Madame Butterfly: Opera's most tragic heroine

Thursday, March 5, 2009

@SL_body_copy_ragged:On Saturday, the high-definition broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera will be Giacomo Puccini's "Madama Butterfly." The performance will be shown at noon at the Town Plaza Cinema; the encore will be broadcast at 7 p.m. March 18.

"Madama Butterfly" tells the story of a young Japanese geisha who falls in love with an American naval officer. She thinks her marriage to him is genuine, but of course it is not. Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San) is Puccini's most dramatic and tragic heroine. He fell in love with her, and the opera portrays her profound nobility and loyalty that ultimately lead to her death.

The opera was not a success at its premier in 1904, but Puccini reworked parts of it and it has become one of the most popular of all operas.

The opera takes place in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1900. As Act I begins, Goro, a marriage broker, and the American naval officer Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, are discussing wedding arrangements. When the American consul, Sharpless, enters he tries to talk Pinkerton out of this marriage.

He knows that the officer will desert Butterfly and that this will break her heart. Butterfly, who is only 15, enters, accompanied by her friends and family. The marriage ceremony is performed and while everyone is celebrating, Butterfly's uncle enters and denounces her marriage and her desertion of her religion.

Pinkerton orders everyone to leave, then he and Butterfly sing a rapturous duet as they enter their new home.

Act II takes place three years later. Butterfly is waiting for her husband to return. Her money is almost gone and she has a child to support. She watches the harbor for the return of his ship.

Sharpless shows up and tries to tell Butterfly about the letter he has received from Pinkerton. The letter tells of his marriage to an American woman. He just cannot tell her this.

Now Goro arrives. He has found a new husband for Butterfly, but she refuses to marry. When she finally learns of Pinkerton's marriage, she rushes from the room and then returns with her son. She declares that when Pinkerton sees them both he will return.

Suddenly a cannon shot is heard from the harbor. The ship has arrived. Butterfly is delighted and prepares for the return of her husband.

As Act III begins, Butterfly is still waiting for Pinkerton. Sharpless, Pinkerton and Kate, his wife, enter the house. Butterfly's maid is devastated by their arrival.

When Butterfly finally realizes what has happened, she takes her father's dagger from its sheath and goes behind a screen. The knife falls and Butterfly collapses. As she dies, Pinkerton is heard calling out her name.

The opera tells a terrible story, but the strength and nobility of Cio-Cio-San redeem it from being just a sentimental soap opera. She is one of opera's greatest tragic heroines.

Barb Herbert of Cape Girardeau is an opera lover and host of Southeast Public Radio's "Sunday Night at the Opera."

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