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Butterfly


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(Puccini: Madama Butterfly). Sop. Known as Butterfly, her real name is Cio-Cio-San and she is a 15-year-old geisha. She is about to be married to an American, Lieut. Pinkerton, a contract arranged by a marriage-broker. For Pinkerton it is a light-hearted arrangement, but Butterfly takes it very seriously. She has fallen in love with him and renounced her own religion in order to have a Christian wedding, bringing down the wrath of her uncle who has led the family in rejecting her. This distresses her greatly, but after the wedding Pinkerton consoles her as, to a passionate duet, they retire for the night. The next time we see Butterfly it is three years since Pinkerton returned to the USA, promising her he will come back. Her maid, Suzuki, has no faith in his promise, but Butterfly believes him and prepares for his arrival. Pinkerton is indeed coming back, but he now has an American wife and has asked Sharpless, the US Consul, for help in preparing Butterfly for the truth. Sharpless visits Butterfly bringing a letter for her explaining the position. As soon as she sees the letter, she assumes her husband is returning to her, and all Sharpless's efforts to convince her otherwise are foiled, either by interruptions from others or by Butterfly's own excitement. When she produces her son, born after Pinkerton departed, Sharpless realizes he cannot tell her the truth. The cannon sounds to announce the docking of Pinkerton's ship and Butterfly and Suzuki rush round cleaning and decorating the house for his return. As night falls, her son and her maid sleep, but she continues to watch for her husband—in the distance wordless voices can be heard (the Humming Chorus). Next morning Suzuki sends her for a rest. Pinkerton and Sharpless arrive and Pinkerton at last realizes how much heartache he has caused. Unable to face Butterfly, he again leaves Sharpless to deal with things. Gradually the truth dawns on Butterfly—Pinkerton wants to take their son back to America to be brought up by him and his American wife. He can have his son, she says, but he must come himself to collect him. Left alone with her child, Butterfly blindfolds him so that he cannot see what she is about to do. She then kills herself with her father's ceremonial sword. Arias: Un bel dì vedremo (‘One fine day he'll come’); Che tua madre (‘That your mother’); duet (with Pinkerton): Vogliatemi bene (‘Love me a little’).

Of all Puccini's heroines, Butterfly is probably the most developed character-study. She changes totally during the course of the opera, from a 15-year-old girl to a passionate and vulnerable woman, to a caring mother, and finally to a tragic self-sacrificing heroine. Maria Callas sang Butterfly only three times on stage, and John Ardoin described her portrayal as combining ‘Amina's [La sonnambula] innocence…, Gilda's [Rigoletto] metamorphosis and betrayal and Violetta's [La traviata] passion and sacrifice’—a description of the role which I cannot better. Any soprano who undertakes this role must be able to act as well as to sing. A long line of Italianate sopranos have excelled as Butterfly, including Emmy Destinn, Geraldine Farrar (who sang it at the NY Met première in 1907, opposite Enrico Caruso's Pinkerton, and between then and 1922, when she left the company, sang the role nearly 500 times), Elisabeth Rethberg, Toti dal Monte, Maggie Teyte, Maria Cebotari, Joan Cross, Joan Hammond, Licia Albanese, Victoria de los Angeles, Sena Jurinac, Renata Scotto, Mirella Freni, Yoko Watanabe (who had an obvious advantage in looks and deportment), Susan Bullock, Amanda Roocroft, and Anne Sophie Duprels. Created (1904) by Rosina Storchio.

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Subjects: Opera.


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