By Lynne Gray, PhD
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Thursday, August 6
Starring Kristine Opolais, Maria Zifchak, Roberto Alagna, and Dwayne Croft, conducted by Karel Mark Chichon. From April 2, 2016.
This is the third go-around for Anthony Minghella’s Japanese noh theater and bunraku inspired production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and it certainly provides us with an absolutely stunning setting for the familiar tragedy. The heartbreaking story of a charmingly naive geisha, who fervently believes that her faithless American husband will return to her, stars soprano Kristine Opolais (we’ve just seen her in Manon Lescaut and Rusalka) who brings all of her passionate commitment to this portrayal of Cio-Cio-San, the teenage girl who gives up everything for an American navy sailor – Lt. B.F. Pinkerton. Roberto Alagna is the naval officer who refuses to take seriously the depth of Cio-Cio-San’s love, and whose subsequent marriage to an American woman precipitates Butterfly’s suicide. Maria Zifchak is always wonderful as Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San’s faithful servant, and Dwayne Croft is the best possible sympathetic American consul, Sharpless, who tries but fails to avert the tragedy he knows is coming. Karel Mark Chichon conducts.
We have had two previous opportunities to see this production, one with Patricia Racette and Marcello Giordani from 2009, and the other from 2019 with a completely different cast that included Hui He, Elizabeth DeShong, Bruce Sledge, and Paulo Szot. Of the three Cio-Cio-Sans, I still prefer Racette both for her voice and for her superb acting, but Opolais is a very, very good one, as was He. Frankly, to my mind, the Met has fallen far short in finding really good Pinkertons over the entire course of this production (14 years). Giordani sang well, but was stiff and unconvincing; Sledge sang well but was stiff and unconvincing; Alagna, well – was Alagna – he plays himself in every opera and is… stiff and unconvincing – and being the Met’s “go-to” romantic tenor these days – we have already seen him in too many productions (Carmen, Don Carlo, Rondine, Samson, Manon Lescaut and Roméo).
Minghella’s staging, however, is first-rate and features cleverly constructed shoji screen sets, brilliant colors, and incredible puppetry as well as a gigantic raked mirror suspended over the stage, reflecting all that goes on underneath it as the cast and ensemble move about in a kaleidoscope of eye-popping colors which dominate the space. This production also treats us to the ancient art of Bunraku – Japanese puppetry – which is used in traditional Japanese plays dealing with the serious conflicts that so often arise between the difficult-to-control desires of frail humans and their obligations to family or society. The puppets are amazingly moving – they do not have strings, but rather are each ‘worked’ by three highly skilled puppeteers, who must train for many years, each one controlling a specific body part. The puppeteers are remarkably unobtrusive, dressed all in black with black veils over their faces, and after the initial novelty, you hardly notice them!
As most of you know, this is the story of a 15-year-old geisha who falls desperately in love with (and marries against the wishes of her uncle) an American sailor whom we have just seen bragging about having a girl in every port and dreaming of a “real American bride.” The wedding scene is absolutely gorgeous, but then horribly marred when Butterfly is cursed by her uncle, the Bonze. Pinkerton finally succeeds in taking her mind away from her family and their wedding night duet is without doubt one of the most beautiful and moving in all opera.
It’s pretty much downhill from there, however. By the second act, Pinkerton has been gone for more than three years, and Cio-Cio-San and her loyal servant Suzuki are down to their last few coins. Butterfly sings her famous aria “Un bel di” (One beautiful day – he will return) still expressing her love and her faith in him. Sharpless, the sympathetic American Consul, visits, bringing with him a letter from Pinkerton which he tries in vain to read to her. Finally, he asks Butterfly what she would do if she knew Pinkerton would never return. Her honor-saving answer is painfully clear and foreshadows her tragic end. Before he leaves her, she introduces him to her child, Trouble (although she tells Sharpless his name is ‘Sorrow’ until his father returns, and then it will be ‘Joy’). By this time, I am already weeping buckets and am barely able to see the sublimely beautiful “Flower Duet” as Cio-Cio-San and Suzuki fill the house with blossoms after they have spotted Pinkerton’s ship finally entering the harbor. Then comes the haunting “Humming Chorus” as the little trio continues its all-night vigil in the vain hope that Pinkerton will appear.
Butterfly’s slow realization that Pinkerton has indeed returned – but with his American wife who now wants to take and raise her child – is more pain than she can possibly bear, and in the heartbreaking conclusion, Butterfly chooses instead to die – as her father did – with honor, rather than live without it.
Butterfly, like Traviata, cannot be seen too many times. Catch it if you can.
1. Roberto Alagna as Pinkerton and Kristine Opolais as Cio-Cio-San on their wedding night in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at the Met, 2016. Photo Credit: Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera.
2. The wedding party from Anthony Minghella’s production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at the Met, 2019. Photo Credit: Richard Termine / Metropolitan Opera.
3. Maria Zifchak as Suzuki and Kristine Opolais in the title role of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at the Metropolitan Opera, 2016. Photo Credit: Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera.
4. The bunraku puppet, Trouble, in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at the Metropolitan Opera2016. Photo Credit: Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera.
5. The bunraku puppet “Trouble” and Kristine Opolais in the title role of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at the Met, 2016. Photo Credit: Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera.
6. Kristine Opolais as Cio-Cio-San in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at the Met, 2016. Photo Credit: Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera.