Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” has been a staple of the repertoire for years and at the Metropolitan Opera, it has had somewhat of a renaissance ever since Anthony Minghella’s inventive production came opened in 2006.
The opera is really a showcase for a great soprano who can bring forth intense emotions and who can captivate an audience with the lead character’s suffering. For this second revival of the season, the Met brought one of the leading performers of the work, Ermonela Jaho and created a magical evening amidst a mixed-bag cast.
The Leading Lady
Let’s get one thing out the way before I begin my praise of the Albanian soprano. Ermonela Jaho doesn’t have the biggest voice in the world and as I have heard the constant criticism of this I must dispel the notion that big means effective. She doesn’t fill the Met nor does she pretend to. The orchestra can sometimes cover her and sometimes the timbre can thin out. But once you understand the soprano you have come to see, then you can fully immerse yourself in her performance and her artistry. I don’t say this lightly, but if you can get past this little thing, audiences are in for one of the greatest Madama Butterfly interpreters currently performing this role.
The moment Jaho steps onto the stage she is Cio-Cio San. Her subtle moments, whether they be her facial expressions, her timid gait or her hand gestures showcase that of an innocent 15 year-old whose experience is limited. This comes together with her vocal approach as well. At the opening of the opera, Jaho slims down the voice, giving it a slender and more lyric quality that is reminiscent of a young woman. At her entrance, Jaho sang with a beautiful timbre that crescendoed as the moment came to its climatic D flat. But Jaho never thickened the voice to overpower the chorus and the note came through with clarity and power.
Her duet “Vogliatemi bene” at the end of Act one was another showcase of a young girl transforming. From her small flirtatious gestures to her shy and scared movements towards Pinkerton, Jaho’s Cio-Cio San was overcome by desire and love. The voice also grew in power while still retaining the lyricism and brightness. When she leaped into Roberto Aronica’s arms that restraint was gone and she was ready to give in.
In Act two that innocence dissipated altogether. Jaho’s Cio-Cio San was a much more mature young woman filled with anxiety, waiting for the return of Pinkerton. There was a deepening of her anguish, particularly in the “Un bel di vedremo.” It may not have been the most beautifully phrased rendition but what it did have was a sense of storytelling with which each word getting the same importance. It was a rendition filled with pain, hope, and torment. In many ways, the B flat on the words “l’aspetto” was not the climactic moment one would hope because Jaho captivated throughout.
Her interactions with Sharpless were heartbreaking as the mature woman turned to the girlish qualities as she sought some answers about Pinkerton’s whereabouts. Kneeling on the floor, she would jump up from each phrase of the letter that he read, excited. The voice took on the slender and light color from the beginning once again. But that soon changed in her “Che tua madre dovra,” the voice darkening and the chest voice taking on more power and filling up with torment.
These changing emotions only made the passage “una nave da guerra” all the more powerful. Jaho’s excitement on seeing Pinkerton’s ship was filled with a nervous touch in her gestures and also in her voice. And it made for a visceral experience as it was union of vocal and physical acting.
The final moments of this Butterfly “Tu? Tu? Piccolo iddio” saw Jaho’s voice grow and while it was far from the most refined singing, the emotion of the character was the only thing the mattered. Jaho gave raw emotions breaking through the powerful Puccini score.
In the end, it was hard not to tear up seeing how Jaho’s Butterfly transformed and how this artist created a complete character.
The Supporting Players
As Pinkerton, Roberto Aronica brought a rough and coarse sound to the role. While he is able to fill the hall with his voluminous voice, it lacked refinement and his constant wobble at the top of his voice made it difficult to believe he was a young man. In his Act one duet, neither he nor Jaho’s voices unified well. Aronica’s covered her at numerous points including their climatic high C. But in the third act, he redeemed himself in “Addio fiorito asil.” The voice, while coarse, was still able to beam out an ardent tone that showcased a powerful spinto quality. Still, character-wise there was no dynamism in this portrayal.
Maria Zifchak’s Suzuki’s continues to be a staple at the Met and for many reasons. Her voice has a huge resonance throughout the hall and it communicates raw emotions. The voice has lost some of the freshness it had back when the production opened 12 years ago and in many ways that allows the character to evolve. Instead of that youthful companion, Zifchak’s Suzuki is more of a mother figure that gives the story another significance.
Roberto Frontali’s Sharpless was sung with spotless technique and a refined baritone. Hyung Yun’s Yamadori and Edyta Kulczak also showcased beautiful singing and one hopes the Met will use these promising voices for bigger roles.
An inspired Conductor
Marco Armiliato has conducted 24 operas over his Met career and “Madama Butterfly” is one of those he has done repeatedly. But one wouldn’t realize he has conducted this work so much. The interpretation continues to sound fresh and new, accommodating to each singer whether it was restraining the sound or letting the full explosion of the orchestra out in the climactic moments. The unpredictable nature of the reading allowed the music to flawlessly flow throughout the evening. But that didn’t mean Armiliato wasn’t refined in his reading as the orchestra played with a lush tone.
Overall this was Ermonela Jaho’s evening. It is somewhat of question as to why the Met waited 10 years to bring this remarkable singing-actress back. If her Butterfly is a sign of what she can offer as an artist, Jaho must be heard and seen. Hopefully more often at the Met.