Madama Butterfly, Cio-Cio San
If I were pushed to make a declaration of my favorite opera of all time I would admit, with some sense of shame, that it is Madama Butterfly. The shame comes in because Butterfly is such a popular opera.
The erudite, also known as pretentious, choice would be an opera such as Berg’s Lulu or Wozzeck. You know something you have to listen to a hundred times in order to love.
Puccini is kind of a whore that way. He doesn’t make us earn it. He gives it up on the first hearing.
...by Giacomo Puccini
On the other hand, the context of Butterfly has so many layers that it is impossible to write it off as operatic cotton candy. By the way, San Diego Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly opens on Saturday, April 16, at 7 p.m.
On the surface this is a story of misplaced love and betrayal. This is the obvious storyline in Butterfly. In case anyone is reading this who doesn’t know the story I’m going to try to avoid spoilers.
The betrayal happens at the start of the opera. Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton USN is marrying the geisha Cio-Cio San (Madama Butterfly) for the moment. He makes it clear that this is a temporary situation, which will last only as long as he is in Japan. Once he leaves he’ll be off to another woman in another port until he finds his American wife. He is the “Yankee vagabondo.”
We know all of this before Cio-Cio San even comes onstage. To my ear and heart, all of Pinkerton’s plans evaporate in Butterfly’s entrance music (14:25 in the video). We need to take a short detour here for this to make sense.
Ever since the “Tristan chord,” opera composers have tended to move the emotions of the story from the stage to the orchestra — to varying degrees. Wagner, the originator of the movement, took it furthest, which is why The Ring Cycle and Parsifal seem to take an eternity for anything to happen onstage. The action isn’t just happening on the stage, it’s happening in the pit.
In Butterfly, the richness of the story opens to us when we understand that what the characters do and say happens on the stage but their emotions are in the orchestra and the vocal line.
When (25:20 in the video) Pinkerton says, “Vieni mi, amor mia” — ”Come to me, my love” — the beauty of the line guides us toward taking it as a true profession of love. We tend to want to keep Pinkerton from falling in love with Butterfly.
I’m not suggesting that he loves her but that he has fallen in love. If we don’t allow him to fall in love with her, then it keeps us at a distance from the emotions of the opera, it keeps us from feeling Butterfly’s desperation in the second act. When we stay at a distance then Un bel di vedremo becomes the pretty aria of a naive and misguided child.
When we let Pinkerton fall in love, when he leaves with every intention, no matter how unrealistic, of returning, then we are there with Cio-Cio San. She doesn’t seem naive or foolish.
All of us have been there. We’ve all loved and lost. Maybe our experience was falling in love for a few weeks at summer camp only to have the other person live in another state. We make grand and elaborate plans to visit each other and continue our true love, but it never happens.
Puccini’s musical expression of that common experience is more exquisite than what any of us went through but we can feel the second act with Butterfly if we let the love duet of the first act be a true love.
We’re going to revisit Butterfly one more time before the show opens and explore the cultures of the geisha, samurai, and Japanese Buddhism and how they interact in the opera.