For many years I have heard Madame Butterfly praised as one of Giacomo Puccini's most moving operas. Last Saturday I was able to attend the Metropolitan Opera production, shown as a live high-definition movie broadcast. The production was outstanding: fine singing, believable acting, marvelously effective use of Japanese puppetry, and ingenious minimalist scenery consisting of sliding paper walls. However, all of these excellences intensified the unrelieved sadness of the opera and made the experience troubling to me.
The plot is very simple. A Navy lieutenant, B.F. Pinkerton, arrives in Nagasaki. (The mention of Nagasaki was jarring and set me thinking about suffering at the very start of the opera, whereas Puccini, for dramatic reasons, would have wanted to permit the possibility of hope during the early scenes.) Pinkerton leases a house that comes with servants and a fifteen-year-old geisha wife called Madame Butterfly. He finds her charming and marries her, fully expecting to later exercise his legal right in Japan to repudiate the marriage so that he will be free to have a real marriage with an American wife.
The two have a brief honeymoon for the remainder of Pinkerton's shore leave, during which Butterfly becomes pregnant with Pinkerton's son. Then Pinkerton leaves with his gunship. Three years pass and Butterfly receives no word from Pinkerton. It is obvious to everyone but Butterfly that she has been deserted; but when she is advised to consider marriage to another man, she steadfastly clings to her hope that Pinkerton will return to her.
Pinkerton does return to Nagasaki, but he returns with an American wife. When he discovers that he has a son by Butterfly, he shrinks from facing her and instead sends his American wife to retrieve the boy. Butterfly finally sees her true situation. She agrees to give up her son, for the sake of his future, and then withdraws to commit suicide with a dagger.
The profound sadness of the opera kept me from fully appreciating the beauty of the production. The sorrowful last scene, although inevitable, ended Butterfly's victimization but produced no emotion release or resolution. One could easily imagine how the memory of Butterfly's betrayal and violent suicide would blight the lives of the contemptible Lieutenant Pinkerton, his American wife (who would now see him in a drastically different light), and the pitiful little boy.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to see Madame Butterfly, but I would not wish to see it again.