Madama Butterfly (Madame Butterfly) is an opera in three acts (originally two acts) by Giacomo Puccini to an Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. The opera was based on a short story by John Luther Long which was made into a play by David Belasco.
The first version of the opera premiered February 17, 1904 at La Scala in Milan. It was comprised of two acts and was very poorly received. In four months, Madama Butterfly was re-released in Brescia. This revision split the disproportionately long second act in half and included some other minor changes. This time, Puccini's masterpiece was a huge success, moving to the Metropolitan Opera in 1907. Today, the opera is appreciated in two acts in Italy, while in America the three-act version is more popular. In fact, according to Opera America, Madama Butterfly is the most performed opera in North America.
Synopsis (final version)
In the first act Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton, a sailor aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln marries Cio-Cio-San [tʃotʃosan], or Madama Butterfly, a 15-year old Japanese geisha. Marriage-broker Goro has arranged the match and rented a little house on the hillside for them to live in. American consul Sharpless, a kind-hearted man, begs Pinkerton to forego this plan, because the girl believes the marriage to be binding. The lieutenant laughs at him, and the bride appears with her geisha friends, joyous and smiling. Sharpless learns that, to show her trust in Pinkerton, she has renounced the faith of her ancestors and so she can never return to her own people. (Butterfly: "Hear what I would tell you.") Pinkerton also learns that she is the daughter of a disgraced samurai who committed seppuku, and so the little girl was sold to be trained as geisha. The marriage contract is signed and the guests are drinking a toast to the young couple, when the bonze, a Buddhist monk, (uncle of Cio-Cio-San, and presumably having entered the monastery in disgrace after the father's seppuku) enters, uttering imprecations against her for having taken to the foreign faith, and induces her friends and relatives to abandon her. Pinkerton, annoyed, hurries the guests off, and they depart in anger. With loving words he consoles the weeping bride, and the two begin their new life happily. (Duet, Pinkerton, Butterfly: "Just like a little squirrel"; Butterfly: "But now, beloved, you are the world"; "Ah! Night of rapture.")
Act two begins three years later. Pinkerton's tour of duty is over, and he has returned to the United States, having promised to return "When the robins nest again." Butterfly's faithful servant Suzuki rightly suspects that he has abandoned them, but is upbraided for want of faith by her trusting mistress. (Butterfly: "Weeping? and why?") Meanwhile, Sharpless has been deputed by Pinkerton in a letter to tell Butterfly that he has married an American wife. Seeing her wonderful faith, the consul cannot bear to destroy it. Butterfly is so wild with delight at the sight of her lover's letter that she is unable to comprehend its contents. She believes Pinkerton is coming back, and in her joy refuses to listen to Yamadori, a rich suitor brought by Goro, saying that she is already married. Goro tries to explain that a wife abandoned is a wife divorced, but she declares proudly, "That may be Japanese custom, but I am now an American." Sharpless cannot move her, and at last, as if to settle all doubt, she proudly shows him her fair-haired child, saying, "Can my husband forget this?" The consul departs sadly. But Butterfly has long been a subject of gossip, and Suzuki catches the duplicitous Goro spreading more. Just as things cannot seem worse, distant guns salute the new arrival of a man-of-war, the Abraham Lincoln, Pinkerton's ship. Butterfly and Suzuki, in wild excitement, deck the house with flowers, and array themselves and the child in gala dress. All three peer through shoji doors to watch for Pinkerton's coming. As the night passes, a long orchestral passage with choral humming (the "humming chorus") plays as Suzuki and the child gradually fall asleep - but Butterfly, alert and sleepless, never stirs.
Act three opens at dawn with Butterfly still intently watching. Suzuki awakens and brings the baby to her. (Butterfly: "Sweet, thou art sleeping.") She persuades the exhausted girl to rest. Pinkerton and Sharpless arrive and tell Suzuki the terrible truth, but the lieutenant is deeply stricken with guilt and shame (Pinkerton: "Oh, the bitter fragrance of these flowers!"). Too cowardly to tell her in person, he cannot remain, but leaves the thankless task to his unfortunate wife. Suzuki, at first violently angry, is finally persuaded to listen as Sharpless tells her that Mrs. Pinkerton will care for the child if Butterfly will give him up. Butterfly appears, radiant, expecting to see Pinkerton, but is confronted instead by his new wife, Kate. She receives the truth with pathetic calmness, politely congratulates her replacement, and asks her to tell her husband that in half an hour he may have the child, and that she herself will "find peace." Then having bowed her visitors out, she is left alone. At the appointed time Pinkerton and Sharpless return to find Madama Butterfly dead by her own hand (Finale, Butterfly: "You, O beloved idol!") after having bidden farewell to her little child. She had used as a weapon her father's sword, with the inscription: "To die with honour, when one can no longer live with honour." The now-humiliated, heartbroken daughter of a disgraced samurai, she decided to die proudly by seppuku — in the way a samurai dies for honour.
Noted arias and duets
Since the 1990s, many have criticized or analyzed Madama Butterfly as part of a colonialist project of creating images of Asia. These critics posit that it presents a "feminized" view of Asia in the form of Cio-Cio, and one that in the end of the play is discarded and inferior. One example of this critique is the postmodernist version M. Butterfly, by David Henry Hwang. Many Asians and Asian-Americans resent the passive and tragic stereotyping of Asians, and view it as part of a larger racist/colonialist mentality prevalent when the opera was written.
Other critiques center on the supposedly anti-American tone of the play, written by an Italian and presented mostly for European audiences. These critics point out that the historical basis for the American character was likely a French doctor or a Scottish engineer, and that the intention of making him an "arrogant" American had more to do with Europe's anti-U.S. sentiment in the immediate aftermath of the Spanish-American War in 1898. Furthermore, Japan in 1904 was not a colony of any country, including the U.S., and on the contrary, had defeated Russia in the same year in the Russo-Japanese War. Therefore the image of a colonialist America and a weak, passive Japan was possibly a projection of other Western/Asian relationships (e.g., Britain in China) on two third parties. Additionally, anti-American sentiment in Europe at the time was radically different from the more modern flavors: America was still seen as an extension of Europe proper, but in a junior sense; the imperialist actions of the United States back then was minor when compared to the large-scale conquest and exploitation of Asia and Africa by European nations.
Both of these critiques fit into the larger view that the play presents ignorant stereotypes of foreign lands and have more to do with idealized and romanticized images than with empirical reality. The play also inclusively categorizes the world into binaries, the Occident on the one hand and the Orient on the other, and represents the Occidental colonial power over Oriental countries. The coincidence of the play and the rise of European colonialism, following these interpretations, was not a coincidence.
In contrast, one may consider that in 1904 the general opinion of Europeans was that both the United States and Japan were upstart powers with colonial aims.