Madame Butterfly – Giacomo Puccini

Suggested reading:

Giacomo Puccini (1997), Conrad Wilson

Puccini (1996), Peter Southwell-Sander

Nineteenth Century Italian Opera from Rossini to Puccini

(1995), Daniele Pistone

Operas of Puccini (1985), William Ashbrookan

Madame Butterfly originated in a story by John Luther Long and was adapted for the stage by David Belasco. The play premiered with great success in New York in 1900, then quickly crossed the Atlantic for a London production where it was seen by Giacomo Puccini. Puccini’s first version of the opera failed at La Scala in 1904, but a revised version was successful the same year, the version that we hear today, one of the most frequently produced operas in the entire repertory.

Butterfly is different from many operas. It is intimate, devoid of spectacle, taking place completely within a house in Nagasaki. There is one straight plot line, without subplots. Girl wins boy, girl loses boy, girl commits hara kiri. What makes the piece work are the characterizations of Butterfly and her Captain Pinkerton, both in the drama and in the rich and luscious Puccini score.

From when we first meet Pinkerton, a dashing officer in the United States Navy, it is clear that the man is a philandering heel, infatuated with the fifteen year old Butterfly, cognizant of her fragility, but "not content with life unless he makes his treasure the flowers on every shore." He says as he compares her to a butterfly, "I must pursue her even though I damage her wings."

The stage for the tragedy is set. We meet the beauteous Cio-Cio San, not a complete innocent – she has been a geisha, after all – but nonetheless fragile, unworldly, and in love with the handsome sailor. She deceives herself, despite abundant warnings, as to Pinkerton’s motives.

The tale unfolds with well written dialogue, sung to music which captures the feelings of love and yearning and pain, raising the entire experience into the realm of great art, transcendently moving. This simple plot provides the vehicle for the arias of love and loss and hope and despair, the stuff of which the very best operatic music is made.

CV most recently heard Butterfly live at a San Francisco Opera production, a production made worthwhile by the fine dramatic interpretation of soprano Catherine Malfitano. We have just watched the newly released video of the 1995 filmed version from French director Frederic Mitterrand, starring Chinese soprano Ying Huang and tenor Richard Troxell. The singing is fine, the soundtrack quality is first rate. Mitterrand has opened up the visuals with some scenic shots, nicely unforced. His skillful camera placements allow changing vantages for viewing the interpersonal reactions of the leads, particularly effective in the ensemble numbers. There is one jarring, inexplicable note, when Mitterand has Cio-Cio San’s uncle, a priest who comes to curse her for giving up her religion for the American, appear out of the sky, like a spirit, instead of the very real figure in the libretto.

CV has seen more Butterflys over the years than he can count. So long as this opera is well sung, we will go back again and again. It still is fully capable, as the video proved again, of drawing tears.

Arthur Lazere

Madame Butterflyimage

San Francisco ,
Mr. Lazere founded in 1998 and worked tirelessly to promote its potential as a means for communicating a distinctly personal yet wide-ranging selection of arts reviews. Under his leadership, the site grew in esteem as well as in “circulation", and is well-regarded nationally and internationally as a source for up-to-date, well-written criticism. Arthur passed away on September 30, 2006.