Puccini’s Opera: Madama Butterfly

Madama (Madame) Butterfly [1904

This is an opera by Giacomo Puccini, with a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on a short story Madame Butterfly by John Luther Long, which, in turn, was inspired by Pierre Loti’s novel Madame Chrysanthème [1887]. In this story, Lieutenant Pinkerton of the US Navy stationed in Nagasaki marries a fifteen-year old Japanese girl from a once rich, but now impoverished family. Pinkerton is restless, fickle and is simply looking forward to romancing a pretty girl, while Cio-Cio-San (his new wife (Madame Butterfly)) seems to have taken her vows with the same zeal and devotion one takes holy orders. Pinkerton disappears shortly after the wedding, promising to return. But, will he? When the Lieutenant finally decides to return, the situation is far more complicating that either he or Madame Butterfly could imagine. First premiered in Milan in 1905, Madama Butterfly is an opera of great emotional depth and psychological insight. The beautiful music with lots of drama and touches of light charm often accentuates hope born, dashed and then re-born as Madame Butterfly tries to come to terms with her situation throughout the story, clinging desperately to her unreachable western ideal.

Some of the main themes of the opera are the collision of two cultures (Japan & America, East & West), including miscommunication, as well as the position of a poor Japanese woman vis-a-vis a wealthy male foreigner in Japanese society at the turn of the twentieth century. In Madama Butterfly, one person’s serious commitment/complete faithfulness clashes with another person’s frivolousness and passing whimsy. The drama lies in a curious place because, historically, it is foreigners in Japan who fared or should fare badly and be “worse off” because they are deemed “outsiders”. However, a certain political and social situation in Madama Butterfly means that a native Japanese woman has to suffer and endure immense hardship. The woman’s nationality and her affinity with her people do not save her. On the contrary, Cio-Cio-San seemingly forsakes her “national identity” and religion to be with the man she loves. At the start of her marriage ceremony, she is even forced to endure spiteful tongues and jealousy on the part of her fellow country girls. And, this counter-intuitive reversal of roles is not the only one in the story. Being only fifteen and a geisha, it is Cio-Cio-San who should display emotional instability and aimlessness. However, despite her naivety, she is serious, decisive, and is selflessly devoted to her man, whereas, in turn, the mature and decorated Lieutenant displays the behaviour of a boy who first got his new toy and then forgets about it. The above themes lead to the themes of isolation and loneliness, which also become central to the drama.

The opera has many magnificent musical pieces, for example, in the second act, there is a beautiful aria sung by Madame Butterfly “Un bel dì, vedremo” (“One Fine Day We’ll See”). This area encompasses everything, boundless hope, immense love and maybe hidden fears about her absent love. Puccini also used some Japanese melodies in his opera and one can sense some Japanese musical undercurrents. 

Madama Butterfly is a beautiful opera and a moving tale of a woman engulfed so completely in her dream of happiness that she refuses to face or suspect a cruel reality.

To watch opera Madama Butterfly, follow this link, and there is also a related opera film Madama Butterfly (link). Other similar stories: Miss Saigon [1989] is a Broadway musical that was inspired by the opera Madama Butterfly. In this story, a Vietnamese woman gets abandoned by her American lover against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. The Red Poppy [1927] is a Soviet ballet about a Chinese girl who falls in love with a Russian captain and tries to protect him from her brutal and jealous fiancé. Ōgai Mori’s The Dancing Girl [1890] is a yet another similar short story, but which reverses the situation of Madama Butterfly. In The Dancing Girl, a Japanese man, Toyotaro Ota, leaves behind a German dancing girl, Elise, choosing his career instead.

19 thoughts on “Puccini’s Opera: Madama Butterfly

  1. I love this opera! I’m not a big opera fan, but songs like Puccini are just so breathtaking and haunting to listen to. And I had no idea that Miss Saigon was inspired by it. That’s one of my favorite musicals!

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    1. I am glad to know you also love it! It’s really good and because it focuses largely on the central character and has a simple story it is quite a revelation even for people who think they are not interested in opera.

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  2. Hi Diana! Loved the review, which gives a wonderful overview of Puccini’s masterpiece (or one of them anyway). I particularly appreciated your linking it to other works, as I wasn’t aware of these relationships.
    Although I don’t do much with the interest these days, at one point I was very much “into” opera and was lucky enough to see this one several times (it’s so popular it’s performed pretty regularly). Although I readily admit that Puccini is a great composer, do I sink myself beyond redemption if I disclose that I’m not an enormous fan? That being said, “Un bel dí, vedremo” IS one of my favorite arias. That helpless longing gets me every time! Especially when, as you note, you sense Butterfly is desperately trying to convince herself.

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  3. Yes, there are a few beautiful pieces of music in this opera, but I don’t think it is his best. Also, I totally HATE the story here, and I just want to slap that woman silly every time I watch this one. Boheme and Tosca are both much more consistent – both musically and their stories.

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    1. I really couldn’t relate to this opera at all until I saw a very good production with a fabulous death scene. While I was watching, it occurred to me that Butterfly died like what she was — the daughter of a samurai. I also think that her samurai courage, sublimated as it had to be because of her sex, can be felt in my favorite aria (“Un bel dí, vedremo” ); for me, there’s an underlying sense that at some level she fears for the future but nevertheless continues in her dream, which required a level of courage in itself. My interpretation may be unorthodox, but this is how I get through Butterfly, as I agree that she’s certainly an idiot at times (on the other hand, what choice did a woman have in that culture?)
      P.S. Can you tell I prefer heroic opera heroines? As you say, Tosca’s a bit more to my taste (although I’m really not a Puccini fan).

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      1. Did you ever see a Turandot where she kills herself instead of marrying the guy who answers the question? That was the only production I liked of it, and even so, every Turandot I’ve ever seen has been (if you excuse the phrase) butt-ugly and she’s supposed to be the most beautiful woman in the world! I don’t care much for Butterfly but I HATE Turandot!

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        1. I have not had that pleasure; which is my loss — the conventional end is the usual wimp out and doesn’t really fit Turandot’s character (wasn’t P. “stuck” on this opera when he died, resulting in the opera being completed by a student?). I do like some of the music (sort of) but am pretty indifferent to the opera itself. In last production I saw (many years ago & a second rate production) the Turandot could sing the role, but was so heavy she had to be assisted around the set, which had a lot of stairs. The effect was like the Queen Mary ocean liner, surrounded by little tug boats and definitely took one’s mind off the music.

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    2. I understand how you feel, but I don’t see any problems in the story. I mean, from the western point of view it all hardly makes sense, but from the point of view of the Japanese culture, especially at that time, I think it all makes perfect sense and this is certainly a tragedy. A Japanese vow, their sense of duty is overwhelming. Its in a league of its own. It is still considered to be one of the social “ills” in the modern Japanese society. Madame Butterfly was only fifteen and very naïve when she married the Officer, renouncing her native community completely. Given the society and culture at that time, she really had zero choice after that, even though it does seem hard to believe for us.

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  4. Thanks for analysing some of the key issues the story brings out and for mentioning more recent takes like Miss Saigon. How I miss live music performances.

    I agree Puccini’s musical treatment is magnificent; however I have memories of a production some years ago by the touring Romanian Opera (a season which also included ill-matched leads in Sampson and Delilah), impoverished enough to resort to (for example) cheap flip-flops and rickety scenery, the result being to distract somewhat from the undoubted musicality of the singers and instrumentalists.

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    1. Thanks for reading! And, definitely, productions vary drastically and I see how some may adopt a very minimalistic design, while others go for an overwhelming and rich visual experience. I see how the cheapness of that production you mention put you off, especially give the magnificent music. I do believe Madama Butterfly was meant to be staged more or less “gloriously”, with effects to showcase the beauty of Nagasaki harbour, cherry-blossom season, etc., etc.

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  5. Thanks for your review. I’d love to see the opera now. There is also a stage play called M. Butterfly that I saw and thoroughly appreciated many years ago.

    Here’s the synopsis from Wikipedia: M. Butterfly is a play by David Henry Hwang. The story, while entwined with that of the opera Madama Butterfly, is based most directly on the relationship between French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu, a Peking opera singer. The play premiered on Broadway in 1988 and won the 1988 Tony Award for Best Play.

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