On 15 May 2000 I saw Puccini’s tragic opera (a real weepy!) Madame Butterfly performed by ENO at the Coliseum, conducted by Michael Lloyd. The libretto is by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. While in London Puccini saw a play by David Belasco, which told the tragic love-story of a Japanese lady. Although Puccini didn’t understand English he became enthusiastic about the subject and decided to write an opera on it. Later, he said that he had really fallen in love with a little geisha girl.

The premiere at La Scala, Milan in 1904 was a complete fiasco. As Puccini listened to the hissing and whistling he shouted: “Louder, louder, you swine! Go on shout! Tear your lungs! You will see who is right in the end! This is the best opera I have ever written!” At the end of the performance he went to the conductor, thanked him for his co-operation and left, taking the score with him. Puccini decided that the failure was due to the fact that the opera was in only two Acts, the second being extremely long. He then re-arranged the whole work, dividing the last Act into two and writing a prelude for the new Third Act.

Some three months later the revised opera was presented in Brescia and was a resounding success! The opera depends entirely on the title role, other characters being merely insignificant and Pinkerton arouses little sympathy. But Cho-Cho-San (Madame Butterfly) is a finely-drawn character: touchingly young and naïve in the First Act, beginning to sense her tragic destiny in the Second and in the Third nobly designed to her tragic fate; she tears at the heartstrings.

The story is as follows: Act I. The naval lieutenant Pinkerton (tenor) is about to marry the geisha girl Cho-Cho-San by Japanese law (not recognised in the USA). One of the first wedding guests to arrive is Sharpless (baritone). Pinkerton describes the charms of his little geisha: “Is it love or fancy, I cannot tell you “ (with a wink!). Sharpless, a wiser man, shakes his head sadly. In vain the warns Pinkerton against marriage with a Japanese lady because he knows that Cho-Cho-San is takeing it seriously. Butterfly and her wedding procession arrive (the famous Cherry Blossom Chorus is heard as the parties make their way down the hillside). Butterfly introduces Pinkerton to her family. For his sake she renounces both family and her religion, and embraces Christianity. “Ah, love me a little, Oh, just a very little…” she sings. The marriage takes place and the couple expresses their happiness in the famous Love Duet.

Act II. Three years have passed. Butterfly is alone with her son and her faithful maid Suzuki. Pinkerton has promised that he will return when the “redbreast builds her nest again” (something the bird has already done three times”). Suzuki remarks that foreign husbands never return. It is Spring and Butterfly still full of hope and confidence longs for the day when her beloved will be home again. She sings the famous aria “One Fine Day...” Sharpless is going to bring his new wife (he has re-married in America) with him to Nagasaki. His boat may arrive any day. Meanwhile Butterfly receives an offer of marriage from the rich nobleman Yamadori but she is determined to remain faithful to Pinkerton. It is pointed out to her that when a wife has been deserted for three years divorce is the most acceptable solution. Butterfly says, “Such a law may be valid in Japan. But now I am an American.” Proudly she shows her son, a fair, curly-headed little boy. A canon is heard out at sea heralding the ship’s arrival. Butterfly and Suzuki busy themselves decorating the house with flowers and Butterfly sits gazing out to see awaiting her husband’s arrival.

Act III. Pinkerton arrives with his new wife and the Consul. Pinkerton is - for a moment - moved by the sight of the flower-decorated house and senses, with a twinge of sorrow, what happy moments passed there: “Farewell, O happy home...”. Pinkerton lacks the courage to face Butterfly and turns away as she appears with the child in her arms. But Butterfly has noticed the American lady outside in the garden and understands. Pinkerton says he will gladly adopt their son and she asks him to fetch the child in half-an-hour. Alone before the figure of Buddha she puts on the ceremonial scarf and takes up the hari-kari dagger inscribed: “Better to die with honour than to live in dishonour”. She embraces her child for the last time and sends him into the garden. As Pinkerton calls her name from outside she thrusts the dagger into her breast, then vainly tries to drag herself to the door, but sinks to the ground and dies. In the Belasco play, Butterfly’s final words to Pinkerton are: “Too bad those robins didn’t nest again.” (Hari-kari was a well-known practise in Japan in 15th Century.)

Pinkerton was performed by David Rendall, of international fame; Madame Butterfly by Cheryl Barker - a heart-rending performance; Suzuki by Christine Rice; Sharpless by Christopher Booth-Jones (very touching in the letter scene); Prince Yamadori by Richard Whitehouse; Sorro (Madame Butterfly’s child) by Takayuki Mashimo (particularly touching when he picks up Yamadori’s flowers out of the mud).


Verinha Ottoni.


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