The Met Streams Puccini’s Madama Butterfly #2

By Lynne Gray, PhD

Please note this can be seen at www.metopera.org

Saturday, July 11 

Puccini’s Madama Butterfly #2 ~ 2hrs 22mins

Starring Hui He, Elizabeth DeShong, Bruce Sledge, and Paulo Szot, conducted by Pier Giorgio Morandi. From November 9, 2019.

This is the second streaming go-around for Anthony Minghella’s exquisite Japanese noh theater and bunraku inspired production which provides an absolutely stunning setting for the familiar tragedy about a gentle and naive geisha who fervently believes that her faithless American husband will return to her.

Ever since it debuted, in the 2006–07 Met season, Anthony Minghella’s striking production of Madama Butterfly has held up wonderfully and is still going strong (with many new casts) on the live stage today. Drawing its inspiration from traditional Japanese noh theater, Minghella’s staging features cleverly constructed shoji screen sets, brilliant colors, and bunraku 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. We’ve already seen the 2009 cast with Patricia Racette (one of my favorite Cio-Cio-Sans), Marcello Giordani, Maria Zifchak, and Dwayne Croft. 

In this 2019 performance, Chinese soprano Hui He stars as Cio-Cio-San, the young geisha who puts her trust in an American naval officer, only to be cruelly abandoned by him. In a feat of operatic heroics, tenor Bruce Sledge appeared on this HD broadcast as the callous American Naval Officer, Pinkerton, stepping into the role on very short notice to replace an ailing colleague. This cast also includes mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Cio-Cio-San’s loyal companion, Suzuki, and Tony Award-winning baritone Paulo Szot (he starred lately in Manon and The Nose) as the U.S. consul Sharpless. Pier Giorgio Morandi conducts the tragic Puccini masterpiece.

The incredible art of Bunraku – Japanese puppetry – is most often used in serious Japanese traditional plays that deal with the conflict between the hard-to-control desires of frail humans and their obligations to society. The puppets are amazingly moving – they do not have strings, but rather are each ‘worked’ by three highly skilled puppeteers, who 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 are aware, Butterfly is the story of a 15-year-old geisha who falls desperately in love with (and marries against the wishes of her powerful uncle, the Bonze) an American sailor whom we have just been introduced to in the opera’s first scene bragging about having a girl in every port and dreaming of a “real American bride.” Their Japanese wedding scene is absolutely gorgeous, but then horribly marred when Butterfly is cursed by her uncle, the Bonze. Pinkerton eventually succeeds in taking her mind away from her family, and their wedding night duet amid lanterns and falling flower petals is without doubt one of the most beautiful in all opera. 

It’s all 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 American Consul, brings 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, 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.

If you missed the last one, don’t miss this one – it is not my favorite cast, but it is nevertheless a truly special, astoundingly beautiful, and well-sung production. 

Photo Credits

1. The wedding party from Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at the Met, 2019. Photo Credit: Richard Termine / Metropolitan Opera.

2. Bruce Sledge as Pinkerton and Hui He as Cio-Cio-San on their wedding night in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at the Met, 2019. Photo Credit: Richard Termine / Metropolitan Opera.

3. Hui He as Cio-Cio-San, Paulo Szot as Sharpless in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at the Met, 2019. Photo Credit: Richard Termine / Metropolitan Opera.

4. Hui He as Cio-Cio-San and Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at the Met, 2019. Photo Credit: Richard Termine / Metropolitan Opera.

5. The bunraku puppet “Trouble” in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at the Met, 2019. Photo Credit: Richard Termine / Metropolitan Opera.             

6. The “Humming Chorus” with Hui He as Cio-Cio-San and Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki (asleep) and the bunraku puppet “Trouble” in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at the Met, 2019. Photo Credit: Richard Termine / Metropolitan Opera.

7. Hui He as Cio-Cio-San in “Madama Butterfly” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo Credit: Richard Termine / Metropolitan Opera.

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