Opera Daily 🎶 — Madame Butterfly, The Flower Duet
A guest post by Heather Johnson
This issue of Opera Daily is written by mezzo-soprano and guest author Heather Johnson. If you’d like to hear and read more from Heather, you can find our interview with her here as well as her Rossini posts here and here.
“The music of this opera (Madama Butterfly) was dictated to me from God. I was merely the instrument in getting it on paper and communicating it to the public.”
Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly is among his most famous and most loved. We often think of Cio-Cio-San’s aria “Un bel dì vedremo” or Pinkerton’s “Addio fiorito asil,” but today we are focusing on the tender and joyful Act 2 duet “Scuoti quella fronda di ciliegio” (often known as The Flower Duet) between Cio-Cio-San and her servant/companion/confidant Suzuki.
It’s not often that there is a focus on the loving, loyal and deep friendship and companionship between Cio-Cio-San and Suzuki, but it is one of great importance as Suzuki is the only true friend and family Cio-Cio-San has. When everyone has deserted Cio-Cio-San in Act 1, Suzuki is steadfast and loyal and stays with her. Because of this, their fates are intertwined. Whatever happens to Cio-Cio-San also happens to Suzuki. As a mezzo-soprano, Suzuki is among the most gratifying roles for me to sing and act.
Throughout the opera, Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San and her son become a family. Suzuki has stood by Butterfly, cared for her, and protected her after Pinkerton left, making it possible for Cio-Cio-San and her son to survive. She has prayed for Cio-Cio-San’s well-being (the opening prayer of Act 2) and the return of Pinkerton. So, when they hear the canon in the harbor and see that it is indeed Pinkerton’s ship, she is as thrilled as Cio-Cio-San, but with a tinge of skepticism.
At this point in the opera, Cio-Cio-San has been waiting patiently for Pinkerton’s return after telling her, “Oh, Butterfly, my little wife, I shall return with the roses, when the earth is full of joy, when the robin makes his nest.” Three years have passed, but unfortunately, no Pinkerton. Cio-Cio-San has refused the wealthy Prince Yamadori's marriage proposal, been warned by Sharpless and the US Consul that he will never return, yet she still believes he will return to her.
At this moment in the opera, there is a canon in the harbor signaling the arrival of a ship. The two women see that it is Pinkerton’s ship. Cio-Cio-San tells Suzuki to collect all the flowers from the garden and shower them throughout the house to make it “all Spring”. They laugh and enjoy this moment. Unfortunately, it will be the last happy moment for both of them. Listen to the beautiful interplay and harmonies the two women sing together in this duet. It’s glorious.
We are listening to the incredible soprano Mirella Freni as Cio-Cio-San and the wonderful mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig as Suzuki in the 1975 movie from Vienna.
📺 Watch and listen here (5 minute listen), Soprano Mirella Freni as Cio-Cio-San, mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig as Suzuki in the 1975 movie of Madame Butterfly, Vienna, directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle
Here are some other interpretations of The Flower Duet:
WATCH & LISTEN Soprano, Leontyne Price, Mezzo-Soprano, Marilyn Horne, The Flower Duet, from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, 1982
WATCH & LISTEN Soprano, Renata Tebaldi, Mezzo-Soprano, Fiorenza Cossotto, The Flower Duet, from Puccini's Madama Butterfly, Conductor Tullio Serafin, recorded in Rome, 1958
Have questions about this opera or this post? Drop your questions in the comments, and we will share more!
Thank you for reading and listening,
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A film I recently saw online at the Korean Film Festival 2021, "The Pregnant Tree and the Goblin", caused the story of Giacomo Puccini's "Madama Butterfly", and the exquisite "Scuoti quella fronda di ciliegio . . . vieni ad adornar" ("Flower Duet"), to land differently with me this time.
The film began as a documentary about an elderly "comfort woman", a former prostitute, who had catered to servicemen at a defunct U.S. Army base in Korea (https://watch.eventive.org/kffdc2021/play/606b62f235ccef007635cf1d). It then evolved into a combination ghost story and horror story, making it a fitting metaphor for a tale about such survivors who lived in the shadows of a modernizing Korea.
There are 115 years between the 1904 premiere of "Madama Butterfly" and the 2019 film by directors Kim Dong-ryon and Park Kyoung-tae. Yet, the female protagonists in these two artworks - the comfort woman for American soldiers, and the naïf who married a U.S. Navy lieutenant - both captured the ambivalence, dependence, desperation, hope and disillusionment of their respective homelands, as Korea and Japan collided with an America boldly extending its military power into Asia.*
When my focus is purely on the music, "Madama Butterfly" and "La Boheme" are among the most beautiful operas I've ever heard. Could it be that Puccini felt the only way to make such tragic love stories bearable was to envelop them in spectacular music?
The literary antecedents of the opera are interesting. According to Wikipedia: "Madame Butterfly" (1898) by John Luther Long, which in turn was based on stories told to Long by his sister Jennie Correll and on the semi-autobiographical 1887 French novel "Madame Chrysanthème" by Pierre Loti. Long's version was dramatized by David Belasco as the one-act play "Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan," which, after premiering in New York in 1900, moved to London, where Puccini saw it in the summer of that year.**
I certainly enjoyed listening to the different versions of "The Flower Duet", but Heather Johnson, are you holding out on us? I hope to hear or see your performance of the same someday!🤩. For the record, I especially loved:
Montserrat Caballé and Shirley Verrett
Angela Gheorghiu and Enkelejda Shkosa
These artists really imbued the duet with emotion and drama as Cio-Cio San's excitement, at the return to Japan of her husband, Lt. Pinkerton, drew her skeptical maid Suzuki and their son into her over-the-top exuberance. Sadly, we know "she's about to go through some things".
Not Exactly Musical Notes:
"On July 8, 1853, American Commodore Matthew Perry led his four ships into the harbor at Tokyo Bay, seeking to re-establish for the first time in over 200 years regular trade and discourse between Japan and the western world. (https://history.state.gov/milestones/1830-1860/opening-to-japan)
"Causes of the Korean War (https://www.historycrunch.com/causes-of-the-korean-war.html#/)
"The Literary Origins of the Opera" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madama_Butterfly
And for no good operatic reason . . .here's the classic "Joy and Pain" by Frankie Beverly and Maze (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lQhZSyXUUX8) 😎