Beauty of plot and great music are to an opera what fair features and a noble soul are to woman. ” Madame Butterfly ” possesses these attributes, and has consequently won that instant success which only true beauty, in either art or nature, calls forth.
Very seldom is the story of an opera so in-tensely thrilling that the original author is borne in mind; but it may be stated as a fact that no one applaud’s Giacomo Puccini’s splendid music without also thinking “All Hail !” to John Luther Long, who wrote this strangely tender tragedy.
Distinctly unique as a grand opera setting is the Land of Cherry-blossoms. Never before have the higher harmonies been blended in with embroidered kimonas and chrysanthemum screens. The innovation is delightful, however ; refreshing, uplifting, enlarging. By means of great music we are enabled to under-stand great emotion in the Little Land.
In this opera the hero is the villain, if one may so express it. He is also an American; a lieutenant in the U. S. Navy, and from first to last he seems blandly unconscious of his villainy. This is distressing morally, but musically one could wish it no different. As the rainbow-mist rises out of the whirlpool so the beautiful in art is most often evolved from a maelstrom of sin and tragedy.
A flowered veranda to a tiny house, a lilac-garden that overlooks a far, fair view of Naga-saki, the bright blue bay and azure skythis is the opening scene of Puccini’s opera.
The brief orchestral prelude is a pretty piece of fugue work, four-voiced and accurately constructed. A fugue is unusual in grand opera, but Puccini has a purpose in everything, and his music is essentially descriptive. The opening conversation in this opera concerns the construction of the tiny villa, and as a fugue is the one music-form suggestive of rules and measurementsa secure foundation and precise superstructure-it is clear that this bit of musical masonry, with its themes overlapping but care-fully joined, is intended to represent the house.
On the stage the-dainty dwelling is glowingly described by Goro, a Japanese marriage-broker; very obsequious in manners, but characterized in the orchestra by a most energetic, business-like theme that follows him around like a shadow.
A wedding of his arranging is soon to take place, and this house has been rented for the honeymoon. The bridegroom, Lieutenant Pinkerton, of the U. S. Navy, is viewing the abode for the first time. He wears a handsome uniform, and serves the opera as tenor, hero, lover, villainall in one.
Goro makes him acquainted also with the house-servant, Susuki, a solemn-faced, saffron-colored maiden, whose name means ” Gentlebreeze-of-the-morning.” Pinkerton prefers to call her ” Scarecrow.”
The first invited guest to arrive is the U. S. Consul. A sympathetic and genuinely tender theme announces this character’s approach. Always listen to the orchestra if you would know the real nature of these people of the play. In grand opera, as in real life, words very often conceal thought; but by the power of music the listener is endowed with a temporary sense of omniscience: he can read the hearts and motives of the creatures he observes.
It being still early, Pinkerton and the Consul seat themselves while the hero explains this marriage he is entering upon. But first he orders a ” whisky and soda.”
There is apparently no translation for this barroom barbarism, so the English words are used, and their effect is noticeably jarring. No critic has failed to remark this surprising debut of fire-water on the lyric stage ! There is charm and poetry in the Italian wine-glass, and we have grown accustomed to see that mingled with melodybut the American whisky-bottle stands remote from music as a pig from Para-dise. Puccini seems to realize this, for he ac-companies the obnoxious word with a discord !
There is nothing discordant, however, in Pinkerton’s description of his bridethe lovely lady Butterfly” dainty in staturequaint little figure seems to have stepped down, straight from a screen.”
The music here is delicate and frail, like an exquisite tracery of gold lacquer.
He intends to marry this Japanese bride in Japanese fashion, thereby making the tie un-binding in Americaa slip-knot adjustment that she, poor thing, is unaware of.
The Consul remonstrates with Pinkerton over his “easy-going gospel” of free love, but this light-hearted villain will not listen. He holds up his glass instead, and to a buried accompaniment of the ” Star-spangled Banner,” he proposes a toast to Americaand also to the day on which he shall wed in real marriage a real wife of his own nationality.
With this atrocious toast scarcely uttered, poor little trusting Butterfly is heard in the distance with her bridesmaids, singing as they approach. A delirium of joy breathes through this song, which is a weird succession of Oriental intervals, strange as an opium dream. As the harmonies grow firmer, Butterfly’s voice rings out above the others, while in the orchestra the conductor with his baton slowly unearths, like a buried diamond, the great love-theme of the opera. It beams forth in sultry splendor, a cluster of chords with imprisoned tones that flash forth unlooked-for harmonies.
At last she entersthis Japanese heroine, her brilliant draperies as bright as her name. Her maidens all carry huge paper parasols and fluttering fansa merry group of girls, filled with varied emotions of timidity, envy, curiosity, and fun. They courtesy, and smile, and sing, and sigh, and lower their eyes with knowing charm.
Throughout this scene it is interesting to note the different themes and their consistent use. A phrase of the opening fugue invariably appears whenever the house is mentioned; still another architectural motif protrudes into prominence every time the town Nagasaki is referred to. Susuki has a theme of her own; so has the Consul. When the relations of the bride troop in, we recognize the fact that they, too, have a theme ; we learned it when Goro, some time back, was enumerating the expected guests.
This theme now asserts itself in the orchestra as the grotesque company assembles. There is nothing great about this melody : it is a mincing, thin-bodied affair, but disports itself with much confidence during its little hour of importance; it shoves out every other theme from the orchestra and demands undivided attention. But at last the director’s stick chases it out of the enclosure.
The guests in the meantime have been gossiping among themselves, disparaging the bride, criticizing the groomand partaking of his refreshments.
All flats and sharps and accidentals are suddenly dropt from the score when the official registrar reads in monotone voice, and plain C major, the simple marriage form.
The ceremony is soon over, but the guests linger on. Pinkerton plies them with wine, but makes little headway in hurrying the festivities to an end. He has grown heartily tired of these new relations, and longs to see them go, but, instead of any one leaving, another one suddenly arrives, an absent uncle, who plunges amongst them in a frenzy of wrath and excite-ment. He has learned at the American Mission that Butterfly, without telling her family, has changed her religion and cast off the faith of her fathers.
Cries of horror, moans, and execrations follow this announcement. Butterfly is denounced by her familyabjured and disowned. She cowers before them, distressed, but not utterly crushed, for love remains to console her.
The tragic theme of the opera; a gruesome sequence of minor thirds, takes this opportunity to stalk into the orchestra and reconnoiter, like an undertaker looking over the premises before he is really needed. This theme has active work to do later on, but as yet does not seem very terrifying.
When the relations and guests are gone, Butterfly is soon persuaded to forget the “stupid tribe.”
Evening has come; there is a twilight tinge to the music ; it is ” dolce,” “expressione,” and ” Rallentando Puccini is a master of modulations. He employs large, full harmonies, soul-asserting, all-engulfing chords, that feel their way from one key to another, and burst forth in new glory with every transition. This persistent progress through varying keys has an effect of leading the listener through different rooms in some palatial edifice. In the hands of a great composer, each key of the scale unlocks a new vista in the enchanted palace of music.
Behind a screen on the veranda, Butterfly changes her chromatic kimona to one of white silk. She emerges with garments all soft and fluttering, like the trembling white wings of a night-moth.
Pinkerton leads her into the garden, and there, under the spell of the silent stars, they sing of love and of the glorious mystic night, with its gentle breeze that passes like a bene-diction over the bending lilacs. Fire-flies (cleverly imitated) hover in the air and flicker faintly, like candles in a distant chancel. The conductor waving his wand, like a priest the swinging censor, evokes a wreathing mist of music that enwraps the lovers in a drapery of dreams.
Melodies and harmonies rise into being and pass away like phantoms floating by, until at last the great love-theme of the opera once again is flashed upon us. The diamond, scarce revealed before, is now in its proper setting. It is displayed in solemn glory by the dignitary at the desk, who, with upraised, swaying hands, holds aloft this precious theme, as a priest does the sacred emblem.
Act II pictures the interior of Butterfly’s house.
There is desolation in the home; the orchestra tells us this, for the tragic theme possesses the instruments, creeping around among them, serpent-like, and enfolding them in its coils.
The rising curtain reveals Susuki kneeling before a shrine ; she is praying that Pinkerton may return.
Three times have the dragon-kites swelled in the breeze and the peach trees flushed into bloom since the day he sailed away.
Her prayer abounds in strange and uncouth harmonies that wail themselves into silence. When the incantation is finished, an orchestral phrase of keen despair and tortured hope accompanies Butterfly as she asks : “How soon shall we be starving ? ”
Susuki counts over the few remaining yen, and expresses doubt about Pinkerton’s return. Again that same theme of anguish pierces the air like a knife as Butterfly shrieks out : “Silence! ” She will not listen to doubt. She insists that he will return, and she fondly adds, “he will call me again his tiny child-wife, his little Butterfly! ”
With this memory there is a momentary re-turn of the great Love-theme in the orchestra; tender and fleeting, like a smile on the face of the dying.
Butterfly sings of the radiant hour, some day, when they shall see ” in the distance a little thread of smoke,” and then “a trim, white vessel,” flying the American flag!
The music of this aria has a confident ring and a forward swing, like a great ship nearing shore. Large and splendid is the final climax :
” He will returnI know! ”
A familiar theme in the orchestra heralds the approach of the U. S. Consul. He brings a letter from Pinkerton which he wishes Butterfly to her, but Japanese politeness interferes for some time. He must first accept tea and wine, a pipe to smoke, and a cushion to sit on. He is questioned about his health and the health of his honorable ancestors. His own ” Augustness” is profusely welcomed.
Scarcely have these formalities been accomplished when another visitor arrives–a pompous personage, accompanied by servants who bring presents and flowers. He comes to persuade Madame Butterfly that her husband’s absence amounts to a divorce, and that he, Prince Yamadori, should be accepted as Pinkerton’s successor.
This energetic wooer, lemon-faced and almond-eyed, imparts to the music a spicy flavor, grotesque and Japanese. His brief, breezy phrases have a turn and tang that be-longs entirely to the Land of Nippon ; staccato suggestions of chopsticks and Oolong.
The hostess politely declines to listen to her elaborate suitor.
She busies herself pouring tea, while in the orchestra a delightfully tender, untroubled waltz-theme reflects her tranquil spirit, which is like some quiet mountain pool in the path of a coming avalanch.
Impending disaster is near. Pinkerton’s let-ter contains news that will bring devastation to the little Japanese home. He is coming back but not to see Butterfly ; a new wife comes with him.
The Consul waits until Yamadori has gone, then bravely tries to read the letter, but his eager listener is too excited to hear to the end.
” He is coming! ” That is enough! Her joy is unbounded. She speeds from the room and in a moment returns with a sunny-haired child on her shouldersher “baby-boy! “-her “noble little American ! “to whom she tells the glad news that his father soon will return.
The distressed Consul has not the heart to enlighten her further. He leaves rather abruptly.
A moment later a signal gun is heard in the distance.
Susuki plunges in, breathless;” The harbor cannon ! ” Both women rush to the window. They can see the ship! A man-of-war! The Stars and Stripes!
Oh, the pain of this joy! The audience, knowing all, is torn and racked with emotion as the orchestra reiterates Butterfly’s recent song of confidence about ” his sure return.”
Now is her “hour of triumph!” She pro-claims it to high heavento Susukiand to all the eight hundred thousand gods and goddesses of Japan.”
All the world had told her he would forget and never returnbut she knew !she knew ! Now, at last, her faith triumphs he is here !
Superb is the crescendo now sweeping upward on the crest of America’s martial theme. The Star-Spangled Banner is bugled by the instruments, while Butterfly’s voice, in high and jubilant accord, sings again the glad words : ” He is here!he loves me! ”
In the orchestra the love-themethe great themearises slowly and passes by like a spirit of the past, a soul long dead, a memory faded.
Now follows a poetic scene unsurpassed for picturesque charm and grace.
In accordance with Japanese custom, the two women sprinkle the room with flowers, in honor of his home-coming.
Great baskets full of blossoms are brought in by Susuki, while Butterfly, always singing, showers the room with petals. She sways with the rhythm of joy and music, flinging the flow-ers in reckless profusion, her voice seeming to follow their flightup in the airand down again.
Susuki, too, scatters rainbow-clouds of jas-mine, peach-blooms, and violets; her contralto voice at the same time giving depth of color to the music. In the orchestra dainty, fluttering phrases are lightly tossed about, as tho shaken from the instruments by a passing breeze.
Full of strange involutions and harmonies, the music of this “flower-duet ” possesses the essential quality of all that is lasting and classichidden beauty beneath the obvious. With the choicest “mixing ” of harmony, orchestra and voice, Puccini has brewed a “blend” most rare, and sugared it with melody.
When the baskets. are emptied and the last flower fallen, a few final notes of the refrain still left in the orchestra are hurriedly brushed out by the conductor’s baton.
On the stage, as the daylight melts into dusk, Butterfly, all in a flurry, is decking herself in her wedding gown,while the orchestra calls up memories of the lilac-garden and the fire-flies.
When all is ready, Butterfly, Susuki, and the little one take positions at the window.
Long and patiently they watch and wait.
The orchestra plays a soft, unchanging staccato accompaniment. The moonlight finds its way into the room.
At last the maid and the child fall asleep. Not so with Butterfly; rigid and still she stands at the window, her eyes on the distant harborlights.
A sound of far-away voices softly humming a sad, weird refrain, fills the scene with mystery, suggesting the moan of guardian spirits. All this while the gentle staccato harmonies in the orchestra continue to flit back and forth, like the changing lights of swinging lanterns.
Butterfly does not move. The curtain slowly descends.
The prelude to the last act opens with a theme that crashes and tears its way into prominence: a pitiless, gruesome group of notes, that sounds vaguely familiar, tho it has never been emphasized like the tragic-theme and others gone before. In the first act this dire phrase was heard for a moment, buried softly among the harmonies that accompanied Butterfly’s first entrance song. She was happy then, but, nevertheless, this germ of agony was lurking near, as tho to suggest that we, each one, carry within our own temperament the weakness or fault that will eventually lead us to grief.
The orchestra is kept very active during this prelude or intermission. The past is presented in flashes of old themes, and the coming day is presaged by new phrases of potent meaning. Sounds of the harbor life beginning to stir, dis-tant voices of sailors chanting, are heard even before the curtain rises. When this is lifted, behold poor Butterfly still at her post! All night she has watched and waited, never moving, never doubting.
Now the dawn, cruel, cold-eyed and leering, begins to peer through the window. The pale, frail figure in her wedding gown still does not move ; she still hopes on, counting the stars as they disappear; measuring each moment by her heart’s wild beating.
The dawn grows rosy, the music in the orchestra tells of the world’s awakening. The sun’s glad welcome is proclaimed in a resounding peau of harmonies, pierced with sharp, bright strokes from the triangle.
But all this brilliant daybreak music fails to modify the tragedy of the dawn.
Susuki awakens to despair, but poor little Butterfly still asserts, ” He’ll come ! he’ll come ! ”
When urged by the maid to rest, she takes the little one up in her arms, soothing him gently with a quiet song as she mounts the stairs to her sleeping-room.
Scarcely has she gone, when Susuki is startled by a knock at the door. Pinkerton has come and the Consul with him, but they tell the maid not to summon her mistressnot yet.
The music of the flower-duet fills the air like a faint perfume as Pinkerton observes the withered blossoms, and Susuki explains the decorations and tells of Butterfly’s weary vigil. A moment later she sees through the window a lady waiting in the garden.
It is Pinkerton’s wife.
” Hallowed souls of our fathers ! The world is plunged in gloom ! ”
Susuki falls prostrate on her knees.
The ensuing trio is a magnificent musical enfoldment of sympathy from the Consul, re-morse from Pinkerton, and consternation from Susuki. It is a splendid mingling of emotion and melody.
The two men are left alone as the maid goes out to speak with the new wife. Pinkerton acts properly distressed over the situation, and his friend, being only human, cannot refrain from saying, ” I told you so,” whereupon the music of his warning remonstrance in the first act is plainly marked in the orchestra, like an underscoring to written words.
Pinkerton sighs over the room and its associations, sheds a few tears, and then decides the strain is too great for him. As he leaves the house, his wife and Susuki walk into view at the window.
At this moment Butterfly comes rushing down the stairs ; she has heard voices” he is here!”
Susuki tries to ward off the evil moment, but the hour has struck. The tragic theme rises up supremerevealing itself in unclothed hideousness : all the other themes have fallen away; they were as mere empty masks over the face of truthbehind life is always deathback of the smile is a skeleton.
Through the open window Butterfly sees the “other woman.”
“Who are you?” Mechanically her lips frame the words, as she stands there, paralyzed stunned. But the question was perfunctory ; the explanations that follow only confirm what she knew at first sight.
Very gently the American wife proposes to Butterfly to adopt her child and bring him up as her own.
The Japanese mother listens dumblythen slowly realizes that unless she consents to this plan her boy will have no name.
Butterfly says very littlebut she accedes. She asks, however, that Mr. Pinkerton himself shall come for the child. “Come in half an hourin half an hour.”
Agreed to this, the Consul and the American lady go away.
Susuki is now quietly ordered to leave the room. She protests, but her mistress is firm ; she wishes to be alone.
When the weeping maid has gone, Butterfly lights a lamp at the little shrine and bows before it. Then she takes from the wall a dagger, but drops this as the baby suddenly enters, shoved in by Susukifaithful slave! who, forbidden to enter herself, thus blindly tries to frustrate Butterfly’s ominous wish to be alone.
The child rushes to its mother’s arms, and Butterfly clasps it wildly, calling it all the extravagant love-names Japanese fancy can devise.
‘Tis for you, my love, that I am dying ! ”
She holds him at arm’s-length and bids him look long and well upon her face. The baby tosses his head and laughs; he little reeks what she is saying :
Take one last look on your mother’s face, that the memory may linger.”
The tragic theme attains a grandeur now that makes it seem the apotheosis of human heartache. Through the alembic of the composer’s art this gruesome theme emerges ablaze with a terrible glory. It sweeps apast like a fiery chariot, bearing poor little Butterfly’s soul to heaven.
There is little more to record; the moment of death seems already gone through in bidding the child good-bye. What follows is done very quietly; every movement is lifeless and spiritless. She ties a bandage about the little one’s eyes, and she puts in his hand an American flag; the Japanese mother’s token of surrender.,
Then Butterfly picks up the dagger. The deed is soon done ; she totters to the floor, and with her last breath tries to reach for her baby’s hand.