Like all other Puccini operas, Madama Butterfly is filled with excellent examples of his brilliant approach to orchestration, his sensitivity to the theatrical, his extraordinary ability to build immediately accessible (and recognizable) melodies and his remarkable gift for creating just the right aural atmosphere for every dramatic moment. Butterfly has a number of instances of exquisite tone-painting because the locale and the text offer the composer so many opportunities to do so, and as we've seen in La bohèmeand Tosca, Puccini takes wonderful advantage of these opportunities. One case in point is how Puccini deals with Butterfly's vigil and the appearance of dawn over Nagasaki in the transition in Act II. Just as with the case of the opening of Act III of Tosca, an atmosphere is created that is as much about lighting and stage design as it is about the story. Puccini is creating a 'sonic environment' within which the denouement can naturally unfold.
There is, too, something magical about the 'humming chorus' and its connection to the very specific stage directions that Puccini has placed in the score: Suzuki closes the shosi...the night grows darker...Butterfly leads the baby to the shosi...she makes three holes in it for herself, Suzuki and the baby...it is night...the rays of the moon light up the shosi from without. The music accompanying these actions is not so much specific as it allows for all of the above actions to take place in the proper environment. The lengthy orchestra prelude to the second scene of Act II is like a splash of water on one's face; it's not the dawn described in Tosca or at the barrier d'enfers in La bohème (in both cases a misty dawn which manages to be tinged with both hope and darkness), but the cold light of the day in which Butterfly must give up her dream of happiness, her son and ultimately her life.
Other touches of tone-painting involve some kind of expression of the Oriental, the exotic, like the Japanese 'band' that appears at the end of Butterfly's entrance. Puccini had no time for such authenticity as the use of true Japanese instruments, but he gives his audience the next best thing by recreating the effect of such a band by reducing the instrumentation to flute, piccolo, harp and glockenspiel. After the climax of the choral entrance and Butterfly's high note, this sudden reduction is indeed dramatic. The closest Puccini gets to using authentic instrumentation is the use of campanelli giapponese, Japanese bells, which make their appearance during the wedding scene.
In line with the touches of exoticism found in the orchestral score are the attempts made by the composer to identify authentic Japanese melodies that could be woven into the fabric of the work. There is the Japanese national anthem, a tune which Puccini uses to announce the Imperial Commissioner just prior to the wedding ceremony in Act I. A tune called the "'Cherry-Blossom Song" can be found in the oboe part as Butterfly takes her personal possessions out of her sleeves and gives them to Suzuki for safe keeping.
The Nihon Bashi, another Japanese traditional melody, can be heard soaring in the violins immediately after the marriage ceremony is complete in Act I, just before Cio-Cio-San corrects her friends and relations and refers to herself as "Madama B. F. Pinkerton". The song My Prince can be heard in association with the arrival of Prince Yamadori in Act II. Another tune is associated with Suzuki's prayer at the beginning of Act II. The original Japanese tune is Suzuki's vocal line E Izaghi ed Izanami, Sarundasico e Kami.
Each character in Madama Butterfly has his or her own 'music', something that occurs in Puccini's earlier operas. Lieutenant Pinkerton, for instance, is identified by the theme that runs through Dovunque al mondo. He is also identified by the 'head-motive' of the Star-Spangled Banner which is heard as an introduction to Dovunque. Sharpless, the American consul, is introduced by a broad, optimistic musical figure that begins as an octave leap and successfully describes him bounding up the hill just before his first appearance in the opera. Butterfly has two thematic ideas attached to her, both of which come into play during her entrance with the relatives. The first can be heard at the beginning of her entrance played by solo violin and viola, then by various other combinations of instruments as the motive goes up and up through various keys. The second idea is an immediate outgrowth of the earlier tune, on Butterfly's line D'amor venni alle soglie...(I have come to the threshold of love). Puccini separates these two tunes and uses them interchangeably in identifying Butterfly at various points in the opera.
But we can't leave the world of Butterfly without spending a little time with Cio-Cio-San's second act aria, Un bel dì (One fine day). This all-too-often-performed aria needs to be looked at afresh because it is truly one of the most wonderful 'character' arias in the operatic repertoire; it reflects Cio-Cio-San's state at a particular moment in the drama, is as structurally perfect as a piece of music can be, and gives us a sub-text of emotion that is not readily apparent unless we're listening for it. The beginning of the aria is simple and straightforward, describing how she will see that thin 'thread of smoke rising over the horizon", sung to one of those typical Puccini melodies that seem to turn in on themselves. This is all sung to the most basic accompaniment in the orchestra: clarinet, harp and solo violin doubling the voice pp and ppp, muted violins and woodwinds providing a transparent harmonic wash. Notice that in this opening section there is essentially one note per syllable, one syllable per note in the melody. This is about to change radically.
In the second section a Puccini thematic hallmark reappears: the arched melody based on rising and falling scale passages (Poi la nave bianca Then the white ship). In the next few lines we can observe little touches of excitement on Butterfly's part, evinced by the occasional rapid note values (...e aspetto gran tempo e non mi pesa and wait a long time but I won't mind). The winds in the orchestra now pulse off the beat, a kind of syncopated 'heart beat' as she grows more excited about picking him out of the crowd (È uscito dalla folla cittadina un uomo It is a man coming from the city crowd); and then she sees the tiny speck, a man "who makes his way toward the hill" to another slightly arched melody describing in musical form the 'hill' itself.
The next section is eerily accompanied by three trumpets played with mutes emphasizing both her excitement and the distance from which she 'sees' him. His calling out to her from that distance (Chiamerà "Butterfly" dalla lontana He will call "Butterfly" from a distance) is expressed by two solo violins with mutes. The note values in these sections become shorter and shorter, perfectly expressing her excitement. But it is at the return of the 'big tune' where the true genius of Puccini's musical characterization is revealed. Think about the aria's sub-text: Butterfly is not only getting more and more excited about imagining her sailor's return, she is also deeply troubled about the possibility that he might not return at all. No longer do we have one syllable for one note of the melody. We have many notes superimposed over the melody. Why is Butterfly becoming so 'chatty' in the penultimate section of this aria? Her insecurity is beginning to show: she's trying to cover it up with words, words and more words! This insecurity is only banished in the final section of the aria when she finally convinces herself (if not Suzuki) that he will return, and that with 'unshakeable faith', she will wait for him.
Puccini's grasp of human emotion and psychology in this aria is nothing short of extraordinary. The music describes exactly how we react not only emotionally but physically in such a situation, imagining that the more we stutter, shuffle and 'chat' when confronted with heartache, the easier it will be to stave off the pain that must inevitably come.