Metropolitan Opera 2017-18 Review – Madama Butterfly: Hui He Leads Classic Anthony Minghella Production In Memorable Night

By Matt Costello

The beauty of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” could render any critique almost unseemly. After all, to hear that seamless music, the moments that turn transcendent — and then to cavil? I’d suggest that even a modest performance, say, even in the dense rainforest (echoing, of course, Werner Herzog’s “Ftizcarraldo”) would still, inevitably, move one. The score simply flows, with audience and performers swept along in the touching tragedy.

Which brings us to this review of the Met’s revival of the late director Anthony Minghella’s often marvelous production. One could sit in that cavernous theater, and still feel that often-ingenious staging’s power. Yet – there are things to discuss about the staging and this revival. And to begin?

A Moving Butterfly

First, to the oh-so-young Co-Cio-San, here performed by soprano Hui He. When you realize the amount of time than Cio-Cio-San is on that great stage, needing to sail on those soaring waves of melody, for nearly every minute of the piece, one can only marvel at her talent and stamina.

For much of the work, Hui He superbly rose to the occasion, whether in her touching scenes with Sharpless, as she remains deluded about the possible return of her American lieutenant, or performing a powerful “Un bel di vedremo.”

For the most part, Hui He’s singing was all quite beautiful, though I did have a sense that there were careful ebbs and flows in the singing, the soprano marshaling her resources. And at times, the singer’s tone had a rich huskiness that, though powerful, belied the age of the character.

An Effective Pinkerton

Roberto Aronica’s Pinkerton matched his bride-to-be with passionate, full-voiced singing. While the connection between the two leads wasn’t quite so expressive, that was perhaps not surprising since Aronica effectively makes the true caddish nature of Pinkerton quite clear.

His duets with Hui He had all the smoothness and elegance that one could want, with a genuine hush filling the theater at such moments. And when Pinkerton disappears, theatrically hidden by a sliding screen at the very start of Act two, it more than hammers home the emotional wave that’s to hit the innocent Cio-Cio-San, now with a young, blue-eyed son.

Sharpless as Moral Center

As to the other performers, again, the Met summoned a repertoire revival with top-notch standards.

Of special mention is Davis Bizic’s Sharpless. The singing had a heft and emotion that made Sharpless’s key part pivotal, especially in this production. During his first moments with Pinkerton, singing toasts to America (more about that later), to his sad, conflicted scene where he really struggles to have Butterfly hear the fateful words Pinkerton wrote, he becomes the moral center of this painful yet beautiful story. And his rich baritone is something I will look forward to in future Met performances.

A Powerful Ensemble

Likewise, the key role of Suzuki was ably carried out by long-term Met performer Maria Zifchak. Her duet with Butterfly just prior to the humming chorus and the night vigil, was beautiful, a jewel for Soprano and Mezzo, and a highpoint for both Zifchik and Hui He.

And though the role of Yasmadori is mighty small, this spurned lover sung by Kidon Chli was immediately – and rather remarkably — sympathetic, with a stirring voice to match. Not much screen-time as we say, but he made an impression. The same goes for Tony Stevenson’s Goro, hovering over the disaster that he has set in motion.

Orchestra and Chorus Again Shine

The Met Opera Chorus, as usually, was always engaged. I challenge someone to find one chorister not in character. And the singing was powerful, seamless, making the choral scenes in this revival shine.

The Met Orchestra — which could probably play this piece sans scores — maintains its position as one of the nation’s great orchestras. And not just for opera. Jader Bignamini is making his Met debut as conductor with this revival, and he conducted with a powerful energy and focus. At times, I occasionally felt that I would have wanted more nuance with the familiar score. The Met’s orchestra is capable of summoning incredible detail, with a rich seamless sheen.

Still, when the tragedy demanded intensity and drive, Bignamini met that challenge. It will be interesting to see how his work with the great orchestra develops.

A Classic Production…

As for the production, this reviewer first saw it the year in premiered, under James Levine in 2006. The first impression was that it was perfect.

And while it still works rather remarkably, it is showing some age and it often seemed as if the stage action could use some sharpening and even some new direction. There were moments when lead characters sat, then stood, then sat again.

The moving sliding walls of the production — the classic room panels of a traditional Japanese household – were, for the most part, effective. But at times, it seemed there were being moved in a perfunctory way (only later to be used to great effect, whether making Pinkerton disappear or to have Cio-Cio-San lurk behind one as she prepares to meet her husband.)

And truly beautiful moments remain, such as the end of Act One, as a night full of stars descends in a golden curtain, or when flower petals drift from above.

Other moments though, as when black ribbons fly around a chastised Butterfly, seemed much less impactful.

And a big “star” of this production. Cio-Cio-San and PInkerton’s son, a puppet in the tradition of the Japanese 17th art form of Bunraku, proved to be compelling and emotional as ever.

While the puppet might seem a tad worn (easily fixed, to be sure), the performance of the three puppeteers, so perfectly expressing the gentleness and closeness of the wooden boy with his mother were heartbreaking.

A Relevant Butterfly?

One last thought: while classic operas such as this can often seem, in story and theme, to be frozen in amber, the arrangement of the teenage Butterfly to be “married” to the callow Pinkerton certainly resonates differently these days. And that maybe is a good thing. A living art needs to mirror back its time, and seem different and new as those times change.

The same thought occurred when the words are sung “America Forever.” For this writer, they produced goosebumps, probably not an uncommon reaction.

But those goosebumps — this time, these days – came, perhaps, for a different reason.


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