BWW Review: MADAMA BUTTERFLY at Metropolitan Opera
Hard to believe as it may seem, it's been ten years since director Anthony Minghella's production of "Madama Butterfly" first graced the stage of the Met. It was ground-breaking at the time (already an Olivier Award-winner before it reached our shores) and still holds a unique place in the annals of Met production history. It was the first time a new production had opened a Met season since 1986's "Die Walküre." It also ushered in the epoch of Peter Gelb with hope and anticipation of great things to come - new directors, new productions, an exciting new era for the Met. Regrettably, few (if any of the subsequent new productions) have succeeded as well artistically and commercially, and held the public's imagination, attention and devotion quite like this Butterfly.
It was nice to see that on Thursday evening, the stunning opening sequence, done in complete silence, was still met with a chorus of gasps, "oohs" and "aahs" from the audience. The action in Butterfly can often feel static and plodding, but director deftly propels the momentum forward through the use of swiftly moving, bright shoji screens, dramatically contrasted against the black stage, handled by traditional Japanese theater styled, black-clad kuroko figures. The wearing of black to suggest that the wearer is invisible is also a critical element in Japanese bunraku puppet theatre - which plays a pivotal role in the production as well.
The dramatic introduction of color, as the line of colorful kimonos (beautifully imagined by costume designer Han Feng) emerges on the horizon is absolutely as fresh today as it was ten years ago. It is a breathtakingly beautiful image - both cinematic and oh so theatrical!
Soprano Hui He presented a traditionally-mannered Cio Cio San, reserved in movement and regal in demeanor. She imbued the young geisha with a quiet dignity that most current singers could not begin to touch. Her voice was large and warm, but with a hint of a steely edge in the high end. In this production, her showcase aria, "Un bel dì" sort of sneaks up on the audience owing to the way the director moves the action - rather than the typically dramatic set-up that most directors go for, Minghella has the aria simply emerge out of seemingly banal conversation (a choice that you are bound to either love or hate, depending on taste). The aria fits Ms. He's voice like a glove and she sang the aria exquisitely but rather evenly. While the sound was certainly quite lovely, this one moment in the opera would have benefitted from just a hint more emotion in the performance. One might say her choice bespoke a confidence in Butterfly's certainty of Pinkerton's return, but on balance it seemed to lack some well-deserved desperation and conflict.
By contrast, her first-act-closing duet was spot on perfection. Her performance was nuanced and layered, full of hope, but laced with fear and desperation. The scene is a visual and theatrical tour-de-force with the stage fading to complete black excepting the two leads is harsh spotlights. Then the slow introduction of the moving lanterns, followed by the curtain of flowers and finally the falling of cherry blossoms, all occurring over the most ravishingly romantic duet in the operatic repertory, make for one of the Met's most spectacularly moving and ascetically brilliant creations.
Pinkerton is by and large a "one-note" role: "callus opportunist." Roberto Aronica's portrayal both vocally and dramatically did little to elevate it. His dark sound was beautiful and expressive in the low and mid-ranges, but dry and strained in the high end. His best moments by far came in the act one duet. His 3rd act "Addio fiorito asil" was not a great highlight -- not by any means unpleasant, but merely serviceable.
Sharpless and Suzuki, the often under-valued supporting roles, were sung and performed with distinction by David Bižic and Maria Zifchak.
Minghella Butterfly is a triumphant example of old and new, traditional and modern, and it very clearly shows that a totally modern production can retain all the power and passion of the composer's intentions while at the same time delivering on a relevant, immediate level for today's more visually-minded audiences. Despite the Japanese lanterns, the curtain of flowers, the elegant shoji screens, the ravishing costumes and all the stunning visuals, the audience never for a moment forgets that the core of the opera is a seventeen-year-old girl and her tragic, pathetic plight. It is simply great theater.
(All Photographs: KEN HOWARD)
The Metropolitan Opera
30 Lincoln Center Plaza
Tickets: 212-362-6000 or MetOpera.org
Running Time: 3 hours, 14 minutes
Closes: March 16