Performed for the first time on 17 February 1904 at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala
Japanese tragedy in three acts (originally two acts)
Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
In 1904, Puccini presented “Madama Butterfly”, an opera that explores the soul of a young woman in love. The story is set in Japan, featuring Art Nouveau style and exotic design. The music includes instruments such as gongs, bells, harps, and woodwinds, and regularly quotes authentic Japanese songs. The character of Cio-Cio-San is one of the most vibrant in all Puccini’s operas. She undergoes a profound transformation over the course of the opera, showing a range of emotional nuances from love to deep-rooted disappointment.
Puccini, discouraged by the initial criticism from audiences about the opera’s length, turned “Madama Butterfly” into a global success by redrafting it.
Listen to “Un bel dì vedremo” from Act II on Spotify
Nagasaki, start of the 1900s. Franklin Pinkerton is a lieutenant in the United States Navy who has just purchased a house in the Land of the Rising Sun. He is accompanied by Goro, a marriage broker, and is about to marry a young geisha named Cio-Cio-San in a Japanese ceremony.
The American Consul, Sharpless, meets Pinkerton to reproach him for his philosophy of enjoying life with no regard for others’ feelings, but then toasts the lieutenant’s plan to marry an American woman in the future.
During the marriage ceremony, Cio-Cio-San is presented with her family and shows Pinkerton some of her dowry. The young girl tells Pinkerton that she has converted to Christianity, but her uncle, a bonze monk, interrupts the festivities and curses Cio-Cio-San for renouncing her true faith. Pinkerton comforts her and carries her into the house.
After their wedding, Pinkerton returned to the United States, promising his young wife that he would return in the spring – a promise he failed to keep.
Three years later, Goro and the American Consul, Sharpless, bring a letter from Pinkerton to poor Cio-Cio-San, who is still anxiously awaiting his return. The letter contains distressing news: Pinkerton has remarried an American woman named Kate and is going to return to Nagasaki with her. Cio-Cio-San refuses to accept this news and remains true to her marriage vows, showing Sharpless the son that was born from the brief relationship. Goro’s attempts to find her a new husband fail, and even when marriage with the wealthy Yamadori is suggested, the geisha refuses. Butterfly remains true to her American lieutenant.
A cannon blast signals the arrival of a ship in the port. Cio-Cio-San is thrilled: Pinkerton has finally come back for her. She asks her maid, Suzuki, to help prepare the house for her husband’s return.
Butterfly stays awake all night, waiting for her lover. At sunrise, Suzuki manages to persuade her to rest, promising to wake her as soon as her husband arrives. Soon after, Pinkerton does arrive, but his new wife Kate and the consul are with him.
The lieutenant talks to the consul and discovers that Butterfly has had a son.
He decides that he wants to take the child back to the United States with him. But after speaking with Suzuki, who tells him how the young geisha has waited faithfully for him for three long years, Pinkerton leaves, struck with remorse.
Butterfly wakes and despairs after learning Pinkerton’s true intentions. Eventually, she is convinced to make the painful decision to entrust her son to the American couple’s care.
Her face lined with tears, she blindfolds her son and sits him down with a small American flag in his hand, then she takes her father’s knife which bears the legend “May those who cannot live with honour, die with honour” and performs the ritual of jigai.
Pinkerton decides to ask the geisha’s forgiveness for the pain that he has caused her. He rushes into the room but discovers a heart-breaking scene. He falls to his knees, bursting into tears next to the lifeless body of Cio-Cio-San.
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