Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is one of the most popular operas in the repertory, consistently ranking in the top 10 most frequently performed works in the world’s opera houses (though it is only Puccini’s third most popular work, ranking below both La boheme and Tosca!). There is much to like about it: a central character whose faith and fidelity win our admiration even as her misplaced trust brings about her ruin, a touch of Japanese exoticism, and a gorgeous score. The opera premiered in 1904, and was revised several times before assuming its current form in 1907.
Lieutenant Pinkerton is a US Navy man who takes a wife — Butterfly — during an extended stay in Nagasaki. They conceive a child together, but Pinkerton departs soon afterward. The heart of the drama turns on Butterfly’s faithful and patient waiting for his return, which endures for years before being crushed by Pinkerton’s return in the company of his American wife.
The highlight of the first Act is the love duet for Butterfly and Pinkerton, Vogliatemi bene (Love me well). All is well at this point in the story, and the duet is ravishing. It is sung in this concert excerpt by Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu, with subtitles:
In Act II we have the opera’s musical high point: Butterfly’s heartbreaking aria Un bel di (One beautiful day), in which she dreams of the day when she shall see Pinkerton’s ship return to the harbour, and she shall once again see his face. The great Renata Tebaldi sings it in this clip, without subtitles, but they are hardly necessary in this case:
Pinkerton does return to Nagasaki toward the end of Act II, but in Act III Butterfly learns that he has forsaken her. Retreating into a private room, she takes her family’s ceremonial knife and sings Con onor muore (To die with honour). Blindfolding her child, she stabs herself and collapses on the floor just as Pinkerton rushes in. The finale is sung here by Patricia Racette in a 2009 production from the Met, with English subtitles.