The Metropolitan Opera – Madama Butterfly

Madama Butterfly – Opera in two acts [libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica; sung in Italian with English Met Titles by Christopher Bergen]

B. F. Pinkerton – Marcello Giordani
Goro – David Cangelosi
Suzuki – Maria Zifchak
U.S. Consul Sharpless – Luca Salsi
Cio-Cio-San – Patricia Racette
Cousin – Laura Fries
Mother – Beverly Withers
Uncle Yakuside – Gregory Lorenz
Aunt – Jean Braham
Imperial Commissioner – Keith Miller
The Registrar – Youn Mok Jeong
The Bonze, Cio-Cio-San’s uncle – Dean Peterson
Yamadori – David Won
Kate Pinkerton – Edyta Kulczak
Cio-Cio-San’s child – Keith Augustine, Mark Down & Tom Lee

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus

The Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera
Mark Elder

Anthony Minghella – Production
Carolyn Choa – Associate Director & Choreographer
Michael Levine – Set Designer
Han Feng – Costume Designer
Peter Mumford – Lighting Designer
Puppetry – Blind Summit Theatre

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 15 October, 2007
Venue: The Metropolitan Opera, New York City

The tenor Marcello Giordani as Pinkerton in the Met. production of 'Madama Butterfly'. Photograph: Sara KrulwichThe audience broke out in a chorus of loud boos when Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb announced before this performance that Robert Alagna would not be singing Pinkerton. But Gelb drew cheers and applause when he went on to give the details of the tenor shuffle. Alagna had agreed to step in for Marco Berti, who was ill, as Radames in the following night’s performance of “Aida”, and to allow Alagna time for preparation, the role of Pinkerton would be sung by Marcello Giordani.

Giordani created the role in this Anthony Minghella staging of “Madama Butterfly”, which first came to the Met a year ago, in a highly-hyped opening night performance simulcast to thousands on gigantic outdoor screens in Lincoln Center Plaza and Times Square. The production, a co-production with English National Opera and Lithuanian National Opera, inaugurated Gelb’s tenure as the Met’s General Manager, and was touted as an example of the new Metropolitan Opera, in which theatrical values are dominant.

Minghella’s vision of “Madama Butterfly” is indeed theatrical, and it is clearly targeted to a younger, broader audience than is usual at the Met. Replete with unabashed attempts at audience manipulation, the flamboyant staging is a potpourri of western and Asian imagery, all elaborately designed, directed, and choreographed, to a degree that often overwhelms the music.

A scene from 'Madama Butterfly'. Photograph: Met Opera websiteMichael Levine’s sets are mostly abstract: large rectangular shapes of bright red, blue, and green; a three-tiered staircase across the width of the stage; a moving curtain consisting of something resembling pink butterflies; sliding screens from behind which characters appear and later disappear; a huge slanted mirror suspended over the whole stage, and reflecting all the action on it. Han Feng’s vividly colored costumes, no doubt intended to evoke the opera’s early 1900s’ setting in Nagasaki, are overly elaborate and attention-getting. The solo ballets inserted into the production, one at the beginning of Act One, and another in the middle of Act Two, were well-danced but out of place and confusing.

The biggest distraction of all was the puppets. For this production, Mark Downs and Nick Barnes, the founders of Blind Summit Theatre, created Bunraku-style puppets to represent Cio-Cio-San’s little boy and, in the dream sequence that opens Act Two, Butterfly herself. The Japanese-inspired Bunraku puppets are about two-thirds life-size, have no strings, and are each operated by multiple puppeteers who are clothed in black and plainly visible to the audience. The idea might have worked if all the characters in the opera were represented by puppets, the way I understand is done in Salzburg Marionette Theatre productions of Mozart operas. The problem in this production is that the very human singers are expected to actually interact with the puppets. The resulting effect was, like the production as a whole, emotionless and strange.

CioCioPatricia Racette was a less than believable Butterfly. Her voice was powerful and she sang with fervor at times, but she lacked the sense of physical vulnerability necessary to convincingly project Cio-Cio-San’s tragedy. Her lack of effectiveness was to a certain degree a result of the stage direction, which had her in nearly constant and wide-ranging motion back and forth across the stage throughout most of the evening. She was even bustling about in her Act One duet with Pinkerton, which received a respectful, but decidedly unenthusiastic ovation from the audience.

Marcello Giordani was a full-voiced Pinkerton, starting out loud and blustering but gradually settling into a warmer, more subtle portrayal. As Sharpless, the robust baritone Luca Salsi was outstanding, delivering a sensitive and beautifully sung performance. As Suzuki, Butterfly’s devoted servant, Maria Zifchak was appropriately impassioned. The other members of the cast were adequate but unremarkable, and the Met Chorus sounded more distant than is usual in the ‘Humming Chorus’. Mark Elder’s conducting of the familiar score sounded square and lifeless, lacking the desired vigor and intricacy.

Throughout this performance one longed for a less flamboyant rendering of Butterfly’s story and more heartfelt attention to the music. While the goal of increasing Met attendance and opera’s position in mainstream culture is admirable, and risk-taking productions may help to achieve it, the music should not get lost in the process.

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