Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Conductor: Placido Domingo
Producer: Anthony Minghella
Director and Choreographer: Carolyn Choa
Cio-Cio-San: Patricia Racette
Lt. B.F. Pinkerton: Adam Diegel
Suzuki: Maria Zifchak
U.S. Consul Sharpless: Laurent Naouri
Goro: Tony Stevenson
When I want to introduce an unsuspecting friend or even just a mere acquaintance to the countless pleasures of opera, Madama Butterfly is the one title that readily springs to my mind. And it is easy to understand why: a straightforward story, an exotic setting, well-defined characters, East meets West, and, above all, Puccini’s unabashedly melodic score. Plus, let’s face it, just over three hours in the world of opera is pretty conservative. Bottom line is, if at the end of the journey they are not converted or at least intrigued enough to look forward to learning more, I know that all hope is lost.
I had heard so much about Anthony Minghella’s production since its premiere in 2006 that I had made the Met’s revival of it with Patricia Racette one of my top priorities this season. What I had forgotten to take into account though, was the long-established extraordinary popularity of Puccini’s masterpiece and how fast the affordable tickets would disappear. I finally got back to my senses last Tuesday and managed to snag an exceptionally good seat for Friday night, obviously due to a cancellation. I was not crazy about going to the Met after spending the two previous nights at Carnegie Hall (It is, in fact, possible to get too much of a good thing) but then again, what do you do when Puccini’s world famous geisha is calling? You soldier on.
And I am so glad I did. I am also particularly glad that after the opera’s disastrous opening night at La Scala in 1904, the Italian composer stubbornly stuck to his guns and never gave up on it, even as he put it through several round of revisions. From the final version on, the doomed love affair between an innocent 15-year old Japanese girl and a thoughtless American cad, which was inspired by an American play and a French novel, has remained at the very core of the opera répertoire and will no doubt continue to captivate the crowds for many centuries to come.
As I was taking my seat in the packed opera house on Friday night, my heart almost missed a beat as the dreaded insert fell from my program. After taking a deep breath, I dared to have a look and found out that the crucial role of Pinkerton would be taken over by Adam Diegel (?) after Roberto de Biasio, whom I had really enjoyed in Simon Boccanegra, had fallen ill. Drat.
On the other hand, Patricia Racette was decidedly there, and in fine form too. Although she does not have the star wattage of an Anna Netrebko or Renee Fleming, she is not lacking in any of the artistic requirements for that kind of exposure either, except, maybe, for a zealous publicist. After witnessing her riveting Jenufa and heart-breaking Ellen (in Peter Grimes) in DC in the past few years – I had found her less convincing, if still solid, in The Met’s Tosca – I was eager to see her in the mercilessly challenging role of Cio-Cio-San. She did not disappoint. Her steadily wide-ranging, vividly luminous voice as well as her reliable acting skills were major assets in her persuasive portrait of her young heroine’s various states of mind. One of the saddest arias in all opera, “Un bel dì” was all aching longing and tenacious hope, subtly emphasizing the dream slowly turning into near-insanity.
Stepping into such a landmark role as Pinkerton at the last minute cannot be easy for anybody, but young Korean tenor Adam Diegel was obviously game and delivered a more than respectable performance. My only objection is that I found his Pinkerton a bit too much of a one-note likable guy for such a notoriously unsavory character, especially when his voice, after some quick warming-up, became engagingly warm and downright appealing. But my light reservation notwithstanding, he did a fine job.
The famous long love duet in the garden was for sure the highlight of the evening, with the two glorious voices harmoniously responding to each other before sensually intertwining in an arresting scene featuring undulating paper lanterns and fluttering flower petals. The irony of the whole set-up, of course, was that a Caucasian middle-aged soprano was playing an ingenuous Japanese teenager while a young Asian-looking tenor was impersonating a Caucasian American soldier. Only in opera!
The other roles were more than capably filled, with special kudos to the splendid mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak, who sounded as if she literally owned the part of Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San’s servant and confident. Laurent Naouri was a perfectly decent U.S. Consul Sharpless and Tony Stevenson an adequately cunning Goro, the marriage broker. The Met chorus was as fabulous as usual, discreetly but unmistakably glowing.
When I attend an opera, I usually care more about the musical component than the visual aspect of the production. For this one, however, I had different expectations. And I have to say that this Madama Butterfly allowed me to marvel at some of the most stunningly beautiful tableaux I had ever seen onstage. Richly colorful costumes, versatile sliding screens, a huge ceiling mirror, delicate paper lanterns, and, first and foremost, a masterful use of lightning, including an ever-changing background, were all combined with assured cinematographic flair for an endless enchantment of the eyes.
But even the most spellbinding productions have the occasional flaw, and in this case I found the use of Bunraku puppetry to introduce Trouble, Cio-Cio-San’s and Pinkerton’s little boy, and to display the short dream sequence, unnecessary and distracting. While I am all for the inclusion of local cultural touches – and some of them were deftly effective – I found that the presence of an ancient Japanese art form in a modern Western production of a classic Italian opera simply did not work, no matter how well-meaning the endeavor was.
The score, on the other hand, successfully combines Eastern and Western elements for an opera full of exquisite exoticism, gut-wrenching drama and, as always, priceless melodies. On Friday night the Met orchestra was playing under the baton of Placido Domingo, who knows a thing or two about Puccini in general and Pinkerton in particular. But somehow all this expertise did not translate in the most vibrant conducting I’ve ever heard. While the music was generally bright and colorful, the pace was at times erratic, and the final notes were heard almost half an hour after the estimated end time. But, really, who could complain about getting to spend some extra quality time with this Madama Butterfly?