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MADAMA BUTTERFLY

by Giacomo Puccini
(1858-1924)

Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica

Based on a short story by John Luther Long, as dramatized by David Belasco

Geisha and Maid

Geisha and Maid,
by Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825)

The Cast

Madame Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San), a geishaSoprano
Suzuki, her servantMezzo-Soprano
B.F. Pinkerton, a U.S. Navy officerTenor
Sharpless, the American ConsulBaritone
Goro, a marriage brokerTenor
Prince Yamadori, a wealthy suitorBaritone
The Bonze, Butterfly’s uncleBass
Kate Pinkerton, Pinkerton’s American wifeMezzo-Soprano
Yakuside, another uncleBaritone
The Imperial CommissionerBass
The Official Registrar}Members of the ChorusBaritone
Cio-Cio-San’s Mother}Mezzo-Soprano
The Aunt}Mezzo-Soprano
The Cousin}Soprano
Trouble, Cio-Cio-San’s child

Cio-Cio-San’s relatives and friends; servants.

The Story

Madama Butterfly is set in and around a house on a hill overlooking Nagasaki harbor, Japan, in the early 20th Century.

Act I

Goro, a marriage broker, is showing Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, an American sailor, the house that Pinkerton has just bought for his honeymoon with his new Japanese bride, Cio-Cio-San (Madame Butterfly). After introducing the servants, including Suzuki, Goro describes the upcoming wedding — as well as the long list of relatives who will attend. Sharpless, the American consul, arrives, out of breath from his walk up the hill. The two Americans relax over whiskey as Sharpless admires the view and the flimsy little house. Pinkerton has leased it for 999 years, with the option to cancel each month: contracts are flexible in Japan, he says. Pinkerton then sings the praises of the “vagabond Yankee” who travels the world, taking his pleasure at every shore (“Dovunque al mondo”). He ignores Sharpless’s warning that such a shallow way of life can lead to sadness, boasting that his marriage contract, like the house, is for a term of 999 years, cancellable every month. The two men toast “America forever” (listen for Puccini’s interpolation of a few bars of “The Star-Spangled Banner”). When Sharpless asks if the bride is pretty, Goro interrupts with lavish praise of her beauty and her price: only 100 yen. When he offers his “assortment” to Sharpless, Pinkerton orders him to go bring his bride to him. Sharpless remarks on Pinkerton’s restlessness and asks if he is really in love. Pinkerton isn’t sure if it’s love or caprice (“Amore o grillo”), but his bride is as delicate as a figure on a Japanese screen, a little butterfly whom he must chase and capture, even if it means breaking her wings. Sharpless recounts how Butterfly visited the Consulate a couple of days before; he didn’t see her, but was struck by the sound of her voice and felt that she was really in love. It would be a shame to break her heart... But Pinkerton doesn’t see the harm in his brand of “love.” Sharpless proposes a toast to Pinkerton’s family, and Pinkerton toasts the day on which he will marry, in a “real” wedding, a real American bride.

Goro rushes in, announcing the arrival of Butterfly and her attendants. She is the happiest girl in Japan, she tells her friends, for she is answering the call of Love. They all bow to Pinkerton, who is enchanted with Butterfly’s artless charm. She is from a family that was once prosperous, but reverses forced her and her friends to become Geishas to support themselves. Her mother, though noble, is also very poor; but when Sharpless asks about her father, she replies, shortly, “Dead.” To break the tension, Sharpless asks how old she is. She engages in a little guessing game, and finally says that she is exactly 15: “I am already old!” Sharpless is shocked, but Pinkerton thinks that that’s just the right age for marriage. Just then, the parade of officials and relatives begins: the Commissioner, the Registrar, Butterfly’s mother, her drunken uncle Yakuside, her jealous and nitpicking cousins. As Goro vainly tries to quiet them down, Sharpless remarks on how lucky Pinkerton is to have such a beautiful bride, as Pinkerton expresses his passion for her. Sharpless warns him that the marriage is no joke, for Butterfly believes in it. Pinkerton takes her aside for some private conversation. She shows him all of her possessions — a few trinkets, including a mysterious narrow box that she will not show him. When she brings it into the house, Goro whispers to Pinkerton that the Mikado had given it to her father with the invitation to kill himself, and he obeyed. Butterfly returns to show him what Pinkerton thinks are dolls, but they are the hotoke — the souls of her ancestors. She tells him that she secretly went to the mission the day before to convert to Christianity, for she wants to pray to the same God as he. For him, indeed, she would give up her family; and she passionately throws herself into his arms.

The brief marriage ceremony takes place. As the relatives gather round Butterfly to congratulate her, Sharpless, leaving, advises Pinkerton to be careful. After a toast, the terrible voice of Butterfly’s uncle, the Bonze, is heard accusing her of an abomination. Ignoring Pinkerton, the Bonze rushes in and announces to the shocked family that Butterfly has renounced her ancient religion. Pinkerton throws him out, and the Bonze leads them all off, shouting imprecations at the weeping Butterfly. Alone at last, Pinkerton comforts her. She goes into the house to undress for her wedding night, assisted by Suzuki. Pinkerton cannot believe that this “toy” is his wife, and he is consumed with desire. When she returns, she urges him to love her, just a little; he kisses her hands, but she is saddened by his calling her a butterfly, for she knows that, across the sea, a butterfly that falls into a man’s hands is pierced and fixed to a board. But Pinkerton has caught her, and she is his for life. He urges her to come into the house as she gazes with ecstasy at the night sky. Finally, they go into the house together.

Act II

It is three years later. Suzuki is praying to the Japanese gods, but Butterfly remarks that they are lazy, for she is convinced that the American God would answer prayers much more quickly. They are nearly impoverished, and Suzuki warns that, if Pinkerton does not return soon, they will be ruined. Butterfly is adamant that he will return, in spite of Suzuki’s belief that foreign husbands never do. She recounts how, on their last morning together, he told her that he would return when the robins make their nest. When Suzuki begins to weep, Butterfly comforts her, and tells her that, one lovely day, they will see his ship come into the harbor, and he will come to her (“Un bel dì”).

Sharpless arrives, and Butterfly welcomes him to her “American” house. He tries to show her a letter, but she continually interrupts with polite offers of a pipe or American cigarettes. He tells her that Pinkerton has written a letter, and she asks him when the robins build their nests. Goro is heard laughing outside. She tells Sharpless that Goro is a bad man, for as soon as Pinkerton left, he besieged her with marriage offers from other men, including the rich Prince Yamadori. But Butterfly has turned them all down, despite her extreme poverty and isolation from her family. Yamadori now arrives to repeat his proposal, but she firmly states that she is already married. When Goro points out that abandonment is equivalent to a divorce under Japanese law, she firmly states that her law is that of the United States, where, she believes, a judge would throw an erring husband into prison. She then goes to help Suzuki with the tea. Sharpless tells Goro and Yamadori that Pinkerton’s ship is due to arrive soon, but he does not want to see her, and Sharpless has come to undeceive her. Yamadori leaves with a heavy heart when Butterfly repeats her refusal. Sharpless now begins to read the letter, with joyful interruptions from Butterfly. Pinkerton writes that perhaps Butterfly has forgotten him — she is astounded that he might think that — and that he is relying on Sharpless “to prepare her” — at this, Butterfly jumps up and cries out that he is returning — “for the blow.” But Butterfly does not hear these last words, for she is too wrapped up in her happiness. Sharpless gives up, cursing Pinkerton, and asks Butterfly what she would do if Pinkerton never came back. Shocked, she replies that she could do two things: either go back to entertaining people with singing, or, better, die. Sharpless urges her to accept Yamadori’s proposal, but Butterfly is stunned and hurt, and asks him to leave. Then, crying, “Has he forgotten me?” she runs out of the room and then returns with her child, a blond, blue-eyed, curly-haired little boy. Pinkerton does not know about him, for he left before the child was born. She urges Sharpless to write to Pinkerton with the news. Then she imagines having to beg and sing in the streets to earn their living, and swears that she would rather die. She tells Sharpless that today, the child’s name is Trouble, but when his father returns, he will be called Joy. Sharpless takes his leave, promising to write to Pinkerton. Moments later, Suzuki rushes in, dragging Goro and cursing him, for he has been spreading the lie that no one knows who Trouble’s father is. Butterfly pulls out her father’s knife and threatens to kill him, then throws him out.

As she reassures the child that Pinkerton will take them far away, a cannon shot is heard. Butterfly and Suzuki rush to the door to look at the harbor: it is Pinkerton’s ship, the Abraham Lincoln. Butterfly’s love is vindicated. They fill the room with flowers (Flower Duet). Then Butterfly dresses in her wedding clothes, and, with Suzuki and Trouble, sits by the door, and waits, and watches.

Act III

At dawn the next day, Butterfly is still waiting, motionless. Suzuki and Trouble are asleep. Sailors’ voices are heard from the harbor. Suzuki awakens and taps Butterfly on the shoulder. “He’ll come,” Butterfly says. Suzuki urges her to rest. Butterfly takes her sleeping child into his room. Someone knocks on the door. Suzuki is astonished to see Pinkerton and Sharpless. She wants to call Butterfly, but they stop her. Then Suzuki spies a woman in the garden and is devastated to learn that she is Pinkerton’s wife. Sharpless urges her to help them convince Butterfly to give up her child to Kate Pinkerton. Pinkerton, filled with remorse, can stand it no longer (“Addio, fiorito asil”). He rushes away.

Kate Pinkerton comes in from the garden with the heartbroken Suzuki, promising to take good care of the little boy. Butterfly is heard calling for Suzuki; Kate leaves the room. Suzuki tries in vain to prevent Butterfly from coming in, but Butterfly rushes about the room, looking for Pinkerton. She sees only the weeping Suzuki, Sharpless, and a strange woman in the garden who makes her afraid. When she is told that Pinkerton has arrived, but will never return to her, she realizes that the woman in the garden is his wife, and that she has come to take her son. She suppresses her anguish, for she must obey him. Kate timidly approaches and asks her forgiveness. Butterfly tells her, “Don’t be sad for me,” and asks that Pinkerton himself come for the child in a half hour.

When Kate and Sharpless leave, Butterfly is overcome by grief. She orders Suzuki to leave. Then she takes out her father’s knife and reads the inscription: “He who cannot live with honor dies with honor.” She is about to stab herself when Suzuki sends Trouble in. Butterfly drops the knife and gathers the child in her arms, kissing him and urging him to remember his mother’s face (“Tu? Tu? Tu?”). Tearfully saying goodbye and telling him to play, she sits him by the door, places in his hands an American flag and a toy, and blindfolds him. Then she stabs herself. Dying, she crawls toward the child, embraces him, and falls beside him as Pinkerton is heard shouting for her. He and Sharpless then rush into the room; Butterfly points to her child, and dies as Pinkerton kneels beside her and Sharpless takes the child into his arms.

© 1996 Linda Cantoni