Metropolitan Opera 2021-22 Review: Madama Butterfly
Eleonora Buratto Delivers Transformative Performance of Title RoleBy David Salazar
(Credit: Richard Termine)
While there’s no doubt that Puccini’s operas bring with them a level of difficulty, perhaps none is more complex or challenging than the central role in his “Madama Butterfly.”
Modern issues of interpretation aside (and this opera brings forth a great deal, many of which have been contended for decades and some that are now being questioned more acutely now), the role calls for an interpreter to not only sing virtually non-stop from the moment she arrives on stage. The soprano has to interpret a character that transforms from a child into a woman. She has to sing one of opera’s most renowned duets and arias, followed by some truly complex musical passages that test not only her technique, but interpretative and musical insight.
It’s, as some people would call it, a big sing.
Constructing a Character
For its current revival the Met has handed the baton to soprano Eleonora Buratto, whose career has seen the soprano dominate 18th century opera like few others. She’s as agile in Rossini works as she is in those of Verdi and Puccini.
And so it came as no surprise that her take on what many deem the definitive Puccini role (one might argue that Tosca is the co-leader in that department) was one of the finest singular interpretations on the Met stage in 2021-22.
I think that if we were to look at the role of Cio-Cio San as a whole, we should turn to her iconic aria – “Un bel dì vedremo,” which expresses the hope and, through the music’s subtext, the anguish, that Cio-Cio San feels at having to wait three years for Pinkerton to return. This aria is in many ways an encapsulation of the role as a whole. It starts off with a gentle vocal line in the soprano’s passaggio, then takes its time in the middle register, all the while building emotionally and vocally as it reaches its summit, exploding with passion and energy at its high; this very much is what is called for in terms of the role itself – a young innocent woman whose intensity, desperation, passion grows until it literally kills her by the end of the opera. Puccini’s music is not full of just musical crescendos, but I would argue that this role as a whole is one massive emotional crescendo and the singer who takes it on is tasked with navigating it with musical and emotional intelligence that sustains the audience’s emergence and feeling in her plight.
Buratto was that kind of singer. In this iconic passage, we saw Buratto’s vocal finesse, her rock-solid technique, and the intensity that she was to bring to the role for the remainder of the night. Opening on thread-like enunciations of that opening high G flats, E flats, and F natural, her voice had a silky delicacy. The aria spends a lot of time in the middle register and Buratto luxuriated in her sound, building it from a hushed darkness to an increasingly potent color, the sound and volume a gradual crescendo as the aria pushed toward its inevitable climax. And in that moment, Buratto’s voice blossomed into a glorious high B flat.
But Buratto had already done a lot of amazing work in the first Act to lay the groundwork for that immortal aria to land as it did.
The first challenge to face any Cio-Cio San interpreter at the start of the opera is to make the audience believe that she’s a child who is so innocent that she doesn’t notice the abuse she is being put under. Puccini’s lavish and sensual vocal lines throughout the second half of the first act, more than “endorsing” Pinkerton, are an expression of Butterfly’s own romantic fantasy. Puccini wants us to engage with her sense of wonder (a fact that this production by the late Anthony Minghella and Carolyn Choa doubles down on throughout). Buratto’s singing here was delicate, even a bit pointed with the diction spotless and clear; As Cio-Cio San shows off her possessions to her future husband, she delivered such short phrases as “Fazzoletti. La Pipa. Una cintura…” with lightness and playfulness that reminded you of a child doing show and tell. This was matched with the physical energy she displayed, the subtle play with her hands, the gentle gestures with the rest of her body. It was moments like this where the gulf between her and her husband-to-be were most noticeable and it added tension to the dynamics playing out onstage.
She managed to find a balance between that kind of playful singing and the more intense vocalization that Puccini requires of the singer. Cio-Cio San’s first entrance sees her singing over a female chorus, the vocal line soaring to a high B flat. Some sopranos take an optional D flat for added effect, though Buratto stayed true to the original score; while there’s no doubt that interpolating that high note right off the bat is thrilling for the audience, it isn’t true to character and moreso in the case of Buratto who delivered that climactic B flat with a round, vibrant, and vigorous quality as opposed to a thunderous sound. She delivered on this approach throughout the duet as well, her singing at ease and the more intense outbursts elegant but reserved. That is, until the final high passages of the duet where Buratto gave into the passion of the moment, climaxing on a fulminous high C.
The ending of Act one was thrilling precisely because she arrived at that vocal potency gradually instead of throwing caution to the winds from the beginning. It was methodical and yet flowed naturally with the music and her performance and energy. Again, this entire act felt like one massive vocal and emotional crescendo from Buratto, her singing blossoming as Cio-Cio San does.
While “Un bel dì” essentially kicks off Act two, there is still a lot of other narrative and emotional development that Cio-Cio San has to take on throughout. In passages like “Ma in America,” her singing was sprightly, the color palette everchanging. She shifted the weight of her sound as she impersonated “un bravo judice” and “il magistrato.” But she also allowed her voice to display a sharper edge as she shuts down Yamadori and Goro. It showed a contrast between the naivety and the grittiness setting into the character.
We saw similar contrasts in passages like “Sai cos’ebbe cuore,” where the initial lines, directed at her young child, were soft and bright before taking on a darker hue in the lower sections and then bursting at the seams as the line rose to its peaks.
Buratto likely delivered her most impassioned singing when she announced the “Abraham Lincoln,” a thrilling high A sharp launching the rest of the passage with similar aplomb. And then she moved into a much more fluid and softer quality during the flower duet, her lines dovetailing beautifully with those of Elizabeth DeShong. What was particularly wonderful about this whole sequence is how through her singing and physical energy, we could see a relaxation in Buratto’s Cio-Cio San; we could truly feel the calm before the major storm of Act three. As she kneeled during the final “humming chorus,” the child puppet by her side, she gracefully took the boy’s head and placed it on her knees. Knowing what’s to come, this subtle moment was heartbreaking.
Act three is where everything erupts emotionally for Butterfly, leading to one of the most heart-wrenching climaxes in opera. When she realized what was happening and who the mysterious woman at her door was, she suddenly exploded with fury, throwing the flowers to the ground; even if some of this abrasiveness had been hinted at in the scene with Goro and Yamadori, this emotional explosion proved shocking when it happened; you could feel the stillness onstage as Buratto’s Cio-Cio San processed what was happening. DeShong, playing Suzuki, looked veritably afraid and her small gestures as she responded to Buratto’s Cio-Cio San expressed the shifting dynamics in their relationship to a tee.
When the scene shifted to its final moments, Buratto took on a more rigid stance, a colder semblance taking over. Suddenly, this character, who was so full of life and passion, was pure ice, adding suspense to what was to come. It added to the intensity of her last hug with Suzuki, expressing the character’s internal conflict and the true tragedy of what was unfolding. This was furthered in that final aria, “Tu? Tu? Tu?” in which she gives her farewell to her child. Here, Buratto threw caution to the wind and just sang her heart out, her voice booming in the cavernous Met Opera auditorium in revelatory fashion. I’ve heard a lot of singers struggle through this final passage; after singing for close to two hours all night, it’s a surprise anyone has the strength to power through an orchestra by the time this aria comes. It’s often a vocal struggle but because of the emotional investment, you stay with the singer and really buy into the dramatic struggle. But Buratto sounded as fresh and poised here as she did at the start of the evening, her voice as passionate as ever, but her timbre as beautiful as ever.
No Small Roles
In the role of Pinkerton, tenor Brian Jagde made the most of his stentorian tenor sound and rock-solid vocal technique. From the get-go, he held a trumpet-like vocalization that really added a nice contrast to the softer colors found in Buratto’s turn. When given an opportunity to release the full potency of his sound, Jagde held no reservation and we saw some thrilling high notes at the climax of the duet and especially at the end of his Act three aria “Addio, fiorito asil.”
The casting of David Bizic as Sharpless was brilliant in many ways. His earthy baritone hues closely in color to Jagde’s darker tenor, which aligns them from a character perspective. But he took on a more reserved quality in his singing, giving his character more grounding as opposed to Jagde’s correspondingly high-flying approach. There was an elegance in his softer lines and he allowed himself more room to build his voice for outbursts of frustration in Act two or when he chides Pinkerton in the final Act.
Then there was Elizabeth DeShong’s Suzuki, a role she debuted with the company in 2014 and has performed 15 times in total since. Suzuki spends a lot of time onstage throughout, but she doesn’t really get any major dramatic moments to herself for most of it. But when she does, DeShong made the most of them, stealing the scene vocally and dramatically. Her first vocal outburst came when she chided Goro for his rumor-mongering, her singing jagged and ferocious as she dragged him across the stage. And then there were two distinct moments in the final Act where her heart broke for Cio-Cio San and you couldn’t help but feel for her. First was her “Ahime sante degli avi!” where her voice thundered with pain as she dropped to her knees. And then a few moments later, with “Oh, me Trista!” she also blasted her sound and dropped to her knees in pain. With most singers, the repetition of that action would have felt repetitive and awkward; DeShong delivered the moment with so much intensity that you didn’t care; you fell with her. But perhaps the most intense moment of her performance, which I related earlier, was her final interactions with Buratto during which she has to confess the truth. You could feel the inner tension in DeShong’s performance, the hesitancy coming from piannisimo singing and her frozen posture as she looked into Buratto’s eyes and broke her Cio-Cio San’s heart. Personally, I wish the Met would give her more starring roles like it did with “Semiramide” a few years ago. She is an artist of utmost integrity and quality.
The remainder of the cast was solid, especially Scott Scully, whose light tenor offered a perfect contrast to Jagde’s burlier voice.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of the music director a lot since my last opera review. Save for the realm of early music, we live in an era where every young conductor is expected to be versatile and conduct everything, sacrificing the specialist who knows the particular idioms and musical specificities of different styles. And with the emphasis on more modern compositions, it’s no surprise that a lot of conductors have developed an “one-size fits all” approach to their conducting. From there we hear Wagnerian interpretations of almost all late 19th century Italian opera and even some of Verdi’s later works (some conductors really like to make “Aida” brassy). And with Puccini, we get what I heard a few weeks back – exaggerated gestures that might fit in with Mahler, but are a far cry from the Italian style.
Stylistic approach aside, the conductor in an opera is an interesting hybrid of a performer and director – they need to be in the moment with the artists, but also outside of the moment, sculpting the entire show from start to finish. That’s not to say that conductors aren’t doing this when tackling a symphony, but in that case, they are the central interpreter – the one who reigns supreme. In the opera house, they are and aren’t. They are the chief sculptors of the main musicodramatic arc of a work (and thus deciding the overall direction of the piece), but also need to know when to delegate to the other artists working with them, knowing when to lead and when to follow. Which brings me back to Puccini.
In earlier Italian opera, one could make the argument that the voice is at the forefront of it all and hence, singers take on a bigger role in shaping the arc of a piece. But as we move toward the end of the century and the orchestra takes on a bigger role, there’s no doubt that the musical relationships shift markedly. Puccini calls for balance between the pit and the stage in a way that few other composers do. There’s still a lot of freedom that a singer of his works requires, but the orchestra is very much a partner in the storytelling.
All this to say, that Alexander Soddy managed an elegant balance. He knew when to take charge and lead, but he was also very respectful of his singers. In an opera with a lot of forte orchestra climaxes, he never once covered the singers. They never sounded overwhelmed by the orchestra or pushed by it. As a result, there was a freedom in each artist’s performance that allowed the evening to soar musically and dramatically. That’s not to say that there weren’t any noticeable hiccups, but Soddy was quick to react and adjust, not to what he needed, but to what the singers needed.
His transitions were seamless and it never felt like he was weighing down the drama to make a musical point. That’s not to say that he didn’t find moments to explore the musical textures in the work. A lot of conductors tend to overemphasize the brassy textures during fortissimos, often to the detriment of a balanced sound; it suits some operas, but not most Italian works (the instruments were different when a lot of this repertory was composed). Soddy found an appropriate balance where you could feel the sound of the brass instruments during forte passages, but not at the expense of the other members of the orchestra.
Of the passages where I felt that Soddy was enriching the musical painting came right at the end as Cio-Cio San prepares to perform her suicide ritual. The trombones has an syncopated ostinato low F sharp (an eighth note followed by eighth note tied to a quarter) that is written piano and marked “tristamente.” It’s only eight or nine measures, but Soddy allowed this particular moment certain prominence and it added menacy and foreboding to the scene.
The general sweep and momentum of the Intermezzo was also greatly appreciated, adding a beautifully energetic contrast to the more delicate and serene approach to the humming chorus which felt softer than usual, though no less effective.
While I have reviewed Anthony Minghella’s production in the past, I’ve never actually done so on OperaWire specifically. Having seen it over the years, it’s remarkable to me that it is one of the few from the Peter Gelb era that has stood the test of time and remains as magical as it was when it first opened near the beginning of this century (it also says a lot about Gelb’s 15+-year tenure that some of his best creative work came right at the beginning). The production does everything that most Gelb-era productions have aspired to, but often fall short on – traditional productions that are minimalist in their aesthetic, but manage to feel modern and vibrant with life.
Minghella and Chao manage this handsomely, using a few visual motifs throughout (the shifting doors) and introducing new elements in unique, but never invasive manners (the flowers appearing on the back of performers, for example, is a brilliant “magic” trick).
The opening sequence, in which the symbolic figure of our opera’s heroine comes forward in the silence, the threads coming out of her dress as she is figuratively pulled apart, is a potent metaphor with which to open the opera.
The use of floating bulbs throughout the duet emphasizes the whimsy of the opera’s world and Cio-Cio San’s own perspective of her life as a dream that is ultimately shattered. Same goes for the Bunraku puppet, a theatrical feat that has always been one of my favorites ever to be produced on the Met stage. From the moment that boy comes onstage, you believe he’s alive. And the fact that he meshes as well in this rendition without ever stealing the scene from anyone else is a testament to the performers’ greatness, but also to the puppeteer’s brilliant collaboration. As a practical consideration, the puppet is a theatrical coup, but as a dramatic one, it might be even more so. The boy’s fate hangs in the balance at the close of the opera, his destiny never his own to choose. He, unfortunately, becomes a literal puppet of fate, and as that final unresolved chord suggests, he might turn into a victim of it as well given how the opera itself posits a pessimistic view on colonialism and the racism it creates (it’s not lost on me that the opera itself is a product of the cultural tension it is trying to condemn).
The lighting is brilliant, emphasizing that shifting magical realism, something that is notably amplified by Cio-Cio San’s dream at the start of Act three.
But what really stood out to me this time around was the mirror that hangs over the stage. Again, as a practical consideration, it allows people in the orchestra section to see the majesty of the production; the people at the top of the theater can see it with their eagle-eye perspective. But the mirror is also a symbol of reflection and I couldn’t help but feel that in an age where we are questioning the operatic repertory and how or whether it should be interpreted, that this mirror had become an unintentional invitation to ask questions about what was onstage. “Madama Butterfly” is a product of orientalism (past and in practice, present) and yet it is also condemning colonization and Pinkerton’s abuse and how it destroys Cio-Cio San’s life. No doubt, the opera does try at times to make its cake and eat it too with how it condemns and yet attempts to justify some of its characters in moments (Puccini added “Addio fiorito asil” in a later revision to make Pinkerton more sympathetic), and yet, with its glorious music, it is a fixture of the standard repertoire. How do we reconcile these factors in our modern era? That mirror, hanging over the Met stage, became, at least for me, a productive way to both enjoy what this opera has to offer and reflect on its more problematic aspects. And all this, without the need to point attention to itself.
In sum, this is the kind of performance you aspire to when you head to the Met. Great artists at the top of their vocal and dramatic games. A conductor who understands the balance that comes with his position. And a production that is both dramatically taut, but also able to continue to evolve and elucidate the audience without becoming a dramatic distraction.