Madama Butterfly è un’opera in tre atti (in origine due) di Giacomo Puccini, su libretto di Giuseppe Giacosa e Luigi Illica, definita nello spartito e nel libretto “tragedia giapponese”.
La prima ebbe luogo a Milano, il 17 febbraio 1904 al Teatro alla Scala.
Puccini era certo di riscuotere il successo che immaginava gli spettasse di diritto per un’opera come “Madama Butterfly”; per questo motivo scelse (di comune accordo con Giulio Ricordi, suo editore) il polcoscenico della Scala per la sua prima.
Questa sua scelta era data probabilmente da una voglia di rivincita verso il Teatro che nel 1889 aveva bocciato il suo “Edgar”.
Purtroppo la prima dell’opera si risolse in un fiasco, evento inaspettato dopo i tre successi pucciniani Manon Lescaut, La Bohème e Tosca.
L’opera si basa sul dramma “Madame Butterfly” del commediografo statunitense David Belasco, a sua volta ispirato da un racconto omonimo di John Luther Long.
I librettisti Giuseppe Giacosa e Luigi Illica cominciarono il lavoro sul libretto a partire dal 1901. Per alcune suggestioni orientaleggianti presero spunto dal romanzo di ambientazione giapponese “Madame Chrysanthème” di Pierre Loti.
Puccini era fortemente convinto della validità del soggetto esotico e dal potenziale espressivo della geisha sedotta, abbandonata e suicida. Per musicare il dramma, si documentò minuziosamente sulle musiche, gli usi e i costumi del Giappone; per fare ciò si avvalse della collaborazione di Sada Yakko (una famosa attrice) e della moglie dell’ambasciatore giapponese in Italia.
L’insuccesso con cui venne accolta Madama Butterfly, spronò Puccini ad una revisione dell’opera, eliminando alcuni numeri musicali trascurabili, modificando alcune scene e dividendo l’opera in tre atti invece che due.
Teatro alla Scala in Milan on February 17, 1904
Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is set in Nagasaki, Japan in the early 1900s.
Atop a large hill in Nagasaki, Lieutenant Pinkerton of the United States Navy, inspects a house he recently rented from real estate agent, Goro. Goro is also a marriage broker and has supplied Pinkerton with three servants and a geisha wife named Cio-Cio San, who is also known as Madama Butterfly.
US Consul Sharpless enters the house breathless after climbing the large hill. Pinkerton explains to his friend that as a sailor, he lives life in the moment and seeks one pleasure after the next. He divulges his current infatuation and feelings about Madama Butterfly but reveals his ultimate dream of marrying an American woman. Despite receiving a 999-year marriage contract with Madama Butterfly when he purchased the house, it renews from month to month and allows divorce at any time. Sharpless warns him that his Japanese fiancé may feel more passionate about their upcoming marriage than he does. Pinkerton dismisses Sharpless’s advice.
Outside, Madama Butterfly is happily singing about her marriage as she and her friends make their way back to the house. Upon arrival, she tells Pinkerton that her family was once wealthy but fell on hard times, so she became a geisha to earn money for her family.
She shows Pinkerton some of her most treasured things and tells him she has renounced her faith and taken up Christianity, despite her family’s strong protests. As Madama Butterfly’s family and marriage officials arrive, Pinkerton whispers to Sharpless that this is all a farce and that these new relatives will only be around for one month’s time.
After the wedding and amidst the toasts and celebrations, Madama Butterfly’s uncle, a Buddhist priest, enters the house cursing her for abandoning her faith. Before finishing his diatribe, he is interrupted by Pinkerton. Her uncle leaves the house after persuading her entire family to renounce her just as she renounced her faith. Her family leaves and severs all ties with her. Pinkerton takes hold of Madama Butterfly and consoles her. She is sad she has lost her family but is happy in Pinkerton’s arms. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to Madama Butterfly, Pinkerton is more in love with the fact that he essentially owns her for the next 999 years than he is with Madama Butterfly herself.
Three years have passed and Pinkerton has not returned. While the servant, Suzuki, prays to Buddha that Madama Butterfly’s tears will stop soon, Madama Butterfly is listening to her. When Suzuki finishes Butterfly tells her that the Japanese gods are worthless – only the Christian god will bring Pinkerton home. Suzuki explains to Madama Butterfly that the little money they have left will not last much longer. (In one of the opera’s most famous arias “Un bel di, vedremo”) Madama Butterfly tells her to have faith—Pinkerton will return because he had arranged the American Consul to provide rent money, mosquito netting, and locks to keep out family and intruders.
Pinkerton told her that he will one day return with roses in hand when robins build their nests. Upon hearing this, Suzuki weeps. Sharpless arrives moments later with a letter for Madama Butterfly. It is from Pinkerton. Before he can read the letter, she asks questions as to his health and when he might return. Madama Butterfly is overjoyed when Sharpless explains that Pinkerton is in good health. She tells him that Pinkerton once told her he would return when the robins build their nests. She asks if the robins have built their nests in America yet, because they have built their nests three times in Japan since he left. She also tells him that Goro has brought many suitors to her for marriage, but she has refused each one including the most recent—a wealthy prince. As Sharpless mentions the idea that Pinkerton may not return, she brings out her son, Dolore.
She tells him that once Pinkerton learns of his son, he will surely return. If he does not, she would rather die. Saddened and moved by her devotion, Sharpless is unable to reveal the contents of Pinkerton’s letter to her. In it, Pinkerton states he is not returning to Japan. After Sharpless leaves, a cannon report is heard in the distance. Madama Butterfly rushes to the window with her binoculars and sees Pinkerton’s ship enter the harbor. Full of excitement, she instructs Suzuki and her son to fill the house with flowers.
The following morning, Suzuki, having slept all night, enters the room with Dolore to find that Madama Butterfly has been awaiting Pinkerton’s return and hasn’t slept at all. She persuades Madama Butterfly to get some sleep. Reluctantly, Madama Butterfly agrees and takes her son into the bedroom while humming along the way. Not long after, Sharpless and Pinkerton knock on the front door. Pinkerton tells Suzuki not to wake Madama Butterfly. He asks her how Madama Butterfly knew he has returned, and she explains to him how for the last three years Madama Butterfly studied every single ship that came into the harbor and recognized his ship when it appeared the previous evening. Sharpless reminds Pinkerton that he once warned him of this impending disaster. A minute later, Suzuki sees another woman waiting outside in the garden. Her name is Kate, Pinkerton’s American wife. Suzuki falls to the floor in despair. Full of shame and remorse, Pinkerton cowardly leaves the house.
Sharpless tells Suzuki that though they can do nothing for Madama Butterfly, Kate wants to adopt Dolore as her own son and take care of him in America. Suzuki and Sharpless go outside to talk with Kate. Kate asks her to encourage Madama Butterfly to give up her son. When Madama Butterfly awakes, she calls out to Suzuki. Suzuki rushes into the house crying, and Madama Butterfly asks her what is wrong. When Madama Butterfly sees Kate and Sharpless standing outside in the garden, she softly asks Suzuki if Pinkerton is alive. Suzuki answers yes. Madama Butterfly knows immediately what is going on. She knows that Pinkerton has returned with his American wife and she must give up her son. Kate and Sharpless enter the house and Kate asks for Madama Butterfly’s forgiveness. Madama Butterfly tells her the only way she will give up her son is if Pinkerton comes to the house and asks for him in person. She sends them away and tells them to return in half-an-hour. She tells Suzuki to draw all the curtains as there is too much light in the house and orders her into the other room. Madama Butterfly bows before the Buddha statue and takes the dagger her father used to commit suicide and reads its inscription. “Who cannot live with honor must die with honor.” As she raises the dagger, her son enters the room. She tells him how much she loves him before sending him outside to play. Once he leaves, she plunges the dagger into her heart. As she lies lifelessly on the floor, Pinkerton arrives calling out her name.