Met’s dramatically inert “Butterfly” still in larval stage
Among the stand-by favorites of the Metropolitan Opera’s repertory, Anthony Minghella’s 2006 production of Puccini’s romantic tragedy Madama Butterfly is one of the more reliably interesting pieces. Its striking and imaginative visuals, with haunting puppet work by Blind Summit Theatre, serve as a powerful augment to the tale of a trusting young woman who is betrayed and abandoned by a husband who never intends to honor his vows. And yet Friday evening’s season premiere revealed once more that even the most intriguing staging is only as compelling as its leading actors.
Some allowance ought to be made for the circumstance: Ana María Martínez was singing the role of Cio-Cio San with precious little notice, stepping in for the ailing Hei-Kyung Hong and performing after just a handful of rehearsals. The final dress was even closed to patrons, a sign that the company needed every last second of working rehearsal time.
But while circumstance might excuse many shortcomings, there’s no getting around the fact that Friday’s performance was decidedly mediocre, in a way harder to account for than far sloppier performances. Musically passable and dramatically inert, Friday’s was the sort of evening that can give grand opera a bad rap.
It was disappointing to watch such an intelligent and visually striking staging receive such a lifeless performance. Martínez, left with virtually no time to explore the role, fell into cringingly generic mugging, her physical movements onstage having all the mechanical grace of a wind-up doll.
The pantomime scene between a dancer “Pinkerton” and a Cio-Cio-san doll had more compelling chemistry than was seen between the two principals all night. When Butterfly and Pinkerton were onstage together, it seemed the best guidance the hapless stage directors could offer was “hit your marks.” At the close of the long (and, in this production, heavily choreographed) duet that ends Act I, as both music and drama reach their climax, Lieutenant Pinkerton stared down at the conductor while clumsily undressing his new bride. That illusion-shattering moment summed up the dramatic vigor of the entire performance. How a child came out of this relationship is anybody’s guess.
Musically, Friday’s performance was adequate, though the leading couple were rarely much more than that. Replacing Hong–,who in spite of her announced illness is still expected to sing performances later in the run–the Met at least supplied a soprano able to sing the title role. Martínez was vocally solid for most of the evening, sounding pinched at the edges but for the most part showing a dark tone and full body. Though her account of the celebrated “Un bel di” was rather generic, her death scene was movingly played, with the honesty and urgency that had escaped her before.
Roberto De Biasio, playing Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton in this first cast, has the requisite ping in his voice to sing the role, but simply lacked the volume to be heard in so enormous a house, particularly over the unforgiving fortissimos conjured from the orchestra by Karel Mark Chicon. The conductor, a Gibraltar native, held things together reasonably well in his company debut, but did not show much in the way of imagination, tending to blur the score into a generic mass of sound. Even the orchestral solos sounded unusually listless. The Met’s choristers, at least, were up to their usual standard, giving a spellbinding rendition of the “Humming Chorus.”
In all, Friday’s premiere had the distinct and unfortunate feel of water-treading until mid-March, when superstars Kristine Opolais and Roberto Alagna take over the lead roles. Company veteran Maria Zifchak, one of the few performers singing for this entire Butterfly run, sounded less secure as Suzuki than in years past, but her dramatic portrayal found a touching sorrow as she came to terms with her mistress’s fate.
The supporting characters were reasonably strong, with Tony Stevenson showing a firm tenor as Goro and Ricardo Lugo looming imperiously as the Bonze. There was one notable standout from Friday’s cast: Artur Ruciński, making his Met debut, was brilliant as Sharpless, with a robust, earthy sound and an achingly sympathetic portrayal. Too bad he won’t be around to join what promises to be a memorable second cast.
Madama Butterfly runs through April 12 at the Metropolitan Opera. Hei Kyung Hong steps into the role of Cio-Cio-san on February 27. A second cast, led by Kristine Opolais and Roberto Alagna, with Dwayne Croft as Sharpless, opens on March 17. Gwyn Hughes Jones appears as Pinkerton on March 2 and 5. metopera.org.