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Puccini's Madama Butterfly musical highlight: ‘Un bel dì vedremo’

Cio-Cio-San’s much-loved aria is a perfect and painful encapsulation of the tragedy at the opera’s heart.

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

28 March 2017 at 6.14pm | 4 Comments

‘Un bel dì vedremo’ (One fine day) is an aria from Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 opera Madama Butterfly, sung by the title character, Cio-Cio-San. It has become one of the best-known movements from the opera, with audiences entranced not only by its beautiful melody but also by its heartbreaking encapsulation of the tragedy at the opera’s heart.

Where and when does it take place?

‘Un bel dì vedremo’ takes place in Act II of Madama Butterfly. In the first act, the 15-year-old Japanese geisha Cio-Cio-San marries the American naval officer Lieutenant Pinkerton while he visits Nagasaki. Pinkerton views their marriage as just a way to have a good time, but for Cio-Cio-San it is a deeply serious act – so much so that she converts to Christianity, offending her family who disown her. By ‘Un bel dì vedremo’, three years have passed since the wedding. Pinkerton left shortly after the marriage and has not returned. Cio-Cio-San lives in his house with their young son, and her maid Suzuki. Their money is running out and everyone urges Cio-Cio-San to forget Pinkerton and make a new marriage. But she firmly believes that he will return, and in ‘Un bel dì vedremo’ imagines that happy day. Meanwhile, Suzuki weeps.

What do the words mean?

Read our line-by-line translation of librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica’s original Italian text, created in 2003 by Royal Opera House surtitler Kenneth Chalmers:

‘Un bel dì vedremo’

Un bel dì vedremo
levarsi un fil di fumo
sull’estremo confin del mare.
E poi la nave appare
poi la nave bianca
entra nel porto, romba
il suo saluto. Vedi?
È venuto!
Io non gli scendo incontro.
Io no. Mi metto là
sul ciglio del colle e aspetto,
e aspetto gran tempo
e non mi pesa
la lunga attesa.
E uscito dalla folla cittadina
un uom, un picciol punto
s’avvia per la collina.
Chi sarà? chi sarà?
E come sarà giunto
Che dirà? che dirà?
Chiamerà ‘Butterfly!’
dalla lontana.
Io senza dar risposta
me ne starò nascosta,
un po’ per celia
e un po’ per non morir
al primo incontro,
ed egli alquanto in pena
chiamerà, chiamerà:
‘Piccina mogliettina,
olezzo di verbena!’
i nomi che mi dava
al suo venire.
Tutto questo avverrà,
te lo prometto.
Tienti la tua paura,
io con sicura fede l’aspetto.
One fine day
we’ll see a thread of smoke
out on the horizon,
and then the ship will appear.
The white ship
will sail into port.
It will fire its cannon
Can you see? He’s back!
I don’t go down to meet him.
I stand
on the brow of the hill, and wait
And the long wait
means nothing.
Out of the bustling town
comes a man, a tiny dot,
heading for the hill
Who can it be?
And when he arrives,
what will he say?
He’ll call ‘Butterfly!’
from afar.
I’ll say nothing,
but stay hidden.
Partly to tease, and partly
so as not to die
when we first meet again.
He’ll be a little overcome,
and call,
‘Little wife,
verbena blossom!’
The names he used to call me
when he was here.
This will all come true,
I promise you.
Keep your fear to yourself.
With a faith that can’t be shaken I'm waiting for him.

See the full score on IMSLP here (from p.230).

What makes the music so memorable?

In this wonderful aria Puccini exploits music’s power to represent several different mental states at once: he vividly depicts Cio-Cio-San’s strength, while also telling us with heartbreaking certainty of her inevitable tragedy. Cio-Cio-San sounds vulnerable in her opening phrase, but it demands great vocal control from the soprano. The opening melody’s rhythmic simplicity and its shimmering orchestral accompaniment create the sense of a lovingly savoured dream – although one tinged with melancholy in the predominantly minor harmony. This theme returns with appalling power at two later points in the aria: first as Cio-Cio-San sings the word ‘morir’ (die), accompanied by the full orchestra playing ‘tutta forza’ (with all force). Almost before we can recover it returns again, again fortissimo, Cio-Cio-San this time rising to her highest note in the aria on the word ‘aspetto’ (I wait). The orchestra’s strong close firmly evokes Cio-Cio-San’s certain hope – while twisting the knife in our hearts.

Madama Butterfly’s other musical highlights

Where to start? Madama Butterfly is one of the most famous works in the opera canon, for good reason. Puccini returns to numerous melodies throughout the opera, giving the work both musical unity and dramatic inevitability; for example, the primary melody from ‘Un bel dì vedremo’ returns with powerful force when Butterfly sees Pinkerton’s ship sail into Nagasaki harbour. The famous Humming Chorus that follows shortly after is a remarkable, wordless evocation of Cio-Cio-San’s invincible patience as she waits, futilely, for Pinkerton to come to her. Their great Act I duet ‘Viene la sera’ (Night is falling), as well as being one of Puccini’s longest and most beautifully written, is crucial in establishing the basis of Butterfly’s love. Equally important is her relationship with her family, terrifyingly captured in the wedding ceremony, with music drawing on authentic Japanese melodies.

Classic recordings

Over the past decades there has been no shortage of great sopranos who bring their voices and their souls to this role, finding different ways to interpret Butterfly’s vulnerability and strength. Classic recordings include Victoria de los Angeles’s at the Royal Opera House with Rudolf Kempe in 1957; Renata Scotto’s with John Barbirolli in 1966; or Renata Tebaldi’s with Tullio Serafin in 1958. Mirella Freni appears on two iconic recordings, with Luciano Pavarotti and Herbert von Karajan in 1974, and in the famous filmed version from the same year, again with Karajan and this time opposite Plácido Domingo. Of recent years the most famous audio recording must be Angela Gheorghiu’s with Jonas Kaufmann and Antonio Pappano from 2009. The many DVD recordings include Anthony Minghella’s wonderful production for English National Opera, filmed at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in 2009 with Patricia Racette and Patrick Summers.

More to discover

Cio-Cio-San is perhaps the primary example of the noble, self-sacrificing heroine who is such a familiar figure in opera’s history. There are several in the Puccini canon, who all have wonderful key arias: Mimì from La bohème with ‘Mi chiamano Mimì’; the fiery Tosca and her ‘Vissi d’arte’; Suor Angelica’s ‘Senza mamma’; Liù from Turandot with ‘Tu che di gel sei cinta’. It’s a thread that runs through 19th-century Italian opera, with just a handful of the many wonderful roles including Verdi’s Violetta from La traviata and Gilda from Rigoletto, Bellini’s Norma, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Rossini’s Elena from La donna del lago. But Butterfly is very much a work from the turn of the 20th century, with the near contemporaneous Pelléas et Mélisande by Debussy in many ways a close cousin, particularly in its use of harmony.

Madama Butterfly runs until 25 April 2017. Tickets are sold out, but 49 tickets for each performance will be released the week before as part of Friday Rush.

The production is broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 30 March 2017. Find your nearest cinema.

The production is a co-production with Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, and is given with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Susan A. Olde OBE, Aud Jebsen, Spindrift Al Swaidi and The Maestro’s Circle.

This article has 4 comments

  1. Michelle logan responded on 30 March 2017 at 11:08pm Reply

    Absolutely amazing watched it at Lancaster cinema thank you for providing this wonderful experience

  2. Julie Bull responded on 31 March 2017 at 8:17am Reply

    The live broadcasts to cinema provide wonderful opportunities to experience amazing productions such as Madama Butterfly last night, which was extraordinarily powerful and moving. Many thanks to whoever came up with the idea for the broadcasts - quite clearly an egalitarian.

  3. Ann Seyfang responded on 16 April 2017 at 6:36pm Reply

    Mahoney was the best CIO CIO San ever in my experience. Many thanks. Used up masses of hankies!!

  4. Ann Seyfang responded on 16 April 2017 at 6:39pm Reply

    Somehow my comment got mangled! Jaho was name I wanted to appear.

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