“Madama Butterfly” revisited

There are times when one should reconsider some point of view one had previously expressed with great confidence, and concede, much though it may pain one to do so, that one may, perhaps, have been a trifle over-hasty. To switch now to the first person, I have to admit I’ve been talking shite.

The last time I wrote about the operas of Puccini, I had characterised him as, essentially, a purveyor of schmaltz – a splendid craftsman who, far from hiding his craftsmanship, put it on display, and who knew better than anyone how to pull at the heartstrings. And while it is certainly very enjoyable stuff, it is not, I implied, to be taken too seriously. You have a good cry as you’re watching it, and afterwards, if not actually forget about it, smile at the thought of having been so affected at the time. It’s showmanship of a very high standard, admittedly, but showmanship all the same, and nothing more.

But now, a full week after seeing a live broadcast into the cinemas of Royal Opera’s superb performance of Madama Butterfly, and still unable to get it out of my head, I find myself questioning this. Even if it were all true; even if Puccini were a master showman, a craftsman of the highest order who knew full well how to get his audience crying; why should that imply that his works are not to be taken seriously? What is it, precisely, that should prevent me from seeing Madama Butterfly as a serious tragic drama?

The plotline is simple enough (and I guess that I should issue at this point a spoiler warning, for those who care about such things). A young Japanese girl, Cio Cio San, from a noble family now fallen upon bad times, and, aged only fifteen, very innocent and naïve about the ways of the world, enters into marriage with a young American sailor Pinkerton. She takes the marriage very seriously, going as far as to reject her religion for her future husband’s, thus earning her family’s disapproval. Pinkerton, on the other hand, does not take this “marriage” at all seriously: he is just in it for a night of sex with an attractive young Japanese girl, and he even jokes quite openly about later finding himself a “proper American wife”. After his night of passion, he sails away, and forgets all about this girl. It is not that he is a villain: he is just a thoughtless young man who is doing what he sees everyone else in his position doing. It doesn’t occur to him – or, indeed, to anyone else – that the “bride” might be taking this whole silly business seriously.

But she does. From that night of passion, she has a little boy. And she waits for Pinkerton to return, as he had said he would, and will not hear anything to the contrary. And when, after three years, he does return, he has his “proper American wife” with him. He is overcome by remorse, and he and his American wife speak of adopting the little boy from his former “marriage”. Cio Cio San, her entire life and soul now crushed, takes out of its scabbard the sword with which her father, on the Emperor’s command, had committed hara-kiri. She reads the inscription: “He who cannot live with honour must die with honour”. And she blindfolds the little by so he cannot see his mother’s final agony, both physical and spiritual.

That is the story, and, for all the talk we hear of operas having silly plots, this seems to me frighteningly realistic. But what is interesting is what Puccini makes of this story. For, as far as I can see, what he makes of it is more than just a finely crafted tear-jerker. It now seems to me that it is nothing less than a tragedy of immense proportions. Cio Cio San’s fate is every bit as tragic as that of Janáček’s Káťa Kabanová, or Berg’s Wozzeck. If we do not hesitate to describe those works as tragic (and I don’t think anyone seriously does), I really don’t see why we should withhold that status from this opera. Yes, Cio Cio San is tortured beyond human endurance, and Puccini is often criticised for what many regard as his streak of sadism, and of misogyny. But Káťa Kabanová and Wozzeck are equally tortured, and I’ve yet to hear Janáček criticised for misogyny on that score, or Berg of misandry. And neither is accused of sadism. It seems that these criticisms are made only of Puccini. Is it because he wears his heart so obviously on his sleeve, I wonder? What other reason can there be?

Also, sadism implies an enjoyment in inflicting pain. But I get no sense of that at all in Madama Butterfly. Puccini takes Cio Cio San’s sufferings very seriously. Indeed, he is perhaps the only one who does. Apart from the maidservant Suzuki, all other characters seem to see Cio Cio San as essentially disposable: she doesn’t matter, and neither do her feelings. In the first act, Pinkerton never pauses to ask himself whether Cio Cio San takes the marriage seriously, or as lightly as he obviously does. Even the American consul, Sharpless, though sympathetic, is merely uneasy at the marriage, and no more: he tells Pinkerton to be careful, but, crucially, doesn’t tell him not to proceed with his plans. Later, he expresses frustration that Cio Cio San insists on waiting for the man she still regards as her husband. In the final act, no-one questions that Pinkerton’s second marriage, with a “proper American woman”, is the one that really counts, and not his first. Pinkerton may be remorseful, and everyone may feel sorry for Cio Cio San, but no-one thinks anything of taking her child away from her. The American Mrs Pinkerton promises to Cio Cio San that she will look after the child as if he were her own: she actually thinks this is a kind thing to say. And we can all guess what will happen once the curtain drops on the dead woman and the blindfolded child: the child will be taken away, his mother never more mentioned, and, in time, she will be forgotten. A disposable person well disposed of. Move on – nothing to see here.

The only person to understand the full extent of this tragedy, to understand its earth-shaking nature, is Puccini himself. And to see this merely as a master showman pulling strings to get his audience crying does not strike me as an adequate way to view this – as it seems to me now – extraordinary work. It wrings the heart with terror and with pity, and neither is there just for theatrical effect.

The Royal Opera production, and the performances, were top notch. Conductor Antonio Pappano shapes and paces the drama to perfection, and Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho is absolutely sensational as Cio Cio San, both in terms of singing and of acting. A full week after the show, neither my wife nor I can get this opera out of our heads. The other characters on stage may no doubt see Cio Cio San as essentially a disposable human being; but Puccini has ensured that we see her as something considerably more than that. Madama Butterfly is among the great works of tragic drama.

8 responses to this post.

  1. I think you hit on one of the perennially annoying issues regarding works of real beauty: they are often not taken as seriously as they should be. Mozart, for example, because the surface of his music is so absolutely gorgeous and because his textures are so delicate, is often viewed as a lightweight despite the fact that his compositions are full of innovation and surprise and damned meticulous craftsmanship. It’s easy to miss the depth of something that’s immediately beautiful, and we’re all being trained that to be moved is to be sentimental and empty-headed. Always choose cynicism over empathy, etc.

    Ma femme and I went to Seattle Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly a couple of years ago. Truly wonderful and moving.


    • I’ve never actually seen Madama Butterfly in the opera house. I’d really love to.

      I still don’t understand those (and there are many) who consider Mozart’s works to be “lightweight”. I think you’re right – people tend to be suspicious of anything that’s beautiful on the surface: the assumption seems to be that surface beauty is a cover for lack of depth. What warrant there may be to make such an assumption I really do not know.

      Puccini has the further disadvantage in that he was, by nature, a showman.

      As for “sentimentality” – I’m always wary of that term, since I have never seen a definition of it that I consider adequate. It seems, in essence, to mean “sentiment I do not like”. I’d guess that our suspicion of anything with a strong emotional content is a reaction against Romanticism, but the Romantic Era has ended along time ago now, and we really should get over this reaction! (This is not to say that nothing is sentimental – just that, given the problems regarding definition, we should apply the term a bit more judiciously.) I personally do not find “sentimentality” in Madama Butterfly. Does this mean anything more than that Madama Butterfly projects sentiments I approve of? I honestly don’t know! But I do continue to find it very moving.


  2. I do take Puccini and his opera seriously and if that marks me as shallow, then I am.

    Cio Cio San is a victim not only of Pinkerton but of her society which has taught her that the ideal love and the ideal wife means devotion of the woman to the man, no matter what he is. She integrates this so completely into her thoughts and emotions that she cannot value herself sufficiently to live _for_ herself. Her suicide at the end is not just despair; it is her gift to Pinkerton so that he gets the boy without any continuing ties.

    All of this is fatally damaging to her. Still,what she gains is depth of emotion. When you hear her sing Un bel dia (spell?) you experience someone who can feel and express real joy.


    • Hello Nancy, I agree that Cio Cio San is a victim of all around her, including the very traditional society in which she has grown up. Her family rejects her: she cannot turn to them. And to the marriage-broker Goro, she is merely a commodity.

      I have been thinking as well about your insight that Cio Cio San has absorbed the standards of her society (as we all tend to do, to a greater or lesser extent), and that she has taken it in so completely, that, once she finds she is no longer wanted by her husband, she can no longer value herself. I hadn’t thought of this, but I think you are right. This seems to make her tragedy even more terrible: it means that it’s only the other characters who think her disposable – she comes to view herself in this manner.

      The more I think about this drama, the more heartbreaking it appears.


  3. Posted by mudpuddle on April 6, 2017 at 6:03 pm

    truly a wonderful opera. slightly off the point, i vividly recall an experience that happened to me while watching it in the Hippodrome in Cleveland. Just at the final scene where Cio Cio San meets her fate, a warm, sludgy sensation washed over the top of my head and it took a moment to realize that the little girl sitting just above me had barfed all over the top of my head… my unforgettable operatic experience…


  4. I have always loved _Madama Butterfly_ and all of Puccini’s works, in fact. I even made a pilgrimage to Lucca. The story is also about imperialism==that of the USA of that of men over women. But the gorgeous duets and solos are transcendent. When I was younger I sometimes would in a jaded way dismiss Botticelli, Robert Frost, and Puccini as “schmaltz” but I the one who was wrong. Art that “seems” easy is often the most brilliant. I loved reading your blog entry; thank you.


    • “Transcendent” – yes, that’s the word. The story itself, when summarised, is a bit tawdry, but Puccini transcends that. With that glorious music, it becomes a work of tragic grandeur. When I am somewhere where no-one can hear the horrible croaking noises I make when I try to sing, and I fantasise about being a tenor, it’s that line “Bimba dagli occhi pieni di malia” that comes first to mind. Transcendent, as you say.

      And yes, the story does revolve around the inequality of power between men and women – the “imperialism” of men, as you say. On political imperialism, I’m not so sure: Japan had not, after all, been an American colony. US were certainly heavily involved with reconstruction after WW2, but that was, of course, long after this opera was composed. But yes, Cio Cio San is in a situation where she is utterly powerless: it’s the men who hold all the power. Interestingly, the only character on stage who is genuinely sympathetic for Cio Cio San’s plight is not a man, but another woman – Suzuki.

      Not all works of art are easily accessed, but Madama Butterfly is. It is irresistible. And as you say, this leads many to underrate it.


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