Butterfly threatens him. Once he has gone, she thinks of
her child (Vedrai, piccolo amor), her sorrow and her comfort: his father
and protector some day will come and take him away to a far land.
Suzuki sees a warship in the harbour, and Butterfly, who joins her on the
terrace, sees that the ship is white and flying the American flag. She takes a
telescope and trembling with anticipation deciphers the name of the vessel,
Abraham Lincoln, Pinkerton's ship. She tells Suzuki to gather blossom from the
cherry-tree. Now the whole house must be full of flowers (Tutto, tutto sia
pien di fior), as the night is full of shining stars. Suzuki must pick all
the flowers, peach-blossom, violet and jasmine. They busy themselves, garlanding
the room with flowers in preparation for Pinkerton's return. They make
themselves ready for his arrival, Butterfly in her wedding robes. As they wait,
night falls, but they continue watching. There is a distant humming of unseen
voices. Suzuki and the boy fall asleep, but Butterfly remains awake, waiting for
Dawn is breaking and Butterfly is seen, motionless, still watching, while the
other two sleep. The distant cries of sailors are heard and the sounds of
activity in the harbour (Oh eh! Oh eh!). The far-away sound of the French
horn heralds daybreak: birds sing in the garden, as the sun rises. Butterfly
rouses herself and takes her sleeping child into an inner room and Suzuki says
she will wake her when Pinkerton comes. He arrives, accompanied by Sharpless,
who eventually reveals to Suzuki the truth, that Pinkerton has returned with his
American wife. It is proposed that the Pinkertons take the child away with them,
and Butterfly, at first delighted at the idea of Pinkerton's return, slowly
comes to understand what has happened. Pinkerton himself has not been able to
face her, and has left Sharpless and his wife Kate to deal with the matter.
Butterfly, betrayed and heart-broken, says she will obey her husband and will
give him the child, if he so commands.
Only one choice is open to Butterfly. The only honourable solution is death.
Left alone, she takes out the ritual blade that had been her father's, with its
inscription, "He dies with honour, who cannot live with honour" (Con
onor muore chi non puó serbar vita con onore). She puts the dagger to her
throat, but the door suddenly opens and Suzuki pushes the boy towards his
mother, who drops the dagger and embraces him. She then bids the child farewell,
now that he can travel to another land and no longer be troubled by her. She
takes the child and blindfolds him, putting in his hands an American flag and
telling him to play. She then picks up the dagger and moves behind the screen.
The dagger is heard falling and Butterfly struggles towards the boy, embracing
him once more, before collapsing. At this moment the voice of Pinkerton is
heard, as he climbs the hill to the house. The door opens violently and
Pinkerton and Sharpless rush in. Butterfly can only gesture towards the child,
as she dies. Pinkerton falls on his knees by her side, while Sharpless sees to
the boy. The tragedy has run its course.
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PUCCINI, G.: Madama Butterfly (Highlights)