The second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth was a period when Europe was fascinated by Japanese culture. Japanese gardens and interiors were in fashion, as well as commercial art and clothing. So it is no surprise that when in a small London theatre Giacomo Puccini saw a play by the American dramatist David Belasco about the unhappy love of a Japanese geisha Cio-Cio-San (called Butterfly) for an American naval officer called Pinkerton, he immediately decided to set it to music. The story provided the composer with a theme containing a large helping of sentiment and the exotic environment of Japanese culture, which Puccini complemented with moving melodies. The choice of a foreign setting meant that in the opera Madame Butterfly he had to master a new form of musical expression. He studied culturally distant Japan, having a number of gramophone records brought over from Tokyo so as to get to know Japanese folk music, and put great effort into capturing Japanese local colour. Madame Butterfly is a masterpiece in the fine detail of atmosphere and poesy. The creative duo of Jiří Nekvasil and Daniel Dvořák created an attractive minimalist production inspired by Japanese culture, which respects modern trends in contemporary European theatre.
Premiere 13th November 2009, Janáček Theatre
Janáček Opera Ensemble and Orchestra of the National Theatre Brno
Pinkerton, the American naval officer, sees an attractive young lady named Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly) as the market in Nagasaki. He decides to marry her and Goro the matchmaker arranges everything that is necessary for the small sum of 100 yen. He rents a villa in the hills, from where there is a view of the sea and the port, and arranges the marriage. The wedding takes place in the presence of the American Consul, Sharpless, and relatives of the bride. Cio-Cio-San falls in love with Pinkerton and she willingly gives up her previous life, customs and religion. She does not realise that Pinkerton considers a marriage according to Japanese custom to be purely a non-binding adventure. The wedding celebrations are interrupted by the arrival of Cio-Cio-San’s uncle the Bonze, who berates her for betraying her faith and marrying a foreigner. Cio-Cio-San expects only happiness from her life with Pinkerton, however. The wedding guests leave, and the newly-weds remain alone beneath the star-filled sky.
Three years have passed since the wedding. Pinkerton left with his ship shortly after the wedding and he promised Cio-Cio-San that he would return in the spring. Cio-Cio-San faithfully awaits his return with their child, who had been born in the meantime and of whom Pinkerton had no knowledge. She lives alone with her servant Suzuki. Her relatives have disowned her and she is left only with the modest means that Pinkerton had left for her with Sharpless. Despite this she refuses an offer of marriage from the wealthy prince Yamadori and still believes that Sharpless will return. He, however, has married in America and is now on his way to Nagasaki with his American wife. Cio-Cio-San sees Pinkerton’s ship on the horizon and awaits its arrival all night. However, Pinkerton lands in the company of his wife. He wants to take his child to be brought up in America. The broken-hearted Cio-Cio-San consents, but is unable to live with her unhappiness and she dies at her own hand, as had her father.