‘Poor Mimi, poor Liu, poor Butterfly; how beautifully they sing when they suffer.’
Writing on Michele Girardi’s Puccini: His International Art in the London Review of Books in 2000, the late, great philosopher and opera lover Jerry Fodor explored the sense of disquiet beneath the thrill of watching Manon Lescaut, Tosca, La bohème, Turandot and Madama Butterfly:
One is often moved to be sure; but there is also a sense of being complicit in something not entirely nice. The puzzle about Puccini is why this should be so.
To Fodor, Puccini’s operas were a guilty pleasure: "The extraordinary erotic charge of his music co-opts one’s responses; nobody else can make suffering sound so sexy." Until recently it was not uncommon for connoisseurs to dismiss them as mawkish: a nonsense when you consider how their beauty is brandished like a weapon. As Fodor observed, "The right complaint against Puccini isn’t that he’s sentimental: it’s that he’s brutal."
Brutality is certainly a key factor in Puccini’s work; his female characters are, to put it lightly, unlucky. Women suffer in Janáček’s operas and in Verdi’s, losing their children, their lovers, their minds and their lives. Is Puccini so different? Fodor’s argument that the deliberate framing of female agony in apparently seductive music embodies ‘the aesthetic of a voyeur’ is surprisingly persuasive on first reading. Perhaps especially in the case of Cio-Cio-San, whose suffering is the result of an impulse essential to voyeurism: objectification.
But who is the guilty party? Not Puccini, who gives voice to Butterfly the fifteen-year-old bride and Butterfly the eighteen-year-old mother, and waits patiently with her as she sits vigil, but Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton of the US Navy, who never knows the woman that he marries ‘all’uso giapponese’ but only looks, seizes, breaks and discards.
Madama Butterfly was not the first giovane scuola opera to centre on what we would now call child sex exploitation in an exotic setting. In 1898, between La bohème and Tosca, Mascagni’s Iris depicted the kidnapping, imprisonment, aborted seduction, abandonment and suicide of a young girl. The score is opulent, decadent, lurid and narcotic. The characters are ciphers.
The charge that Cio-Cio-San is objectified by Puccini crumbles on close examination of the music and the libretto. Far from being exploitative, it is an opera about exploitation. Cio-Cio-San is allowed to be silly, proud, tender, irrational, passionate, tenacious, strong, a child and a woman.
When Pinkerton talks about her in Act One, he talks about seeing her: likening her to a painted figure on a screen, a flower, a pet, a baby. When Sharpless, the US consul, talks about her, he talks about hearing her speak. It is Sharpless who listens to Butterfly during Pinkerton’s three-year absence, as we do, becoming Easternised as Cio-Cio-San is Westernised.
Cio-Cio-San is certainly Puccini’s most vulnerable heroine: more innocent than Manon or Mimì, small too. When she asks Sharpless to guess her age, his first answer is ten. Fifteen, he says, is an age for games. An age for wedding cake, replies Pinkerton, who has already toasted the ‘real American wedding to a real American wife’ that he expects as his due. As he confesses to Sharpless, Pinkerton cannot say whether he feels ‘amore o grillo’ (love or infatuation) for Butterfly, only that he has to have her, even though he might ‘damage her wings’. Cio-Cio-San’s virginity is implicit in this exchange, as it is in her love duet with Pinkerton, if that is what it can be called.
The marriage contract, like the lease on the house, is for 999 years, with the right to be freed from liability at one month’s notice. Fatherless, and on the cusp of sexual maturity, Cio-Cio-San is helpless to resist what she believes to be love. She believes it to be real, wills it to be permanent, yet she is asked to fade away politely like an experienced mistress when Kate Pinkerton, the ‘real American wife’, arrives in Nagasaki to take her child, Sorrow.
Far from being fragile, Cio-Cio-San is fearless in her agony. The steel that we first hear in ‘Un bel dì vedremo’ leads directly to ‘Con onor muore’.
In Pinkerton, too, there are more layers than in Puccini’s earlier tenor roles: a queasy composite of Des Grieux’s impetuosity, Rodolfo’s infinite self-pity, Scarpia’s oily, heavy lust, and, in his Act One duet with Cio-Cio-San, a sense that, in this moment, his feelings for her are indeed genuine. Is this characterisation the work of "an artist with an authentically nasty temperament," as Fodor put it? Or the work of an artist who knew the lawless, temporary blur of sexual desire yet sympathised with the Butterflies of this world?
In the final bars of Madama Butterfly there is no redemption for the man who bought a child bride, never thinking that she might be hurt, never understanding the woman she would become. Cio-Cio San is dead and Lieutenant B F Pinkerton must live with his shame.
This is a shortened version of an article published in the programme for Opera North’s 2018 revival of Madama Butterfly.
Anne Sophie Duprels as Cio-Cio-San and Merūnas Vitulskis as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly at Opera North in 2018. Photos by Richard H Smith.