Even people who do not follow opera are somewhat familiar with Madama Butterfly. This is one of Puccini’s “Big 3” masterpieces, along with La Boheme and Tosca. All three of them will be seen at the Met this season. This is Anthony Minghella’s stunning production, which had its Met premiere in 2006.
The story of Madama Butterfly may be familiar to you. In the early 1900’s an American navy seaman, Pinkerton, takes a temporary Japanese wife for the period that he will be in Nagasaki. Cio Cio San is 15 years old and is known as “Madame Butterfly”. The tragedy is that she does not realize that the marriage is only temporary and not legitimate. So when Pinkerton goes back to the United States she waits and pines away for him, singing the opera’s most famous aria in Act II, Un Bel di about how “one fine day” Pinkerton will return to Japan and to her.
By Act III she has given birth to Pinkerton’s baby. Pinkerton finally comes back to Japan, but with an American wife accompanying him.
Even though Pinkerton is a bit of a cad and has used Cio Cio San for his own pleasure he is guilt-ridden about what has happened to her.
But he is not in the least ready to give up his “real” American wife to make amends.
Cio Cio San reacts by committing hara kiri suicide at the end of the opera.
The music of Madama Butterfly has a lot more than Un Bel Di. This is some of Puccini’s lushest and most melodic music.
The composer incorporates some Japanese harmonies into the score. Even though the soprano, Madame Butterfly, is the lead character, the tenor, Pinkerton, has much of the most beautiful music. The love duet that ends Act I and the duet in Act III are my own favorite parts of the score.
Should You See It?
The three Puccini operas being performed this season, Butterfly, Boheme and Tosca are among the most popular operas in the basic repertory. You should try to see at least one of them. Even though the story of Butterfly is somewhat old-fashioned and sentimental the music elevates it to a work that can still move the audience.