At Last–A Glorious Butterfly At The Met

Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, NY; April 9, 2014—The Met’s remarkably beautiful and touching production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, directed by the late Anthony Minghella and his wife Carolyn Choa on Michael Levine’s evocative, minimalist sets, debuted on opening night, 2006. With its overhead mirror, shiny stage floor, silently moving paper walls, brilliantly colored costumes (by Han Feng),  paper lanterns, falling cherry blossoms, and Bunraku puppetry (by the Blind Summit Theater), the show has been a feast for the eyes since the moment it was unveiled. Controversy surrounded the use of a puppet for Butterfly’s child but it was soon acknowledged to be enormously effective, operated, as it is, by unobtrusive black-clad figures, with movements and interactions that touch the soul.

The only thing that has been missing from the 50-or-so performances of this seven-year-old production has been great performances. Cristina Gallardo-Domâs, Amanda Echalaz, and Liping Zhang were hardly world class; the wonderful Patricia Racette was, at times, hampered by the dreadful conducting of Placido Domingo. The Pinkertons of Robert Dean Smith, Roberto De Biasio, and Adam Diegel will not be remembered. If one is not moved by the plight of Cio-Cio-San, Puccini’s saddest heroine, something is wrong, and it took until last week to remedy the situation.

Making her role debut (at the Met) on April 4 and seen on April 9, the 34-year-old Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais simply walked away with the part. Probably not since Renata Scotto–an entirely different type, physically, vocally, and emotionally–has a soprano at the Met embodied Butterfly so entirely. A tall, slim, attractive woman, Opolais wisely opted not to move in tiny, “Japanese” movements; rather, her acting was economical and understated. Loving and graceful in Act 1, innocently, curiously sitting at Sharpless’ feet in Act 2 to hear him read Pinkerton’s letter, and standing shocked, one hand gripping each side of her head by the end, less proved to be much, much more. Tender moments with her child/puppet were comfortable and natural. Her ample–and beautiful–voice soared over the orchestra, even at the sighting of the ship, when Puccini’s heavy instrumentation threatens to bury the soprano. Butterfly is a very big sing, and Opolais nailed it. Brava!

Her Pinkerton was James Valenti, a fine-looking man with a nice ring to his tenor. The voice seemed unable to project into the house in the first act; by his big final scene the problem was solved and he offered a fine portrait of a guilty cad. Dwayne Croft’s Sharpless remains a vivid, sympathetic interpretation, and Maria Zifchak, another known quantity, is the most caring and gentle of Suzukis. Scott Scully’s Goro is wickedly cynical.

Kudos to conductor Marco Armiliato, absolutely familiar and lovingly engaged with the sweep of Puccini’s gut-wrenching score, and willing to listen to and breathe with his marvelous singers. The same cast will perform through April 19.