Cultural Collision: Puccini's 'Madame Butterfly'

From the Washington National Opera

THE HIT SINGLE

In Act II, Cio-Cio-San has one of opera's most famous arias, "Un bel di."

"One fine day," she says, her American husband will surely return to her.

Xiu Wei Sun is Cio-Cio-San

hide captionSoprano Xiu Wei Sun stars as Cio-Cio-San in the Washington National Opera's production of Madame Butterfly.

Karin Cooper

In a typical opera, if there is such a thing, the lead tenor plays a good guy — a dashing, romantic hero. First he sweeps the female lead off her feet. If they're separated, he braves all manner of obstacles to be with her forever. If she dies in the end, he's probably a goner, as well, sacrificing himself for her honor.

Then, there's Puccini's Madame Butterfly. In that one, the tenor may be dashing but he's definitely no hero. In fact, he's an outright cad.

Some say the drama that inspired Madame Butterfly was based on an actual incident — if not one of many. As the story goes, a handsome naval officer was sent to a faraway, exotic land where he used his power and position to seduce and abandon a 15-year-old girl — who then committed suicide.

Theater mogul David Belasco staged a play using that basic story in New York in 1900. When it moved on to London, Giacomo Puccini was in the audience. The drama was performed in English, and Puccini didn't understand much of the dialogue. But he knew the stuff of a good opera when he saw it.

Puccini's Madame Butterfly was first seen at Milan's La Scala in 1904. It wasn't an instant hit, but Puccini reworked the score for a production in Paris two years later and it has since become one of the most popular operas of all time.

Over the years, tenor Placido Domingo has been one of the leading interpreters of Pinkerton, the opera's dastardly American naval lieutenant. But in this presentation of Butterfly Domingo takes a different role, as the conductor of a production by the Washington National Opera, where he also serves as general director. World of Opera host Lisa Simeone brings it to us from the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

The Story of 'Madame Butterfly'

'Madame Butterfly' at the Washington National Opera

hide captionThe Imperial Commissioner presides over the wedding of Pinkerton (Arturo Chacón-Cruz) and Cio-Cio-San (Xiu Wei Sun).

Karin Cooper
Butterfly arrives for her wedding

hide captionPinkerton (Arturo Chacón-Cruz, left) waits on shore as Cio-Cio-San arrives by boat for their wedding, in the Washington National Opera's production of Madame Butterfly.

Karin Cooper
Butterfly prepares to end her life

hide captionCio-Cio-San is alone, and ready to die, after Pinkerton abandons her in the final act of Puccini's opera.

Karin Cooper

WHO'S WHO?

  • Xiu Wei Sun .................. Butterfly
  • Arturo Chacón-Cruz .... Pinkerton
  • Elizabeth Batton .......... Suzuki
  • Luca Salsi .................. Sharpless
  • Anthony Laciura ............... Goro
  • Riccardo Lugo .................. Bonze
  • Obed Ureña ..... Prince Yamadori
  • Robert Cantrell .... Commissioner
  • Elizabeth Roberts ........... Kate
  • Washington National Opera Orchestra and Chorus
  • Placido Domingo, conductor

ACT ONE: The opera takes place around 1900, in Nagasaki. Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton of the U.S. Navy is looking over a little house on a hill, facing the harbor. He's about to marry a young Japanese woman named Cio-Cio-San, whose nickname is Butterfly. Goro, the marriage broker, accompanies Pinkerton. Three Japanese servants are also at the house, including Suzuki, Butterfly's loyal maid.

Sharpless also arrives. He's the American Consul at Nagasaki. Sharpless is unhappy about Pinkerton's wedding plans. He warns Pinkerton that what may feel like a lark to him is taken quite seriously by Butterfly, who is only 15 years old. To her, it may be a matter of life and death. Pinkerton dismisses his friend's concerns. He then pours drinks for the two of them, and actually toasts his future American wife — his "real" wife, he says. The men are interrupted by the arrival of Butterfly with her relatives and friends.

Sharpless talks to Butterfly and realizes he was right. Butterfly is deeply in love with Pinkerton. She has even renounced her faith to be with him. This means she has cut herself off from her past — putting herself entirely in the hands of her new husband.

Japanese marriage officials arrive to perform the ceremony. Afterward, shouting is heard. Butterfly's uncle, Bonze, has heard that she has renounced her faith. He curses her and demands that her family disown her. Pinkerton is furious at the interruption and throws them all out of the house. Butterfly is in tears, but Pinkerton comforts her and assures her of his love.

ACT TWO: Three years have passed. Pinkerton has spent nearly all of that time in America, with Cio-Cio-San waiting patiently for his return. Suzuki gently warns her that Pinkerton might never come back. Butterfly is steadfast, and sings the familiar aria "Un bel dì." "One beautiful day," she says, his ship will appear on the horizon.

Goro stops by with Sharpless, who has a letter for Butterfly. In it, Pinkerton reveals that he has taken an American wife and will be bringing her to Japan. Sharpless cannot bring himself to tell Butterfly the truth, and she keeps interrupting his reading with poignant questions. Goro then brings in a suitor, Prince Yamadori. Butterfly dismisses the wealthy prince, insisting that her American husband has not deserted her.

Sharpless advises her to accept Yamadori's proposal, and asks her if she's prepared to be without Pinkerton forever. She reacts desperately, introducing Sharpless to her son. She tells him the boy's name is Trouble, but he'll be renamed Joy when his father returns. Sharpless curses Pinkerton and leaves.

After hearing a cannon fire at sea, Cio-Cio-San and Suzuki turn to see Pinkerton's ship entering the harbor. They scatter flower petals around the house to prepare for his arrival. Then Butterfly, Suzuki and the little boy all settle down to wait for Pinkerton, as the sound of a chorus, humming, is heard in the distance.

ACT THREE: Cio-Cio-San is up early, anxiously anticipating Pinkerton's arrival. Suzuki urges her to rest, so Butterfly carries the boy into another room, singing him a lullaby.

Pinkerton approaches the house quietly. Sharpless is with him — and so is Kate, Pinkerton's American wife. When Suzuki sees Kate standing in the garden, she suspects the truth and the men confirm her suspicions. Pinkerton and Sharpless ask her not to tell Butterfly that they've come. Instead, they ask her to help persuade Butterfly to let Kate and Pinkerton take the child. As Pinkerton casts his eye around the house, he is overcome with remorse and rushes away, after singing the farewell aria, "Addio fiorito asil."

Cio-Cio-San appears, expecting to find Pinkerton. When she sees Sharpless with a strange woman, she knows that Pinkerton has abandoned her. She tells Kate that if she and Pinkerton return later, they can take the boy.

When she's alone, Cio-Cio-San picks up a dagger with the inscription, "To die with honour when one can no longer live with honour." Just as she raises the blade, Suzuki pushes the little boy into the room. Sobbing, Butterfly says goodbye to the child. She gives him a little American flag and a doll, telling him to go play with them.

Cio-Cio-San stabs herself, then drags herself across the floor toward her son. From outside, a distraught Pinkerton desperately calls, "Butterfly! Butterfly!" as Cio-Cio-San dies.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.