Madam Butterfly synopsis
Music by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica after David Belasco’s play Madame Butterfly, itself based on John Luther Long’s short story, which in turn was based partly on Pierre Loti’s tale Madame Chrysanthème
First performed: 1904
(n/a) Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton of the United States Navy is stationed in Nagasaki. He has paid for an arranged marriage with a fifteen-year-old geisha, Cio-Cio-San, known as Madam Butterfly. In addition, he has bought a hill-top house on a 999-year lease with a monthly option. As the action begins, he is inspecting the house with Goro, the marriage-broker: the wedding is to take place there in a few minutes’ time. Sharpless, the US consul, arrives. He tells Pinkerton that he heard Butterfly’s voice at the consulate and is convinced she is deeply in love. He fears that Pinkerton will destroy her: Pinkerton does not take the marriage seriously, but regards it merely as a convenience. Pinkerton dismisses his fears but affirms that he waits for the day he will make a ‘genuine’ marriage to an American woman. Cio-Cio-San arrives with her friends. She charms with her cultivated manners and child-like appearance: she is from a noble family that has been reduced to penury, and has had to earn a living as a geisha. It emerges that her father committed suicide on the orders of the emperor. The remaining wedding guests and officials arrive and a perfunctory ceremony takes place. As the toasting begins, the voice of the Bonze – the high priest – is heard. He reveals that Butterfly has converted to Christianity. He and the entire Japanese contingent renounce her. They disperse, shouting curses as they go. Pinkerton tries to comfort Cio-Cio-San. Suzuki, her faithful servant, prepares her for the night. The newly-weds are left alone. Darkness has fallen, the sky is full of stars.
(n/a) Part One Three years have passed. Pinkerton left Nagasaki soon after he ‘married’ Cio-Cio-San, promising that he would return in the spring ‘when the robins nest’. Cio-Cio-San and Suzuki are on the verge of destitution. Suzuki tries to make Cio-Cio-San see that Pinkerton will not return, but Cio-Cio-San is determined to wait for him. Sharpless visits. He has a letter from Pinkerton. He tries in vain to read it through Cio-Cio-San’s constant chatter. They are interrupted by Goro and Prince Yamadori, Cio-Cio-San’s rich suitor. Cio-Cio-San has rejected his offer of marriage many times and does so again, insisting that she is already married. Goro points out that, under Japanese law, deserted women are automatically divorced. She is American, she says, and will only recognize American law. The two leave Sharpless and Cio-Cio-San alone. He resumes his attempt to read the letter. It is clear that Pinkerton has asked Sharpless to tell Cio-Cio-San that he will not be returning to her. Sharpless tries to guide her gently towards facing the truth and suggests she should accept Yamadori’s proposal. She produces her trump-card: she has borne Pinkerton’s son. Surely he will not forget her now? Sharpless, at a loss, leaves her to her waiting. A cannon-shot is heard from the harbour. Pinkerton’s ship has returned. Part Two Cio-Cio-San has waited all night, but Pinkerton has not come. Suzuki persuades her to rest. Sharpless arrives with Pinkerton hoping to find Suzuki alone. She must be the one to explain to Cio-Cio-San that Pinkerton has an American wife, Kate, and that they wish to adopt the son that Cio-Cio-San bore him. Pinkerton is aghast at what has happened and leaves Sharpless and Kate with Suzuki. Cio-Cio-San bursts in on them. Now at last she has to face the truth. For her it is the end.
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