Major Operas | Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini | Turn of the Century

Madama Butterfly is the last opera to be written by the trio of Puccini, Illica and Giacosa. It was, as usual, beset by difficulties in the preparation and approval of the libretto. Puccini was as opposed to one particular scene as Giacosa was for it. Puccini, of course, won, but Giacosa remained so convinced that he demanded that the excised text remain in the printed libretto – a request that was not granted.

Madama Butterfly was famously heckled at its premiere but has gone on to achieve a similar level of popularity to its two immediate predecessors. Those who disliked it, including Ricordi, pointed to its superficiality and facile emotiveness. However, others remarked on the work’s great tonal range and colour, its integration of oriental inflections into Puccini’s harmonic language and the skill with which the character of Cio-Cio-San is developed. This last point is perhaps most pertinent since Cio-Cio-San is Puccini’s first character to grow and change as we watch her. The contempt with which Madama Butterfly was greeted caused Puccini to make several revisions and there is no consensus as to which version is ideal.

Composed: 1901–04; rev. 1906
Premiered: 1904 La Scala, Milan; rev. version 1904, Brescia
Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, after David Belasco’s play Madame Butterfly

Act I

Goro, a marriage broker, shows Lieutenant F. B. Pinkerton the house he has rented on the hill overlooking Nagasaki. He then presents the servants, including the maid Suzuki, and lists all the wedding guests. Pinkerton explains to Sharpless, the American consul, that he is taking a wife on similar terms to the house, a contract he can cancel at a month’s notice. Sharpless hopes she will come to no harm. Goro announces the wedding party, and Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly) is heard approaching. All the guests bow to Pinkerton. Cio-Cio-San explains to Sharpless that her family has fallen on hard times and she shyly admits to being 15. Pinkerton smiles when she shows him her few possessions, including a sheath, which Goro explains contains the dagger with which her father committed suicide. She offers to throw away the figures of her family gods and bow before Pinkerton’s god. The marriage contract is signed and Sharpless leaves. Butterfly’s uncle, the Bonze, curses her for renouncing her religion. Amid the uproar, Pinkerton orders the guests to leave and comforts Butterfly. As darkness falls, Suzuki helps Butterfly change out of her wedding dress. Left together, Butterfly confesses her doubts about marrying a barbarian, but she loved Pinkerton at first sight. She fears that in his country butterflies are often mounted on a pin, but he promises to keep her safe. They pledge their love under the stars.

Act II

Three years later, Butterfly cannot understand that Pinkerton has abandoned her. If he did not mean to return why did he ask Sharpless to provide for her? She threatens to kill Suzuki for suggesting that every foreign husband leaves his Japanese wife. She...

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