Opera Profile: Puccini’s ‘Madama Butterfly’

By Logan Martell

Making its premiere on February 17, 1904, “Madama Butterfly” is one of the most prominent works not only to come from composer Giacomo Puccini, but in the operatic canon as well.

Despite this, its initial premiere at Milan’s Teatro all Scala was received unfavorably by critics and audiences. This is attributed to lack of time to rehearse the work, given that Puccini completed its composition not long before it was set to premiere. After a revision by the composer, “Madama Butterfly” would go on to enjoy success worldwide as it explores the timeless operatic themes through the lens of the American naval force’s interactions with Japan.

Short Plot Summary

In Nagasaki, Japan, Lieutenant Pinkerton of the U.S. Navy is engaged to marry Ciocio, who is called Butterfly. Althought Butterfly herself is ecstatic about her upcoming marriage, going so far as to convert to Christianity, Pinkerton feels no long-term commitment to her due to the ease with which divorces may be obtained in Japan. He has rented a house for them to live during his stay, which also becomes the location of their wedding ceremony. Though the ceremony is completed, Butterfly’s uncle, a Buddhist monk, curses her for her conversion to Christianity and denounces her before the assembled guests, who turn their backs on her before leaving. Pinkerton and Butterfly ready to consummate their marriage that evening. Three years pass; Pinkerton left Japan shortly after their wedding night but Butterfly has remained hopeful for his return. An American consul, Sharpless, arrives at Butterfly’s home to deliver a message from Pinkerton regarding his upcoming return to Japan. Butterfly’s excitement prevents Sharpless from telling her the rest of the message, revealing that she has given birth to Pinkerton’s child. Spotting his ship on the horizon, Butterfly awaits Pinkerton’s arrival and does not sleep that night.

In the morning, Butterfly falls asleep and her maid Suzuki greets Sharpless, Pinkerton, and Kate, his new wife. Pinkerton explains that they have come because Kate has agreed to raise Pinkerton’s son. The lieutenant regrets his decisions when he sees the decorations Butterfly has put up in the house for his sake. He departs once more, leaving Sharpless, Kate, and Suzuki to explain the circumstances to Butterfly. She agrees to relinquish her son on the condition that Pinkerton himself visits her. As she says goodbye to her son, she places a blindfold over his eyes, walks behind a screen, and commits suicide with her father’s tanto. Pinkerton hurries back to their house, only to find Butterfly’s lifeless body.

Famous Musical Numbers

The opera has a ton of famed moments including the Love duet in the first act, known for its lush melodies and expansiveness. Then comes “Un bel di vedremo,” the famed aria in which the protagonist yearns for her husband.

Watch and Listen

Here is a famed film version featuring Mirella Freni, Christa Ludwig, and Plácido Domingo.


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