Madama Butterfly is rare among operas for having a libretto that surpasses its original sources. Verdi's operatic versions of Shakespeare dramas are unequivocal masterpieces (and the libretti--operatic "scripts" or "screenplays"--Arrigo Boito wrote for Otello and Falstaff are brilliant). Verdi's Shakespeare adaptations co-exist with the Bard's plays, but they do not surpass Shakespeare's originals.
Puccini's librettists, Giacosa and Illica based their libretto on David Belasco's play, Madam Butterfly. Belasco based his play on a short story by John Luther Long. Belasco was known as the "Bishop of Broadway" for his innovative stagecraft (advanced lighting techniques and "special effects"). For Belasco, the play was not necessarily the thing, but the spark to fire the imagination for a spectacular production.
Giacosa and Illica's libretto, however, is brilliant. With Puccini, this "Trinity" of collaborators produced three of opera's most beloved masterpieces, La Boheme, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. And while no one loves a Puccini opera for its words ("it's the music, stupid!"), there are layers of the intricate onion of Butterfly's libretto worth peeling.
I want to consider two such layers. One is a through-line of nature references, with a concentration on birds and flowers. Puccini wrote "If you want to understand my music, you have to understand Pascoli." Giovanni Pascoli was a Tuscan nature poet. In addition to being the composer's colleague, Pacoli was a fellow Lucchesi (analogous to a "Roanoker; " regional pride is as marked in Italy as in the USA).
Nature images abound in Puccini's operas, and they infuse Madama Butterfly from start to finish. Each of the five principal characters reference flowers as metaphor, symbol &/or sign. Butterfly's maid, Suzuki speaks with flowery chatter when first introduced to Lt. Pinkerton. The marriage broker, Goro compares his bevy of Geisha girls to a "garland of fresh flowers" as he tries to sell one to the US Consul, Sharpless. One of the most famous musical excerpts from the score is the "flower duet" Butterfly and Suzuki sing in Act II. The opulence of that music mirrors the excess of the imagery of (literal) showers of flowers flooding the spring with vibrant color and fragrant perfume.
Such imagery also resonates with tragedy. The flower's fragility, and the blossom's inherent transience heighten the tragic drama of Madama Butterfly. Pinkerton's brief closing romanza is a "farewell to a little flower" (Addio, fiorito asil). That his remorse--however belated--is sincere is underscored by his aside in the elegiac trio he sings with Sharpless and Suzuki. "How bitter is the perfume of this flower..."
Sharpless, the messenger (and reluctant prophet of the unfolding tragedy), delivers one of the more ironic instances of floral imagery when he attempts to read Butterfly a letter from the "husband" who has abandoned her. Pinkerton asks him to "find that beautiful flower of a girl" (and break the news to her gently).
The "love duet" that closes Act I is one of Puccini's most beloved scenes. It also features poetry that foreshadows the tragedy with irony worthy of Greek drama. Near the close of the duet's first section, Butterfly expresses her fears, and Pinkerton dismisses them with the words "love won't kill you." Later in the scene, she worries she will be caught, pinned and encased like a real butterfly. Pinkerton retorts, "there's a little truth in that, but it's so you won't get away..."
That this unsettling exchange is set to ravishing music underscores the tension in great drama, and is one of the reasons opera wields such power.
There was another kind of tension when Butterfly first opened in 1904. That premiere at La Scala was one of the most notorious opening night disaster's in the history of the theatre (and if time permits, I'll write a bit about that fiasco). Besides incorporating Japanese melodies into his Italian opera, Puccini aimed for verisimilitude with other musical details. Japanese bells and chimes are called for, as are bird whistles, all intended to evoke atmosphere (or "local color").
One of Puccini's biographers wrote about the crowd's reaction to those bird whistles (in the orchestral Intermezzo, before the last scene). Their unexpected appearance evoked a "deafening variety of cackling and animal cries" from the already vociferous opening night audience. The din was so great "La Scala became a lunatic aviary."
Not quite the impression Puccini had in mind by evoking the dawn with sounds from nature.
“I am writing birdsong, so beautiful!” Pascoli wrote in 1903 (while Puccini was composing Butterfly). The birdsong Puccini writes in the beginning of Act II is colorful and witty. Pinkerton promised Butterfly he'd return when the Robins come "home" to nest. When Butterfly asks Sharpless (in the aforementioned "letter" scene) when the Robins nest in America, a comic exchange occurs:
SH: "I don't know, I've never studied ornithology."
This scene is full of such witticisms pointed up by Illica's clever rhyme scheme. In this same scene, Goro tries to peddle Butterfly to a rich prince, Yamadori. Butterfly's control here belies attempts to oversimplify her as a one-dimensional naif. As the eminent songwriter Stephen Sondheim points out, speaking in rhyme is a sign of a character's cultivated intelligence. Butterfly is alternately lampooning and sarcastic, and in command of an intricate ensemble situation. She mimes an American courtroom scene with perfect comic timing, stumping Sharpless in the process. Puccini's use of musical parody (a slow "English" waltz, reminiscent of operetta) is another fragrant layer of significance.
Like the variations on the flower theme, the wit of these internal scenes heightens the drama, turning the screws as this heart-breakingly beautiful opera unfolds.