Choreographer: Stanton Welch
Music: Giacomo Puccini
Costumes and Set Design: Peter Farmer
Lighting: Lisa j. Pinkham
World Premiere: Australian Ballet, February 24, 1995
PBT Performance Date: April 2005
Synopsis (from PBT playbill, 2005; reprinted with permission of Houston Ballet)
Cio-Cio-San, a geisha known as Madame Butterfly, dreams of her future
On a hill overlooking the harbour, a wedding is shortly to take place between Lieutenant Pinkerton, an officer in the US Navy, and Butterfly, with whom he has contracted a Japanese marriage. Goro, the obsequious marriage broker and general factotum, shows Pinkerton over the house in which he will live with Butterfly. Pinkerton is much intrigued by its strange but practical arrangements. He is introduced to the servants, including Suzuki, Butterfly’s personal maid.
The first visitor to arrive is Sharpless, the United State Consul at Nagasaki. Together with Goro they drink a toast. Sharpless, however, is deeply disturbed by the frivolous levity with which Pinkerton regards this marriage and utters a grave warning: not to break a trusting and devoted heart. He hands him a letter from Kate, Pinkerton’s betrothed who waits for him back home. While Pinkerton must travel overseas to fulfil his career, he vows that one day he will marry his American girl. Sharpless and Pinkerton let their minds wander: Sharpless’s towards the fate of Butterfly, and Pinkerton’s to his love for Kate. The bridal party arrives and with much formality Butterfly is introduced to the two Americans. They discover that she has been forced to become a geisha because of the dire poverty into which her once wealthy family fell after her father committed ritual suicide. She is fifteen years old.
Butterfly sets up a shrine placing her valuables gently upon it – including the sacred sword her father had used to kill himself – and shyly shows them to Pinkerton. She confides to him that she has visited the US Mission and has become a Christian so that she may worship the same god as her husband. The brief marriage ceremony is carried out and as they descend the hill, Sharpless delivers Pinkerton a warning to be sensible.
The wedding celebrations are in full flight as Pinkerton encourages Butterfly’s aunts and uncles to eat and drink, hoping this will hasten their departure. Suddenly, Butterfly’s uncle, The Bonze, bursts into the midst of the unhappy scene. He has learned of her visits to the US Mission and in a raging fury now denounces her for her rejection of the faith of her father’s. A general uproar follows and the relations depart cursing. Left alone, Butterfly weeps bitterly but is comforted by Pinkerton’s tenderness. Slowly she abandons her innocence and they lie down beneath the stars.
Several years have passed since Pinkerton left Nagasaki. Butterfly is desperately poor and only Suzuki will stay with her. She is convinced that one day her husband will return and brushes aside others’ doubts.
Sharpless and Goro arrive at the house. Goro is anxious to profit from a new match between Butterfly and the wealthy Prince Yamadori (who makes his pompous entrance), now that her marriage to Pinkerton can be annulled. Sharpless produces a letter he has received from Pinkerton. Butterfly teases Yamadori mercilessly over his passion for her and turns down his marriage proposal. Ignoring Japanese tradition, she maintains her vow to Pinkerton. Prince Yamadori leaves, followed by a furious Goro who finally wipes his hands of Butterfly.
Sharpless hands the letter to Butterfly, but she is too excited and begs him to read it to her. Knowing the letter’s fatal contents, he hesitates to inquire what Butterfly’s future would hold if Pinkerton were never to return. Horrified at the suggestion, she fetches the child she has had by Pinkerton and triumphantly shows him to the Consul.
Instead of the truth, Sharpless tells her the letter has no sad news and promises to tell Pinkerton about the young boy.
Goro has been spying on the household and upon Sharpless’ exit attacks the family saying that in Japan a fatherless half-breed child is an outcast. Butterfly is outraged and chases him away.
A cannon shot is heard from the harbour announcing the arrival of a ship. Butterfly and Suzuki, watching from the terrace, recognise that it is Pinkerton’s ship; he has come back to her. She sends Suzuki to pluck flowers from the garden and they set about adorning themselves and the house. As evening falls she makes several holes in the paper wall through which the three watch for Pinkerton. She dreams of his return, of her and her son’s acceptance, wealth and happiness in America – their new home.
As dawn breaks the dream is shattered. Suzuki wakes up and urges her weary mistress to retire. Pinkerton, Sharpless and Kate arrive at the door. They have come early in the morning in the hope of finding Suzuki alone and of enlisting her support to persuade Butterfly to accept Kate’s offer to adopt the child. For Pinkerton, the house is full of poignant memories and, overcome by remorse, he decides to leave without seeing Butterfly. Butterfly awakes and glimpses his departure. Alarmed, she questions Suzuki. Suzuki’s sobbing and Sharpless’ silence, together with the presence of Kate, make her gradually realise the awful truth. Her heart broken, Butterfly agrees to relinquish her son to Pinkerton and his new wife.
Sharpless, Kate and the boy leave, and Butterfly collapses in desperation. She orders Suzuki away, who seeing the state she is in, rushes after Sharpless for help. Butterfly lifts her father’s sword, reading its inscription, “to die with honour when one can no longer live with honour”.