Soprano rises above misguided staging in Met’s “Butterfly”

Sat Apr 05, 2014 at 3:17 pm
Kristine Opolais and James Valenti in Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" at the Metropolitan Opera.a Photo: Marty Sohl

Kristine Opolais and James Valenti in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at the Metropolitan Opera.a
Photo: Marty Sohl

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.

5 Responses to “Soprano rises above misguided staging in Met’s “Butterfly””

  1. Posted Apr 06, 2014 at 8:28 am by Paul Jermit

    Boy did YOU totally NOT GET this stunning production. Too bad you’re so stuck in what’s USUALLY done….opera is and has not been, about what’s usually done for a very long time. The puppet was was BRILLIANT. The costumes and feel were more authentic Orientally than any production I’ve ever seen.

  2. Posted Apr 07, 2014 at 7:58 pm by Montcler

    Most people I know who have seen this production (including myself and my family) have found it fabulous. If opera is to remain an viable art form it must be staged with daring and inventiveness.
    Some critics don’t like it and fortunately, they are less and less relevant. They don`t dictate what`s to be seen or not.
    Is this why there is so much ‘sourness’ in their review?

  3. Posted Apr 10, 2014 at 10:30 am by Ted

    As with the other commentators I feel the reviewer just plain misunderstood the beautiful insightful production.
    Examples: The dancer/Geisha who appears at the curtain’s rise is Chio Chio San in her profession before the opera starts. It’s a flashback.
    Another flashback occurs in act 2 scene 2 where Butterfly has been kneeling all night waiting for her husband and we see into her mind remembering her father who said a loving farewell to his beloved child before killing himself at the Mikado’s command.
    The stylization throughout emphasizes that we are watching the fantasies of a romantic delusional naive young girl.
    The special effects the critic objected to are products of her mind as she, like many of us, goes through life embroidering reality with her imagination creating an idealized world.

  4. Posted Apr 10, 2014 at 12:01 pm by Larry Seubert

    First of all, If you intend to review opera, get better seats. It was not confetti falling. It was butterflies. As you attend more productions of “Butterflly” , you will find that live children sometimes do not work. I attended one performance where the kid was so damn cute that all he could do was smile. Usually at the most inappopriate moments. And then there was the time that the kid lost it and started wailing at the top of his lungs, drowning out everything.

    Historically, the “ballets” had nothing to do with the operas they were performed in, just a chance for the male patrons to see pretty girls, so don’t let them bother you.

    Finally, try to get a copy of Patricia Racette’s “Butterfly” The puppeteers were so masterful that, during an interview, Renee Fleming actually bent down with the mike to interview the puppet!

  5. Posted May 12, 2014 at 12:08 pm by Will

    I like the production but the puppet was ugly. It remains me of Chucky of Childs Play. Creepy looking. Does anyone responsible for this production have eyes?

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