Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, NY; April 27, 2022—One of the Met’s productions that is always worth re-visiting is Anthony Minghella’s sensitive handling of Puccini’s saddest opera, Madama Butterfly, which was new in the 2007-2008 season. It has lost none of its luster. Michael Levine’s use of the entire Met stage, with a mirrored ceiling no less, rather than being too much to deal with, is remarkably intimate. Gliding screens delineate spaces and Han Feng’s ravishing costumes and playful/dramatic use of silks and satins and gold lacquered fans are bright and vivid, to contrast with the story’s sober aesthetic. Instead of a real child—normally the solution to Butterfly’s 4-year-old—the use of a team of three people draped in black crepe to operate a knee-high wooden puppet is artful and only momentarily odd. After a moment on stage, it seems utterly natural and is manipulated with such humanity that all disbelief instantly vanishes.
All ears were on Mantuan soprano Eleonora Buratto, whose previous Met assignments have been a greatly successful Liu and Norina. But Butterfly is another creature entirely: the role is neither light nor lighthearted. Eschewing many of the little-girl movements other sopranos use to portray the 15-year-old former Geisha, we get a graceful girl/woman who has lived a hard life as a Geisha and genuinely falls in love with Pinkerton, an American sailor, and sees him as a way to escape from what otherwise would be her fate as a poor girl. Her idealism gets her through—almost—and it’s that almost that makes her so sad. Buratto’s demeanor changes in Act 2 when Sharpless hints that Pinkerton may be the complete cad we already know him to be from his own words in Act 1. Her voice is beautiful—a full, round, lyric with punch and energy and great power up to a solid A with security beyond as well, if not with as much urgency. Her deterioration in the last act to a sobbing, terrified woman who must do away with herself, having been dishonored, seems inevitable in Buratto’s performance.
Her Pinkerton was the somewhat problematic tenor Brian Jadge. I say problematic because the voice itself is big and grand and fearless from top to bottom, and he cuts a handsome figure on stage. But he sings only at one volume—loud, and with no vocal shading we don’t fall for him in Act 1 and wonder why Butterfly does. His last-act “Addio, fiorito asil”, meant by Puccini to soften his character, does not help when it’s shouted, as it was here. Someone coach him, please.
I’m not certain that baritone David Bizic has ever sung the role of Sharpless before, but though his grainy timbre was fine in the part, he lacked the warmth he should be offering Butterfly. Elizabeth De Shong repeated her familiar Suzuki—a major force in this mezzo’s reading. Scott Scully was a creepy Goro, and the rest of the cast were right on the money.
Conductor Alexander Soddy led a moving, musically excellent performance, emphasizing Puccini’s Asian-tinted orchestral touches and seemingly listening to his singers and helping them along. The wedding ensemble and its aftermath were true drama in his hands, and the Love Duet was passionate and nuanced despite Jadge’s too-macho approach. The dissonances stung throughout and the score’s beauty shone brightly.
Madama Butterfly will be performed a few more times in the next few weeks. It’s a stunning night at the opera.