The online opera guide to MADAMA BUTTERFLY
For Puccini, the Butterfly was “the most soulful, expressive opera he had written”. None of the heroines of the Puccini operas can keep up with Butterfly. No wonder Butterfly is one of the most coveted roles of the sopranos in all opera literature.
Overview and quick access
♪ Act I (House Scene, Wedding Scene)
♪ Act II (Waiting Scene)
♪ Act III (Return Scene)
♪ Bimba dagli occhi (Love duet)
♪ Scuoti quella fronde di ciliegio (Flower duet)
♪ Coro a bocca chiusa (Humming choir)
♪ Tu, tu piccolo addio (Finale)
Roles and Synopsis
Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on the novel and later play Madame Butterfly by John Luther Long and David Belasco respectively and on Pierre Loti's novella Madame Chrysanthème.
The main roles
Pinkerton, American naval officer (tenor) - Sharpless, American consul in Nagasaki (baritone) - Butterfly, geisha, whose real name is Cio-cio-san (soprano) - Suzuki, Butterfly's servant (mezzo-soprano) - Goro, matchmaker (tenor).
EMI with Victoria de los Angeles, Jussi Björling, Miriam Pirazzini and Mario Sereni conducted by Gabriele Santini and the Coro e Orchestra della Opera di Roma.
The historical background and the libretto
At the origin of the story of this work was an autobiographical novel by a French naval officer stationed in Nagasaki. His memories were recorded in a novel by John L. Long and packed into a relationship drama. And finally, David Belasco completed the story with the suicide of the protagonist (“Madame Butterfly. A Tragedy of Japan”) in his play. When Puccini was in London for a Tosca performance, he saw Belasco’s performance of this play. Although Puccini did not understand English, he was moved and sensed that this material would be suitable for an opera and the publisher Ricordi commissioned Illica and Giacosa to write a libretto. Work on the opera began at the end of 1901.
Butterfly is a geisha. This does not mean a prostitute, but a woman or girl who works in a tea house and is trained in conversation, dance and music. At that time a temporary marriage was nothing unusual for geishas, but the textbook leaves this aspect out in favor of the drama. The subject matter of the opera addresses moral upheavals of the time caused by colonialism. This manifested itself not only in the American’s right to a temporary marriage (Goro: “Butterfly cost only 100 yen”), but also in the one-sided drafting of the contract (Pinkerton buys the house for 99 years, but can terminate it monthly) and finally in the fact that Pinkerton ends up snatching Butterfly’s son away from her with a shocking self-evidence. Puccini’s criticism is obvious, for throughout the opera the sympathy of the listener belongs to the Japanese woman.
The singing of the Cio-cio-san is practically always western. But in many passages of this opera Puccini wanted to create an authentic Japanese coloring, which he drew mainly with the techniques of pentatonic and excessive chords. Puccini himself was never in Japan, but he did make an effort to be authentic, the Japanese ambassador in Rome helped him to obtain notes of popular Japanese melodies, and she personally played Japanese music to him on her koto (a stringed instrument), which Puccini noted down by ear. Thus Puccini repeatedly quoted themes and motifs in an exotic style. Analyses have shown that he used about a dozen traditional Japanese melodies as motifs or motif parts and used them, such as the dagger motif, as leitmotifs.
Butterfly goes through a tremendous development in this opera. From the Geisha to the outcast and lover, then to the mother and lonely woman and finally to the suicide. None of the heroines of the Puccini operas can keep up with Butterfly. No wonder Butterfly is one of the most sought-after roles of the sopranos in the entire opera literature.
The fiasco of the premiere
Puccini called the third act throughout his life “the second part of the second act”. The reason was that the premiere at La Scala in February 1904 was a fiasco. Why, is not one hundred percent clear to this day. The main reasons repeatedly cited are the unusual harmonies of the music, the (too) great length of the second act, and probably a claque of envious people wanted to harm Puccini. The failure was shameful. Puccini, who expected certain success, was in shock and had never overcome this failure. He subsequently reworked the work, among other things from a two-act to a three-act version. The success of the second performance three months later in Brescia rehabilitated the work. Nevertheless, it was reworked again for Paris in 1906, whose version is considered the final version today. For Puccini, “Madama Butterfly” was the “most soulful, expressive opera he had written”.
MADAMA BUTTERFLY ACT I
Synopsis: Pinkerton is an American naval officer. He is stationed in Nagasaki and has the marriage broker Goro show him a country house he has acquired. Goro also arranged for the fifteen-year-old Cio-cio-san to be his wife.
The short overture of this piece is dominated by a short, busy motif. It is a fugal piece with an ominous motif that already hints at the drama of the work.
E soffito e pareti – Santini
Synopsis: Goro introduces him to his servants, including Butterfly’s servant Suzuki. Sharpless, the consul is arriving. In a conversation with Pinkerton, he learns that the house and the wife are only a stopover that can be got rid of. Sharpless is shocked by this attitude, which brings a cheerful life but can lead to great suffering (“an easy creed”).
The story tells us that Butterfly is a geisha. This is not a prostitute, but a woman or girl who works in a teahouse and is trained in intelligent conversation, dance and music. At that time a temporary marriage was not unusual for Geishas, but the textbook ignores this aspect in favour of drama.
Pinkerton’s Arias – Puccini accuses colonialism
Synopsis: Pinkerton sees Japan as a stopover, where he wants to settle down at home for a certain time.
The great aria “Dovunque al mondo” is surprisingly introduced with the American national anthem (The unmistakable sign of the Dominator) and presents us Pinkerton as not unappealing but thoughtless Yankee.
You hear this passage from Luciano Pavarotti in the recording with Karajan. The recording is expressive and electrifying.
Dovunque al mondo – Pavarotti
Karajan recorded the Butterfly again a few months later. The cast of the tenor changed from Pavarotti to Domingo, who was better suited for the TV production due to his different physical dimensions…
Dovunque al mondo – Domingo
Synopsis: On Sharpless’ Question whether he is in love with Cio-cio san, Pinkerton openly admits that it is a whim. She enchanted him. She is like a graceful butterfly, that one must grasp, even if the wings break. Sharpless is horrified over the recklessness. He met Cio-cio-san at the consulate and is convinced of her sincerity and good faith.
With this aria Puccini gives Pinkerton a beautiful melody with a warm flute accompaniment. But the image he draws of Pinkerton is devastating: the text is prosaic and selfish, and Pinkerton interrupts the rapturous melody, which turns into a duet with trivial whisky toasts.
We hear an excellent duo with di Stefano and Tito Gobbi..
Amore o grillo dir non saprei – di Stefano / Gobbi
Synopsis: Goro announces the arrival of Butterfly. She appears with her friends.
The arrival of Butterfly is one of the most beautiful love scenes Puccini has written. Cio-cio-san’s performance is composed with great effects and touching at the same time. She is happy (“I am the happiest girl in Japan”) and sings a beautiful aria accompanied by the choir of her friends. The orchestra’s music is stunning, Puccini has three solo strings (viola, violin and cello) sing the infinite melody and which accompany Cio-cio-san’s voice.
Puccini repeatedly quotes themes and motifs in an exotic style. We find a wonderful example at the end of this passage, in which Puccini concludes the aria of Cio-cio-san with an almost heavenly motif. It consists of a pentatonic melody played by harp, flutes and glockenspiel, an instrumentation combination that Puccini borrowed from Japanese music.
Listen to this inspired and touching scene with Mirella Freni, one of the big Butterflies. It is magic how she sings the famous high D (3:15).
Ancora und passo e via – Freni
Synopsis: Butterfly tells about herself. She is fifteen years old and was born into a rich family that has lost its fortune. Soonafter her father committed suicide and Butterfly was a Geisha ever since. Soon her relatives and the representatives of the authorities appear. As they pass by in front of the two Americans, Pinkerton mocks the odd relatives. During the chatter that follows, one of Butterfly’s girlfriends claims that Pinkerton had been offered to her, and one of the relatives is only interested in the wine and others predict a quick divorce.
L’imperial commissario – Pavarotti / Freni / Sénéchal / et al
Butterfly’s change of religion
Synopsis: Butterfly shows Pinkerton personal items she took with her. Among them is the dagger with which her father committed suicide. She tells him that she secretly adopted Pinkerton’s religion.
In a touching scene, accompanied by high strings and harp, Butterfly tells that she converted to the faith of Pinkerton out of love to worship the same god with him.
Hear a beautiful interpretation of this scene by Maria Callas, who sings this confession infinitely intimate, almost childlike.
Ieri son salita – Callas
The great love duet of “Madama Butterfly”
Synopsis: The wedding ceremony is taking place in the house. The following celebration is interrupted abruptly, as the Bonze, Butterflies uncle, appears. He accuses Cio-cio-San of religious change and expels her from the family. All relatives leave the house. Now they are alone for the first time. Butterfly is getting prepared for the wedding night and the two enjoy the moment together in the garden.
An infinitely long love duet begins (the longest Puccini has written), many themes appear and Puccini lets the orchestra blossom in the most splendid colours. In a particularly beautiful passage (“or son contenta”) we hear a beautiful violin solo repeated several times, and Butterfly surrenders to Pinkerton with the words “vogliatemi bene, un bene da bambino” (Love me with the love of a baby). At this point Pinkerton finds the right words with an intense and tender passage and promises her never to let her go and leaves Butterfly in the wrong belief of an eternal relation. The ending is the ecstatic duet of two lovers, as we only hear from Puccini in the greatest moments.
Let’s listen to this duet in 3 versions. We start with Jussi Björling.
Madama Butterfly was Björling’s last complete recording in his career. The 48-year-old was already seriously ill at that time and had a severe breakdown when recording this duet with Victoria de los Angeles. Surprisingly, Björling’s voice was in amazingly good condition and the recording was completed a few weeks later. His recording is somewhat slower than the other versions and gives the two singers room for a great interpretation. Already his opening “Bimba dagli occhi” is beautiful and seductive and the two singers interact in the best possible way.
Bimba dagli occhi – de los Angeles / Björling
Next is the recording from the Ponnelle / Karajan movie with a superb pair of Mirella Freni and Placido Domingo.
Bimba dagli occhi – Freni / Domingo
And a third version with Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann. Especially remarkable is the great and transparent orchestra sound of Pappano.
Bimba dagli occhi – Gheorghiu / Kaufmann
MADAMA BUTTERFLY ACT II
Butterfly’s great aria “un bel di vedremo”
Synopsis: Since three years Butterfly has been living with her servant Suzuki and her child in extreme poverty without having heard of Pinkerton. She prays to God for Pinkerton’s return, who knows nothing about the child. Pinkerton has promised her to return when the roses bloom. She dispels Suzuki’s doubts, she is sure that one day the ship with Pinkerton will appear.
The aria “un bel di vedremo” is one of the most famous and beautiful of the opera literature for sopranos. Butterfly’s dream inspired Puccini to create a great aria, perhaps even his most popular.
The aria begins in pianissimo. Puccini’s instruction says “Di lontano” (as if from afar). A solo violin plays around the voice of Butterfly and after a few bars the listener is already enchanted by the world of Cio-Cio-San. In the first part of the aria the singer shows the modesty and patience of the Butterfly, who is ready to wait for her beloved. With “me ne starò nascosta un po’ per celia” a great crescendo begins from the piano to the ecstatic “e un po’ per non morire”. It is an eruption of emotions held beneath the surface.
With calm but moving words she then tells the dream how he hurries up the hill to her house and his return becomes reality. Once again Puccini composes an ecstatic climax, which ends after a great crescendo with the highest note, a high B-flat in the fff.
We hear this scene in 3 versions.
Victoria de los Angeles’ Butterfly is always mentioned high in the critics’ rankings. Her voice was not one of dramatic opulence, but of lyrical mood.
Un bel di vedremo – de los Angeles
Renata Tebaldi’s high flowing tones made her famous. The beauty and richness of her voice even in the high registers was legend and the Butterfly was one of her most famous roles. You can hear her in a 1959 recording at the vocal zenith of her career.
Un bel di vedremo – Tebaldi
Maria Callas shows her unique ability to capture the moods and feelings of the role and to reproduce them in various colours. A gripping and touching recording.
Un bel di vedremo – Callas
Synopsis: Sharpless appears accompanied by Goro. He was asked by Pinkerton to gently teach her the truth and Sharpless wants to show her the letter. Butterfly receives him with finest western manners, and distracts again and again. Yamadori, a rich prince, appears. Goro has chosen him and Yamadori tries in vain to convince her to marry him. When she is alone with Sharpless again, he reads the letter to her. Moved he has to break off in the middle. When asked what she would do if Pinkerton didn’t come back, she answers “morir” (to die). Sharpless recommends Butterfly to accept Yamadori’s offer. Deeply struck, Butterfly asks Sharpless to leave the house. As he sets off, Butterfly shows him the child. It is Butterfly’s last straw and she asks Sharpless to write Pinkerton of her wonderful son, then he will come back.
With dramatic music Butterfly appears with her son. She places him on a pillow and sings a sad song for him. The orchestra accompanies Butterfly with expressive tones.
Che Tua Madre – Scotto
The flower duet
Synopsis: Suddenly, cannon shots sound. It is the Abraham Lincoln. Butterfly is sure, Pinkerton returns! She runs to the garden and together with Suzuki starts to pick all the flowers and decorate the house. The house and the bride shall look as on the day of the wedding. Butterfly puts on her wedding dress and waits for Pinkerton.
This duet is also called the Flower Duet and the atmosphere changes with a fast waltz-like melody into a buoyant, cheerful mood.
Scuoti quella fronde di ciliegio – Gheorghiu / Shkosa
You hear a second version in a warmly sung and accompanied recording by Renata Tebaldi and Fiorenza Cossotto.
Scuoti quella fronde di ciliegio – Tebaldi / Cossotto
The famous humming choir
Synopsis: Butterfly and her son are waiting for Pinkerton’s arrival.
The second act concludes with the so-called humming Choir, a beautiful and unusual conclusion of the act. A choir of sopranos and tenors sing a nostalgic melody backstage at octave intervals, accompanied by a solo viola, pizzicato strings, wind instruments and the rest of the orchestra.
MADAMA BUTTERFLY ACT III
The third act opens with a long orchestral introduction. It is reminiscent of a symphonic poem.
Introduzione…oh! eh! – Gavazzeni
Synopsis: It’s early in the morning. Pinkerton did not appear. Butterfly still believes in his return and has gone to sleep. There is a knock and Suzuki opens the door. Pinkerton and Sharpless appear – but not alone. Suzuki sees Pinkerton’s wife and realizes that for Butterfly the sunlight will go out. With horror Pinkerton realizes that Butterfly has counted the hours and that the situation has to end with a tragedy.
Io so che alle sue pene non ci sono conforti
Addio fiorito asil – a wonderful aria
Synopsis: Pinkerton collapses apalled by the damage he has done.
With the “Addio fiorito” asil Puccini gives us one of his endless melodies, which is sung again and again by many tenors in recitals. Listen to this short tenor aria in different versions.
Let’s start with a convincing recording of Jussi Björling. His melancholic, silvery timbre, sung with great legato fits perfectly to this piece.
Addio fiorito asil – Björling
Pavarotti with handkerchief and a moving yet sunny Adio fiorito asil.
Addio fiorito asil – Pavarotti
A dark interpretation by Jonas Kaufmann.
Addio fiorito asil – Kaufmann
Synopsis: Pinkerton lacks the courage to personally to tell Butterfly the truth. Sharpless asks Suzuki to tell her the message. Kate, Pinkerton’s wife, promises to take good care of the boy. Suzuki goes back to the house. Butterfly appears and she feels that Pinkerton has come. But all she sees is Sharpless and a foreign woman. The last spark of hope flies – it’s his wife. Butterfly understands – the unknown woman has come to adopt her son. Butterfly demands that Pinkerton fetch his son himself. She goes into the room and blindfolds her son. She puts her father’s dagger to her throat in the next room. Sharpless and Pinkerton run over and see the dying Butterfly. Horrified, Pinkerton sinks to his knees while Sharpless takes the child in his arms.
Her father’s motif is audible when she seizes the dagger. The engravement of the dagger reads: “Die honourably, who can no longer live honourably”. We hear no memory motifs of the times of happy love, as it was the case in the death scene of the Bohème. Only the pain of the leading actress is presented to the listener.
Butterfly undergoes a huge development in this opera: from the geisha to the rejected family member, to the role as lover, then to the role of a mother and lonely woman which commits suicide. None of the heroines of the Puccini operas can keep up with Butterfly. No wonder Butterfly is one of the most coveted roles of the sopranos in all opera literature.
Puccini concludes the piece with one of the most unusual and effective final chords in operatic history. The western G major collides with the augmented Japanese chord and concludes this magnificent work with an overwhelming final note.
Listen to a recording of Maria Callas which sends shivers down the spine
Tu tu, piccolo Iddio – Callas
Tragically and resignedly interpreted by Tebaldi
Tu Tu, piccolo Iddio – Tebaldi
EMI with Victoria de los Angeles, Jussi Björling, Miriam Pirazzini and Mario Sereni under the direction of Gabriele Santini and the Coro e orchestra della opera di Roma.
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide to MADAMA BUTTERFLY by Giacomo Puccini.