Synopsis of Madama Butterfly
Libretto: In Italian by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on a play.
First Performed: La Scala, Milan, February 17, 1904
Traditional Setting: Nagasaki, Japan, 1904
At the turn of the current century, in the picturesque gardens of a lovely Japanese villa on the outskirts of Nagasaki, a local marriage broker, Goro, explains that he has arranged a marriage with an adolescent Japanese girl for Lieutenant Pinkerton of the United States Navy. Both the marriage contract and the accompanying rental agreement for a home are presented to Pinkerton for his pleasure and convenience during the term of his service in Japan. Both are cancelable upon the same conditions: thirty days' notice.
When United States Consul, Sharpless, comes calling, he warns Pinkerton that such an arrangement invites tragedy. The young lady in question, he says, Cio-Cio-San, is known as Madame Butterfly because of her femininity and sensitive nature. Certainly this sort of cavalier treatment will eventually break her tender heart. The self-indulgent Pinkerton ignores the older man's advice, making it clear he considers the wedding a game, that he'll be glad to be married legitimately someday in the United States to an American woman.
Butterfly appears, accompanied by her family. She is an innocent girl of fifteen, who arrives carrying her most precious personal treasures in her sleeve -- a little jewelry and a dagger her father used to commit suicide on orders from the Mikado. The marriage ceremony proceeds and the assemblage toasts the couple. In the midst of a happy moment, the Bonze, a Japanese priest, sweeps in with a stern denunciation of the bride. She has forsaken her religion and turned to Christianity in deference to her new husband, he announces. He declares her an outcast and the entire family supports his damning judgment.
Pinkerton sends them all away and proceeds to woo Butterfly. They proclaim their attraction to one another in a love duet and the curtain falls as the couple happily enters their new home.
Madame Butterfly has lived alone in the little home above Nagasaki for three years now. The short marriage with Lieutenant Pinkerton ended when he returned to America and he hasn't been heard from since. Her maid and friend, Suzuki, tries to reason with Butterfly about the distinct possibility that this man will never return. The tragically loyal Butterfly answers with the aria "Un bel di vedremo," describing her vision of the Lieutenant's ship reappearing on the horizon and Pinkerton himself ascending the hill to their home.
The American consul, Sharpless, arrives with a letter he wishes to read to Butterfly. However, Goro interrupts to present a potential suitor to the young woman, an offer she firmly refuses. Knowing the letter he carries announces the wedding of Pinkerton to an American girl, the Consul asks Butterfly what will happen if her "husband" never returns. She declares that impossible, but if it were to be, she says, she would kill herself. She produces her young son, Trouble. He has been so-named she explained until Pinkerton comes home. Then the child's name will become Joy. Sharpless realizes he can't reason with her and departs.
A cannon from the harbor announces the docking of Pinkerton's ship. Butterfly and Suzuki happily prepare the house for his arrival. The scene closes quietly as the women and child settle down to watch for Pinkerton's appearance on the hillside path.
Trouble and Suzuki have fallen asleep waiting for the Lieutenant. Only Butterfly keeps the vigil. The sun is rising, but Pinkerton has yet to make himself known. Butterfly takes her child to his room to tuck him into bed, to the tune of a lullaby. At that moment, Consul Sharpless arrives in the garden, accompanied by Pinkerton and his American wife, Kate. Realizing what has occurred, Suzuki is brokenhearted. Glancing around at the once idyllic hideaway where he lived with the lovely Butterfly, Pinkerton sings a farewell to this home, to the past. Entering the room once more, Butterfly captures the essence of the scene immediately. She tells Kate that Pinkerton may have the child if he will return for him later.
The emotionally shattered Madame Butterfly blindfolds Trouble, steps behind an ornamental screen, and stabs herself to death. Pinkerton rushes into the house calling to her, "Butterfly! Butterfly!" But his concern comes much too late. He kneels beside her lifeless body.