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Opera plots - Puccini's Madame Butterfly

Updated on April 24, 2015

Giacomo Puccini was born on 22nd December 1958 in Lucca, Italy, and died in Brussels, Belgium, on 29 November 1923. He had gone there to receive radiation treatment for throat cancer, which was much further advanced than he knew. He is best known for his operas, although he did write some orchestral and sacred pieces, etc. However, it is as the composer of such operatic standards as Madama Butterfly, La Boheme, Tosca and Turandot that he is justly famed. His skill at writing melody, and show-stoppers such as "Nessun Dorma" and Butterfly's lament, have made him universally popular, and not just with regular opera-goers.

This is one of the best-known and loved of all operas, both for its superb music and its plot, a tragedy of broken faith in which the whole audience longs to scream out to Butterfly, "don't trust him!"

The opera had several sources, including "Madame Chrysantheme", a novel by Pierre Loti dating from 1887, and a short story (1898) by the American writer John Luther Long that was turned into a play by David Belasco. Puccini's opera was itself the inspiration for "Miss Saigon", the musical that premiered in 1989.

At its first performance, at La Scala, Milan on 17th February 1904, the opera was not the success that the composer hoped for. However, by splitting the original two acts into three and making some other changes, Puccini ensured that this would become one of his greatest successes, and a "standard" in the repertory of opera companies across the world.

Act 1 - A villa in the naval port of Nagasaki, Japan

Lieutenant Pinkerton, U.S. Navy, seeks the advice of a marriage broker, having been told that his posting in Japan will be a long one. The marriage broker assures him that any marriage will only be binding as long as he consents to live with his wife, after which she will be free to marry again. However, the lady in question, Cho-Cho-San, sees things differently, as she falls in love with Pinkerton and believes that she will be marrying him for life. She even goes so far as to renounce her religion and thus severs all ties with her own people.

Sharpless, the American consul and Pinkerton's friend, tries to prevent the match by telling Pinkerton how serious the girl is about it. At the wedding feast, Cho-Cho-San's uncle, a priest, appears and heaps curses on her head for renouncing her faith. All her relatives desert her, but she clings to her new husband, who calms her fears. The scene ends with mutual protestations of love.

Act 2 - The villa, three years later

After a short but blissful wedded life, Pinkerton has been recalled to America, promising to return to Cho-Cho-San (now called "Madame Butterfly"), "when the robins nest again". She trusts him implicitly, but her maid, Suzuki, has different thoughts.

The battleship on which Pinkerton serves is ordered back to Japan, and he writes a letter to Sharpless, asking him to break the news to Butterfly that he will be arriving with his new, American, wife. However, when Sharpless takes the letter to Butterfly, she is so overjoyed at seeing a letter in Pinkerton's hand that she completely ignores what it says. She is also deaf to the marriage broker, who tries to arrange a new marriage for her, on the grounds that Pinkerton's desertion amounts to a divorce. "That may be so in Japan," she says, "but I am an American!" When the Consul tries again to convince her of the truth, she introduces a fair-haired child, with the words "My lieutenant cannot forget this".

As Sharpless departs, a cannon shot announces the arrival of Pinkerton's ship. Butterfly and her maid excitedly decorate the house with flowers to welcome her husband, but as the evening drags on, he does not appear. Suzuki and the child fall asleep, but Butterfly waits and watches.

Act 3 - The same, the next day

Butterfly has not slept all night. Suzuki wakes and persuades Butterfly to lie down and rest, which she does, so that she can look her best when Pinkerton arrives. When she has left the room, Sharpless, Pinkerton and Kate, his American wife, arrive. When he hears from Suzuki about Butterfly's devotion, he is overtaken by remorse and cannot bear to face his deserted bride. Kate tells Suzuki to tell Butterfly that she will care for the child, but at this point Butterfly enters and hears it directly from Kate Butterfly retains her composure, congratulates Kate politely, and tells her that, if they return in half an hour they may have the child.

However, when the Americans return, they find that Butterfly has used her father's sword to end her life. On the sword are inscribed the words "Die with honour when you can no longer live with honour".


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      Lars Holland 7 years ago

      @ the age of fifty my musical tastes have begun to change. I grew up with the Ramones and Black Sabbath. Experiences have exposed me to Vivaldi and Rimsky-Korsikov and I am now fascinated by opera and in particular, Madame Butterfly. Finding it on CD in local musical stores isn't going well.