” Madam Butterfly,” a Japanese lyric tragedy, is founded on the book of John Luther Long, and the drama by David Belasco with Italian libretto by L. Illica and G. Giacosa. Its music is by Giacomo Puccini. It was first produced at the Scala Theatre in Milan in 1904 and received an adverse verdict. The following year it was revived in slightly changed form and with changed fortunes. Its first American presentation occurred in October, 1906, in Washington, D. C.
Madam Butterfly, Cho-Cho-San. Suzuki, Cho-Cho-San’s servant. Kate Pinkerton. Lieut. B. E. Pinkerton, of the United States Navy. Sharpless, United States Consul at Nagasaki. Goro, a marriage broker. Prince Yamadori. The Bonze, Cho-Cho-San’s uncle. Trouble, Cho-Cho-San’s child.
Lieutenant Pinkerton of the United States Navy, who is temporarily stationed at Nagasaki, is about to contract a Japanese marriage, assisted by Goro, a marriage broker, with Cho-Cho-San, known as the Butterfly. He has leased a cottage on the hills above Nagasaki and overlooking the harbor. The opera opens as he and Goro are inspecting the dwelling and its surroundings. His friend, Sharpless, United States Consul at Nagasaki, comes upon the scene and to him Pinkerton explains his plans. Sharpless makes an earnest effort to dissuade the Lieutenant from his rash idea, arguing that while a Japanese marriage might be only a joke to him, it could prove all too serious to the little bride. Butterfly, appearing with her mother and relatives, charms Sharpless by her attractive manner and evidently lovable nature. He learns from his conversation with her that, as he feared, she looks upon the marriage quite seriously. In order to prepare herself for it, she even has secretly renounced her faith, thus severing all ties with the past.
Despite the good counsel of Sharpless, Pinkerton persists in signing the contract in the presence of the relatives and friends of Butterfly. While the drinking and rejoicing that follow this event are in progress, Bonze, the Buddhist priest, the uncle of Cho-Cho-San appears, cursing and denouncing her for having given up her religion. Pinkerton ends it by ordering everyone off the premises. There follows an exquisite love-scene in which Pinkerton succeeds in winning Butterfly back to smiles and happiness.
Three years elapse. Pinkerton long ago has been called away from Nagasaki, and Suzuki, Butterfly’s faithful servant, announces to her mistress that the money left for their maintenance is almost gone, and voices her fears that the Lieutenant will never come back. For this lack of faith she is severely reprimanded. Sharpless appears with a letter in his hands which Butterfly at once surmises to be from Pinkerton speaking of his return. In this surmise she is correct but Sharpless has not the courage to tell her that while Pinkerton is returning, he is returning with an American wife. The marriage broker again has been active, and has urged upon Madam Butterfly the advisability of marriage with Prince Yamadori, a wealthy nobleman. In this effort he is seconded by Sharpless, both of them explaining that under the Japanese law, Pinkerton’s continued absence is sufficient grounds for divorce. After persistent refusal, Madam Butterfly sends Suzuki from the room, and the maid returns bearing Pinkerton’s fair-haired child. Then Madam Butterfly turning to Sharpless says unanswerably, ” Look, can such as this well be forgotten? ” The Consul leaves without having delivered his news. Now across the harbor floats the boom of the gun. Rushing to the window, Madam Butterfly sees that it is the salute of the American man-of-war. She and Suzuki deck the cottage with flowers and seat themselves at the windows with the child, to await Pinkerton’s coming. The maid and child fall asleep, leaving Butterfly watching alone for her lover.
The third act opens to find the new day dawning, and Butterfly still at her post. The light awakens Suzuki and she persuades Butterfly to take the child and rest. While she is gone Pinkerton comes with his American wife but he hastens away, unable to face the situation. When Butterfly comes again fluttering with happiness, the presence of the other woman seems to bring the truth to her. It is then that the little Nipponese heart breaks. Quite simply and without resentment, she tells the American wife that if her husband will return in half an hour he may have the child, and that “All will be well.” When they have gone, Madam Butterfly drives Suzuki from the room, and binding the eyes of Trouble, the child, with a scarf, she places in his hands a doll and an American flag. Taking her father’s sword she goes behind the screen in the rear of the room. There is a short pause, the sword clatters on the floor, she totters out and falls dead at the baby’s side.
It is said that Puccini considers ” Madam Butterfly ” his best work. In fact, he admitted this when watching from the wings its first American performance in the language of the original libretto. ” I confess ” said he, ” that I am very fond of my Madam Butterfly. The subject appealed to me from the first. It gives fuller expression to my temperament and to my sentiment, than any other of my works, not even excepting ` La Bohème.’ ”
In this idea he is supported by the critics, a thing which does not always follow. It is generally conceded to be the greatest of his works. It is a convincing exponent of Italian operatic renaissance, and justifies Puccini’s admirers in their asseveration that the mantle of Verdi has fallen on his shoulders. The score is in the essentially modern manner with no distinct arias, solos or ensembles. The orchestra plays the prominent role in illustrating and describing the dramatic situations and the emotions felt by the various persons on the stage. Much of the vocal part is written in the ” conversational ” style of recitative but there are certain important scenes which are of great melodic beauty. Of such are the impassioned love duet for Pinkerton and Butterfly, with which the first act closes ; Butterfly’s description to Suzuki of how some day Pinkerton will return; her declaration to Sharpless that she will care for little Trouble and the admirable orchestral interlude which portrays musically Butterfly’s long watch throughout the night before Pinkerton comes to her.