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Met’s “Butterfly” revival fails to take flight

Fri Feb 23, 2018 at 2:50 pm
Ermonela Jaho sang the title role of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" Friday night at the Metropolitan Opera. File photo: BIll Cooper

Ermonela Jaho sang the title role of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” Thursday night at the Metropolitan Opera. File photo: Bill Cooper

Madama Butterfly returned to the Metropolitan Opera Thursday night for a six-performance run featuring Ermonela Jaho in a luminous almost-debut as Cio-Cio-San.

“Eagerly awaited” would not be too strong a term to describe this appearance by the Albanian soprano, whose prior Met experience consisted only of a last-minute substitution in 2008 as Violetta in La Traviata, but whose performances elsewhere as Puccini’s doomed geisha have won international praise.

Vocally, Jaho’s Cio-Cio-San was worth the wait Thursday night. Supported by sensitive orchestral playing under Marco Armiliato (the woodwinds contributing some especially ravishing moments), the soprano’s natural phrasing, liquid legato and floating high notes delighted the ear.

She seemed at first to be scaling her voice back to convey the character’s youth, but a touch of strain to fill the cavernous house at the climax of “Un bel dì” suggested this was not the largest instrument in town. However, one happily traded those last few decibels for the subtlety of her work all evening.

Perhaps one should be satisfied with that — it’s Puccini, and there’s a fine soprano in the house. Add in this revival of the late Anthony Minghella’s relentlessly creative staging, packed with pantomimes, bunraku puppets and stuff drifting down from the rafters, if you like that sort of thing. But is it too much to ask the performers to be at least somewhat believable in their roles?

Jaho certainly had her moments, in a libretto that is full of them, but too often she fell back on generalized cuteness in the early going and generalized distress later on. Many dramatic strokes, such as the shock of the character’s decorum snapping as she railed at the American consul Sharpless, slid by unmarked.

It was hard to interpret Jaho’s head-tilting and pouting in her first scene — if intended as stylized geisha gestures, they missed the mark. But their recurrence in later scenes suggested the mature soprano was simply “playing 15” in a way no actual 15-year-old ever would.

And what girl, however delusional, would fall for Roberto Aronica’s stiff Pinkerton, with his hunched posture and edgy, joyless tenor? His “playboy philosophy,” as expounded to baritone Roberto Frontali as Sharpless, sounded more like expository dialogue than a guy relishing a life of girls and adventure. And the two of them sang down into their whisky glasses like a couple of codgers at the club.

It is possible to make credible Pinkerton’s transition during the drama from cad to besotted lover and back to cad, but that would take more acting know-how than Aronica could muster Thursday.

Frontali at least had a full yet focused voice, and any baritones in the audience had the rare satisfaction of hearing one of their own out-project a tenor. His understated portrayal of Sharpless, the man caught in the middle of the drama’s agonies and betrayals, had an appropriately deer-in-the-headlights quality, although it didn’t convey much of the character’s inner conflicts.

There were pleasures to be had further down the cast list. Mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak has polished the role of Suzuki to a gem of characterization, the self-effacing lady’s maid and rock of support, with enough rage inside at what she’s seen to upbraid the clueless men in the last act. She prayed affectingly to the gods, matched Jaho nicely in the Flower Duet, and summoned plenty of vocal power when needed.

Hyung Yun, in his brief appearance as Cio-Cio-San’s wealthy suitor Yamadori, mingled ardor and dignity in a rich baritone. The role of Pinkerton’s “real” wife Kate, or what was left of it after Puccini’s merciless revisions of the opera, calls for the performer mainly to look fabulously tall, healthy and American — which Edyta Kulczak did to perfection — and to sing a few lines of attempted reassurance to Cio-Cio-San, which Kulczak did sensitively.

To be fair, the performers’ credibility was also undermined by some baffling directorial choices. Whose idea was it, for example — director Carolyn Choa (Minghella’s widow) or revival stage director Paula Williams — to have Pinkerton undress his bride to her shift on their wedding night, then walk away and sing from the other side of the stage, then come back and put her dress back on?

Madama Butterfly will be repeated 8 p.m. Monday and March 16, 7:30 p.m. March 8 and 13, and 1 p.m. March 3. Cast and conductor as above, except Luis Chapa will sing Pinkerton March 13 and 16 and Dwayne Croft will sing Sharpless March 13.; 212-362-2000



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