Madama Butterfly: softer, but with ritual suicide!

We continue our investigation into the wild, wonderful world of opera, this time tackling Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. How will it compare to Wagner? Why does everything have to be so tragic?? Did we overdress???

A collaborative review by Ross Catrow and Susan Howson.

Friends, countrymen, opera n00bs…we are starting to make sense of the hubbub. If you’ll remember, we wrote The Dan Brown Guide to The Valkyrie[1] back in February. It was our first foray, and we did acceptably well, we thought, but we were excited to see something from the other end Virginia Opera’s spectrum this time around.


The beloved opera Madama Butterfly is, we discovered, another piece to this mysterious puzzle. And that piece was crafted lovingly in the Italian style. But WHAT, you ask, is that? And HOW, you continue to ask, does it compare with that Wagner hullabaloo?

Well, Puccini was one of those guys who liked putting babes on a pedestal, and his operas revolve around love, heartbreak, and all around passion. Where The Valkyrie is warlike and epic, Madama Butterfly is tender and touching.

This doesn’t mean we are slaves to our emotions. No, no! Dan Brown doesn’t have emotions! Dan Brown sticks to the clues! What made Butterfly so compelling and easy to follow for us was the way the music so clearly reflected what was going on[2]…and also how funny it is to watch Americans pretending to be Italians pretending to be Japanese pretending to speak American English.[3]

And now, our thoroughly investigated footnotes on a seriously simple plot.


Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton has a plan. He’s been stationed in Japan for a couple of months, so he figures, why not buy a house and stick a temporary wife in it? That’s the culture in early 20th century Japan, we’re sad to report (or, rather, Puccini is). Wives, like houses, are leased to the great Western oafs who find the word “prostitution” slightly too crass bu still need to get busy ASAP. Pinkerton lands the girl of his dreams, a 15-year-old lotus blossom[4] nicknamed “Butterfly,” who thinks her new husband is just too, too much. Friends and family trail in the magnetic Butterfly’s wake in order to witness their hasty wedding. During the preparations, Butterfly confides to Pinkerton that she went to the mission earlier that day and GAVE UP BUDDHISM.

Well, that secret comes out pretty quickly, and her uncle, the BONZE[5]!, isn’t having it. Under his influence, her tribe disowns her. But she doesn’t care too much! She’s got B. F. Pinkerton, a sweet little house, and his assurances that he loves her. I think we all know where this is going.


Three years later, Butterfly and her maid, Suzuki, are waiting patiently (and poorly) for Pinkerton to return. Butterfly assures Suzuki, along with herself, that the American god will surely answer her prayers, as he’s probably less fat and lazy than the Japanese gods. Then, bam, we realize she’s got a toddler! We also realize, with Suzuki’s help, that these American naval officers rarely ever return. But Butterfly is convinced, and cheekily rejects her marriage broker’s urges to accept the hand of a rich Japanese officer.

Then, her pal the American consul shows up, with the intent to tell Butterfly the awkward news that Pinkerton is coming back, but he doesn’t want to see her. She hears about half of what he says, enough to get that she’s being rejected. The anguish is pretty awful, but then she sees his ship appear on the horizon. Hope! He is coming after all![6] He will come see her! She and the kid wait up all night, but he doesn’t arrive.

No wait, he does arrive, but he’s got a “real” American wife in tow, and she meets with Butterfly, urging her to let her take the child back to America and give him a good life. Butterfly is gracious to her replacement, but insists that she will only comply if Pinkerton shows up to get him himself. He’d left earlier, while Butterfly slept. Supposedly, remorse was creeping in, but we’re not sure how convinced we are of that.

Butterfly has plans. No longer welcome in her own Japanese society and certainly never going west to her own personal promised land, she commits ritual suicide[7] just as Pinkerton rushes in, calling her name. Tears abound!


#1 — Ross

Hoyotoho! Hoyotoho! « Back

#2 — Ross

Unlike last time, perched high above in the “Mezzanine,” this time we were nestled safely in the center of the “Orchestra.” Apparently these, later, seats are more desirable? I’m not sure: I had a hard time constantly looking from stage to supertitle. All this to say, I don’t even really think the supertitles are necessary with this opera. Its plot is straightforward and easy to follow thanks to spot on acting and the magical ebb and flow of the music. « Back

#3 — Ross


#4 — Ross

It wouldn’t be the opera without at least one super awkward sexytime. Last we had a brother and sister humpfest, and now we’ve got a teenage childbride. What is with opera dudes! « Back

#5 — Ross

I couldn’t get enough of the Bonze. He either reminded me of Chow Yun Fat or Eric Bana in Star Trek. But really, the acting — especially charismatic little Butterfly — was so much better than The Valkyrie. I don’t think I can recall a single bout of “I AM EXPRESSING THIS EMOTION WITH MY HANDS.” « Back

#6 — Ross

As Butterfly cavorts about the stage preparing for the theoretical arrival of the bearded Pinkerton, cherry blossoms fall from the catwalks. Virginia Opera does a great job of setting the scene with minimal elements on stage — like cherry blossoms and simple moveable screens. Also, whoever did the lighting for this thing deserves a gold star. « Back

#7 — Ross

Listen. I’ve seen some things in my time, and this ritual suicide doesn’t even rank in my Top 25 for Ritual Suicides. Butterfly heads behind a screen and we see the whole thing in silhouette — which is great! But, it plays kind of weak and looks more like a silhouetted sword swallowing than the dramatic death of our female lead. if you’re going to spill some blood I want to feel like I need to wash it off afterwards. « Back

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