Frankly, it's a shocking story. A fifteen year old girl takes up with foreign sailor, is abandoned by her family and then by the sailor after she's given birth to his baby. It gets worse. The girl gives up her child to the sailor's new wife and she kills herself.
Such is the power of Puccini's score that sometimes we forget the bare bones of the story of the opera that helped to make his reputation. The music is so painfully beautiful, indeed it all but begs us to reach for our handkerchiefs from the second scene when Butterfly and her attendants make one of the most spectacular of entrances in all twentieth century opera (a truly magic moment in Anthony Minghella and Carolyn Choa’s production for ENO). And once you’ve started weeping it’s heart over head all the way until an anguished Pinkerton, off stage as Butterfly was at the beginning of the story, calls out her name as she lies dead.
The next day, wiser if sadder, we ponder the darkness at the heart of this opera. And the fact that it's a mixed marriage between a Japanese woman and a white American gives Madam Butterfly a very particular resonance in our own time.
Yes, it belongs to that moment in history when the West went mad for all things Japanese, collected woodblock prints of geishas and samurai, views of Mount Fuji and the city of Edo, a city devoted to pleasure. Marveled at printed and woven fabrics, lacquerware and exquisitely detailed carvings (remember that collection of netsuke that tell the history of a doomed family in Edmund de Waal’s memoir ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’). Here is the ‘other’ to the industrialized West, appropriated, aestheticised but in Madam Butterfly feminised and impregnated too. In this sense Madam Butterfly and the American David Belasco’s play before it, indeed Pierre Loti’s novel Madame Chrysanthème, where the story of the tragic geisha may have begun, is cultural colonisation.
Puccini himself seems to have drawn back from some the darker corners of the story after a disastrous first performance at La Scala in February 1904. Pinkerton and the American Consul Sharpless are less casually racist about the Japanese over their whisky in the revised Act I and Pinkerton became less of a lout and more a silver tongued operatic hero when Puccini wrote Addio fiorito asil for the character, a brand new Act II aria.
If Cio-Cio San is a victim, she dies at least with existential dignity. It is her free choice to use the knife that her father had used to kill himself with its inscription ‘Who cannot live with honour must die with honour.’ Not so Kate Pinkerton, who I take to be the saddest person in the opera. Did anyone ask her if she wanted to adopt her husband’s child who she has only heard about in the last twenty-four hours? Having abandoned one mother Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, a Lieutenant in the United States Navy has now thrust the role of ‘mother’ onto the second Mrs Pinkerton. It seems like it’s women and children second. I want to believe that Kate became an ardent disciple of Susan B Anthony, the pioneer American feminist, when the USS Abraham Lincoln returned to America!
Do you agree that Kate Pinkerton is the saddest person in Madam Butterfly? What do you think she did upon returning to America? Let us know what you think by adding your thoughts to the comment thread below.