Madame Butterfly Synopsis


Music by Giacomo Puccini

Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica after David Belasco’s play Madame Butterfly (based on John Luther Long’s story, which was based partly on Pierre Loti’s Madame Chrysanthème).

First performed on February 17, 1904 at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy.

Setting: Nagasaki, Japan
Time: Beginning of the 20th century

Act I
A house near a hill overlooking Nagasaki harbor
On a picturesque terrace, Goro, the Japanese marriage broker, leads the American Navy Lieutenant, B. F. Pinkerton, through a hillside house that will soon be shared with the Lieutenant’s new Japanese wife, Cio-Cio San, (often referred to by the English translation, “Butterfly”). Pinkerton seems charmed with the house, as it is modeled in Japanese style. Although, he is technically leasing the house for 999 years, Pinkerton can cancel the lease, along with the marriage contract to Cio-Cio San, on a month-by-month basis as he pleases.

Goro introduces the house servants along with Suzuki, Cio-Cio San’s future maid. Sharpless, the United States consul, greets them, breathless, after the climbing the hill. Pinkerton boasts of his life philosophy: a self-described Yankee, traveling the world in search of pleasure, and claiming that life is not worth living if he cannot win the best of each country, of course interrupting his speech to have another drink of whiskey, as Yankees do (Dovunque al mondo).

Disapproving, Sharpless senses Pinkerton’s self-importance and blasé attitude in regard to others. Recognizing that Pinkerton is acting on whim and not out of sincere love, Sharpless quickly becomes protective of Cio-Cio San, sharing that her “tinder voice touched my soul”, and cautioning Pinkerton not to torment her “trusting heart.” For her desire for love and loyalty is sincere.

Pinkerton pursues his agenda with youthful fervor and carefree enthusiasm. He chalks up the Consul’s caution to old age. He sends Goro to fetch the object of his affection, Cio-Cio San, while he toasts to the day he will have a real American bride.

Goro announces the arrival of Cio-Cio San and her fellow geishas. Sharpless asks about her family and she reveals that they were once wealthy, but have since fallen on hard times, forcing her to earn a living as a geisha at only 15 years old. Her family arrives and although some are suspicious of Pinkerton, Cio-Cio San insists they treat him with respect. She shows Pinkerton her treasures, including the dagger her father used to commit suicide by order of the Emperor. She also shows him puppets that represent the spirits of her ancestors. She tells him that she visited the American mission and renounced her Buddhist heritage to embrace her new husband’s Christian religion.

The Imperial Commissioner proclaims the wedding and all toast to the couples’ happiness (O Kami! O Kami!). The Bonze interrupts the celebration, denouncing Cio-Cio San for giving up her religion. Her family joins in his disappointment and leave with him. Pinkerton comforts Cio-Cio San (Viene la sera) now that her family has cast her aside; she observes how the most beautiful butterflies are often impaled on a pin.

Act II
Scene 1 – Inside Butterfly’s house
Three years have passed and Pinkerton has since left, leaving Cio-Cio San aching for his return. Suzuki prays to her Gods that her maiden’s suffering will end, but Cio-Cio San claims that Suzuki’s Gods are lazy, and that Pinkerton’s God would come to her rescue if only He knew where she was. Prior to leaving, Pinkerton arranged for the rent to be covered in his absence, but with that money running out, Suzuki doubts he will ever return. Cio-Cio San becomes furious with Suzuki for thinking such things, and counters with imagining Pinkerton’s joyful return (Un bel di vedremo). Goro and Sharpless arrive with a letter from the lieutenant. Cio-Cio San asks about Pinkerton, but Sharpless is evasive.

Prince Yamadori enters with a marriage proposal for Cio-Cio San, which she rejects as she considers herself still a married woman and, according to American law, divorce is a punishable offense. Yamadori leaves and Sharpless reads the letter aloud, stating that Pinkerton is leaving Cio-Cio San’s life forever, although he discontinues when it becomes apparent that Cio-Cio San does not comprehend the meaning of the letter. Sharpless asks her what she would do if Pinkerton did not return and she says she would rather die ten times over than return to the life of a geisha.

Sharpless urges her to accept Yamadori’s offer but, angered, Butterfly leaves to retrieve her and Pinkerton’s son. Sharpless is astonished and offers to inform Pinkerton of this new development. Suzuki brings in Goro, who has been making disparaging remarks about the child’s parentage. Butterfly threatens to kill Goro, but dismisses him instead.

The harbor canon announces the arrival of a ship. Cio-Cio San looks through a telescope to see the name Abraham Lincoln on the boat – Pinkerton’s boat.  She and Suzuki begin preparations to receive Pinkerton (Scuoti quella fronda di ciliegio). She dresses herself as she did on her wedding day and Cio-Cio San, Suzuki, and Trouble, her son, wait through the night for Pinkerton’s arrival (The Humming Chorus).

Scene 2 – Inside Butterfly’s house
The sun rises to reveal Cio-Cio San, Suzuki and the boy still seated, awaiting Pinkerton. Cio-Cio San takes the child into another room, sings a lullaby, and falls asleep. Pinkerton appears with Sharpless,  and Suzuki sees a strange woman in the garden, who they later find out is Kate, Pinkerton’s American wife. The couple has come to take the child and see that he has a traditional American upbringing.  Sharpless tells Pinkerton that he is heartless and Pinkerton pours out his grief (Addio, fiorito asil) and leaves, unable to face Cio-Cio San. She, however, appears to confront Sharpless, Suzuki and Kate. When she is told of the situation, Cio-Cio San asks that they leave and return in half an hour. She says goodbye to her child and stabs herself with her father’s dagger.  Pinkerton is heard calling her name, but it is too late.