Soprano rises above misguided staging in Met’s “Butterfly”
How do you solve a problem like Puccini? (Staging him, that is.)
The program notes for the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of the 2006 Anthony Minghella production of Madama Butterfly assert that the late director “goes for the jugular.” Fair enough, but the other side of that coin is that Minghella shamelessly panders to the audience.
Butterfly, like any opera, can work as drama and avoid cheap thrills with intelligent staging and firm control of the music. For all its acclaim, this production has neither.
This was no fault of the singers, who were solid, often moving and even thrilling at times. Cio-Cio-San, the teenage, Japanese Butterfly herself, is soprano Kristine Opolais. Her entrance was vocally spectacular, with the kind of rich, powerful coloratura that rivets the attention. Her voice and demeanor cut through the music and stage trappings and cemented Butterfly as the central presence in the opera.
But in the interaction with other characters throughout the first act, Opolais too often sounded indifferent—largely, because she was stuck in the molasses of Marco Armiliato’s conducting. For the whole of Act I and the first part of Act II (this production is of the two-act version), Armiliato and the orchestra could not seem to reach a consensus, and the singers had to fend for themselves.
Some forged ahead on their own with confidence, like tenor James Valenti, who overall was a lively but slightly undercharacterized Pinkerton. Others, like Scott Scully in the tenor role of Goro, the marriage broker, were visibly befuddled, trying to find the conductor’s downbeat. Opolais drifted in the torpor of the general confusion and sluggishness of the music making, until late in Act II when the performance began to find urgency and greater coherence.
Opolais grew in strength and depth until, in the climactic closing scenes, she was a fully formed character. As she faced Pinkerton’s new wife, she abraded her voice with the hollowness of despair and desolation. It was powerfully effective and even more artistically impressive than her substantial coloratura.
Minghella’s pretentious, incoherent production begins in silence, with a ritualistic dance on an austere stage, hinting at a rigid formal framework that will focus on the simple strength of the drama: a story of blind devotion and callous betrayal between people and cultures.
But Minghella contradicts himself. Visually powerful moments are ruined: the first act love duet, set against a black stage with shadowy figures holding white paper lanterns, seems on the verge of a minor miracle of expression when the ceiling starts to rain confetti. Why?
When Butterfly’s uncle disowns her for converting to Christianity and Western ways, she is figuratively whipped by ninjas, possibly one of the most ridiculous directorial moments in the history of opera on stage. And when the orchestra finally started playing well, the prelude to the second part of Act II, Minghella inserts a ballet for male dancer and female Bunraku puppet, symbolically portraying a woman leaving a man, and getting the story exactly backwards. The staging amounts to the tastefully obvious, the prettily shallow.
Worse yet is the egregious use of a puppet instead of an actor as Butterfly’s son. It is a shallow bit of cultural condescension, authentic “Orientalism” in what is an utterly Italian opera. Worse, the puppet is creepy and turns the fulcrum on which Butterfly’s life (and death) pivots into an object.
The evening’s main pleasures were in the singing. The reliable baritone Dwayne Croft was a natural as Sharpless, mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak was an excellent Suzuki, alive and engaged all night, and Jeongcheol Cha, bass, had a stunning presence in his brief appearance as Yamadori, who seeks Buttefly’s hand. But no amount of singing could make this overrated production work.
Madama Butterfly continues through May 9. metoperafamily.org.
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