Giacomo Puccini

Japanese tragedy in three acts
Libretto: Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica
World premiere: 17 February 1904, Regio Teatro alla Scala, Milan
Polish premiere: 3 December 1908, Teatr Wielki, Warsaw
Premiere of this production: 29 May 1999

In the original Italian with Polish surtitles 

The port in Nagasaki was the only Japanese port to let in foreign ships. Colourful stories of love affairs between local geishas and foreigners were so moving that literature took an interest. Pierre Loti wrote a novel called Madame Chrysanthème. John Luther Long drew on it when he wrote Madame Butterfly, which in turn inspired David Belasco to write a play of the same title. When Puccini’s opera conquered the opera world, people even found Butterfly’s prototype in Nagasaki. She was supposedly called Tsuru Yamamura, embroidered a butterfly on her coat (hence the nickname), married a British merchant and, when he left her, committed hari-kari (fortunately unsuccessfully). The composer saw Belasco’s play in London in 1900. He didn’t sail to America until 1907. He could have met officers similar to Pinkerton on the ship, but by then the premiere had long taken place (1904). The music in Butterfly is pure Puccini: the saturated sound of strings, psychological truth in the singing, deep emotions. All the things that audiences loved him for. Just once in a while, a melodic element in Far Eastern style is heard. On stage, cherry blossoms and parasols have reigned supreme. Mariusz Treliński defies this stereotype. He shows the magic and mystery of Japan with light, colours and actor gestures akin to the Noh theatre convention. The beautiful Warsaw Butterfly (from 1999), staged in the same form in Washington, St. Petersburg, Valencia and Tel Aviv, brought Treliński fame, and with him also the Teatr Wielki. Today this artist’s opera debut is a cult must-see production. Definitely.



Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatr Wielki  Polish National Opera


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    Act I

    An American naval ship has stopped for an extended period in a Japanese port. Pinkerton, a young lieutenant, is finding his monotonous life hard to bear; to brighten up his life he uses the services of Goro, a Japanese matchmaker who – for a fee – introduces him to the young geisha Cio-Cio-San, also known as Butterfly. According to Japanese custom, Pinkerton is to marry her and the marriage is to be valid for 999 years. Goro takes the lieutenant to a rented house on a hill above the city and introduces his future wife’s servants. The wedding ceremony approaches – the first guest to arrive is the American consul in Nagasaki, Sharpless. He takes the matter of Pinkerton’s marriage more seriously than the young lieutenant and warns him not to destroy the life of the young Japanese girl who truly loves him.

    Cio-Cio-San arrives with her family and a large group of Japanese girls. She tells Pinkerton that she went to see the missionaries that morning to convert to the Christian faith, and that for him she is prepared to break all ties to her family and her environment. The registrar reads out the marriage certificate. The festive wedding atmosphere is disturbed by the sudden arrival of the bride’s uncle, the Bonze, who has discovered the secret of her baptism and curses her for abandoning the faith of her fathers and marrying a foreigner. He leaves Pinkerton’s house, and the terrified wedding guests hurriedly follow. Butterfly and Pinkerton are left alone. Night falls. Act one ends with a magnificent love duet, one of the most beautiful in world opera (‘Bimba deli occhi’).

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    Act II

    Three years have passed since Pinkerton’s wedding. Every spring Butterfly and her little son await her husband, who left soon after the wedding, promising he would certainly return. They live in poverty, and Butterfly’s faithful maid Suzuki is afraid they will grow even poorer because she has no hope Pinkerton will return. Butterfly, on the other hand, unswervingly believes he will keep his word. Sharpless the consul appears unexpectedly and is greeted joyfully by Butterfly. During his visit, the wealthy prince Yamadori also arrives. Goro the matchmaker is helping him woo Cio-Cio- San, but the young woman keeps rejecting the prince. She still considers herself to be Pinkerton’s wife and refuses to accept Japanese divorce customs. She doesn’t change her mind even when Sharpless tries diplomatically to tell her that Pinkerton has no intention of coming back to her. Cio-Cio-San doesn’t believe the consul (the aria ‘Un bel di vedremo’ – ‘One fine day’). She shows him her little boy and asks him to tell Pinkerton that she and the child are still waiting for him. Embarrassed by his sad mission, Sharpless leaves Butterfly’s house; a while later she chases away the importunate Goro.

    A cannon shot announces Pinkerton’s ship. Together with Suzuki the elated Butterfly decorates the entire house with flowers (the duet ‘Scuoti quelle fronda’) and, in her wedding dress, awaits her husband’s arrival. Dusk falls; the singing of returning fishermen can be heard in the distance. No one appears on the path leading to Butterfly’s house…

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    Act III

    The night has passed. Exhausted from waiting, Butterfly has fallen asleep. It’s only now that Sharpless and Pinker- ton appear in the garden in front of the house. Suzuki is astonished to see an unfamiliar elegant lady accompanying them. It is Pinkerton’s wife, who has come with her husband to take away his son. Arriving moments later, Cio-Cio-San immediately guesses the truth and knows what she must do. She dismisses everyone and takes the old ance- stral knife on which are inscribed the words ‘Who cannot live with honour must die with honour’. Having bid her child farewell, Cio-Cio-San stabs herself with the knife. In a final moment of consciousness, she turns towards Pinkerton as he rushes into the room crying ‘Butterfly!’.


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