Madama Butterfly Synopsis


A hill near Nagasaki, 1904: a Japanese house, terrace, and garden. Goro is demonstrating all the mod cons of the house to Pinkerton, who is to marry a Japanese wife today. He is introduced to the cook and his future wife’s maid Suzuki. Sharpless enters out of breath, having climbed the hill from Nagasaki. Pinkerton explains that he has just leased the house for 999 years - the only property transaction a foreigner can enter into, although conveniently he can break the lease at a month’s notice. He outlines his ’roving Yankee’ philosophy and the charms of his bride. Sharpless hopes that Pinkerton will never hurt her. Pinkerton scoffs and drinks a toast to America and another to the real bride he will marry one day in America.


Butterfly and her friends enter. Sharpless questions her: she says her people were once wealthy but have since fallen on hard times, so she has been forced to earn her living as a geisha. She is fifteen. More guests arrive, including Butterfly’s relatives: Yakushide immediately asks for wine while the wedding guests discuss the bride (’not as young as she used to be’) and groom (’not very tall’). Butterfly shows him her treasures, which include a ceremonial dagger with which her father killed himself at the Emperor’s command. She adds that she has recently visited the American mission to renounce her ancestral religion and embrace that of her husband. Goro calls for silence and the marriage ceremony is performed. The Bonze bursts in and denounces Butterfly for going to the mission. This outburst, the chatter of the guests, and Yakushide’s drunken behaviour exasperate Pinkerton, who dismisses them all from his house. Pinkerton comforts his bride.



Part One

Three years later. Butterfly is alone with Suzuki, who prays to the Japanese gods that her mistress’s waiting and suffering may soon end. Their funds are nearly exhausted. Suzuki doubts whether Pinkerton will ever return. Furiously, Butterfly reminds her how he had arranged for the Consul to pay the rent, and promised to return ’when the robins nest’. She pictures the scene of his return.


Goro arrives with Sharpless, who has a letter from the lieutenant. Butterfly asks him how often robins nest in America. Yamadori enters and makes an offer of marriage which she mockingly rejects: she is married according to the laws of America, where she thinks divorce is a punishable offence. Sharpless reads the letter, breaking the news that Pinkerton intends to go out of her life for ever, but she misunderstands and he gives up. He asks what she would do if Pinkerton never returned: she replies that she could resume life as a geisha, but would rather die by her own hand. Sharpless advises her to accept Yamadori; she is angry, but she hurries to fetch her son by Pinkerton. Astonished and moved, Sharpless promises to inform the father. Suzuki drags in Goro, who has been spreading rumours about the child’s parentage. Butterfly threatens to kill him, then contemptuously dismisses him.

The harbour cannon signals the arrival of a ship. Butterfly seizes a telescope and makes out the name Abraham Lincoln, Pinkerton’s man-of-war. She and Suzuki proceed to deck out the house with blossom; she adorns herself as on her wedding day, and they settle to a night of waiting.


Part Two

Next morning. The sun rises. Butterfly takes the boy to another room where she quickly falls asleep. Pinkerton appears with Sharpless. Suzuki sees a woman waiting in the garden: it is Pinkerton’s American wife Kate. Sharpless tells Suzuki of the American couple’s concern to give the child a good American upbringing. He reproaches Pinkerton for his heartlessness. Pinkerton leaves, unable to face the Japanese bride he has betrayed. Butterfly enters to confront Sharpless, Suzuki, and Kate. After the situation is explained to her she bids them retire and return in half an hour.


She takes a last farewell of her child and then employs her father’s ceremonial dagger. Pinkerton is heard desperately calling her name.