Slow out of the gate, Met’s iron “Butterfly” belatedly provides the tears

Fri Nov 03, 2017 at 1:17 pm
Hui He and Roberto Aronica in Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

Hui He and Roberto Aronica in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at the Metropolitan Opera.
Photo: Ken Howard

The Metropolitan Opera is fortunate indeed to have Anthony Minghella’s production of Madama Butterfly as a repertoire staple. Immersive and then arresting, the staging is an artistic force on its own, even on a night when the cast is struggling to carry a performance.

Thursday night’s revival lacked the sort of high-wattage singing needed to make a truly memorable Butterfly, yet the drama still managed to reach a roaring boil in the crucial third act.

Taking on the title role for the fall run is Chinese soprano Hui He. The most pronounced of Thursday’s late bloomers, her Cio-Cio San felt generic in the first act, combining an initially uncomplicated portrayal and a clean, focused voice without a really distinctive hue. She showed somewhat more energy in Act II: her performance of the show-stopping aria “Un bel di” was well crafted, though intimate in scale, not the sort of reading likely to draw a strong emotional response from an audience.

The soprano saved all her powers, seemingly, for her death scene, ravishingly realized, a full drama in itself. It was here that she gave her most impassioned singing of the evening, and her final embrace with the bunraku puppet that portrays her young son was intensely poignant.

It was a rough night for Roberto Aronica, playing Lieutenant Pinkerton, the American naval officer who takes a young Japanese bride he never intends to stand by. His tenor is a brawny, inflexible instrument, which isn’t necessarily disqualifying for this role: a boxy vocal performance actually suited his portrayal of Pinkerton as a graceless jock. Other flaws, such as a badly croaked high C at the end of the wedding-night duet and a general grayness of timbre, were hard to ignore.

Leading his first Met performance, Jader Bignamini proved to be more accomplished as a stylist than as a manager. The fugue that opens Act I was sloppy, and there were a handful of glaring ensemble lapses thereafter. Yet the orchestra glowed under his baton, as he showed excellent pacing, bringing warm, airy sighs out of the strings and allowing the many instrumental solos to sparkle with individual character. Showing a little Stokowskian flair, he laid aside his baton to conduct the velvety Met chorus in Act II’s famous “Humming chorus.”

The supporting cast looms large in Butterfly, and two comprimarii gave performances that accounted for much of the evening’s color. David Bizic has excelled in friend-of-the-tenor roles in his young Met career and in Thursday’s performance a lovely woolen baritone as Sharpless, playing the American consul with touching kindness. Maria Zifchak, a true stalwart of the company since her debut in 2000, gave another aching performance in her signature role of Suzuki. This was deeply felt portrait of the devoted handmaid, finding the truth of the character in the smallest moments: a heartbreaking look flashed across her face as Cio-Cio San lamented “non son più bella.” Her rich, dark mezzo burned with righteous fire as she excoriated Goro for having made the match with Pinkerton.

Robert Pomakov boomed as the Bonze, while Kidon Choi brought an energetic, spiced baritone and superb swagger in his debut as Yamadori. Tony Stevenson was smooth-voiced and imperious as Goro. And while poor Kate Pinkerton only has a handful of lines, Avery Amereau was brilliant in her moment, showing poised sadness and an astonishing, molasses-hued contralto.

The most prominent supporting character of all is Minghella’s production itself, still enchanting more than ten years on. The puppetry of Blind Summit Theatre, mentioned above, is breathtakingly human, the colorful lighting of Peter Mumford remains dramatic and atmospheric, the rolling screen panels of Michael Levine create playing space without distracting from the actors at all. The closing image, with rivers of crimson cloth spilling out of Cio-Cio San’s obi all the way across the diagonal of the stage, is one of the great coups de théâtre in the Met’s arsenal, right up there with the very best of the stage-elevator tricks. The reflection of the tableau in the raked mirror above is heart-rendingly beautiful, guaranteed to put a knot in any throat.

Madama Butterfly runs through March 16 at the Metropolitan Opera. Dwayne Croft portrays Sharpless on November 20 and March 13. Luis Chapa plays Pinkerton on Mar 13 and 16. Ermonela Jaho portrays Cio-Cio-San beginning February 22, with Marco Armiliato conducting.

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