"Oh no, not another "Butterfly!"
That cry had been heard more often than not among a number of Met
subscribers in recent years, when the forthcoming season's lineup arrived
in the mails.
But Anthony Minghella's take on the piece (as borrowed from the ENO) shows
how a work can be "re-invented" and not seem such a time-worn masterpiece
that requires not only glancing respect but a certain obeisance. Last
night -- with the house packed to the rafters...Giocomo Puccini's "Madama
Butterfly," earned it all over again.
For the last performance in the run this season, we even had James Levine
in the pit --how about that?
Weren't we told ...in no uncertain terms... that Maestro Levine would only
conduct the prima on opening at the hefty ticket price, then handing his
baton to another? His take on "Butterfly" was certainly a nuanced reading
of the score, less cloying than usual ...even those syrupy augmented chords
didn't seem to offend as much as they usually do...at least to my jaundiced
When your first Cio-Cio-San was Antionetta Stella, as was mine, at the old
Met, it would be downhill from there... but in the ensuing years, there
were others who essayed the role at the Met in a memorable fashion, much
less generic than today's crop...there was Renata Scotto who also left an
indelible impression, just to mention one.
And what tenor really wants to sing Pinkerton -- probably opera's most
disliked tenor cad? And that short "Addio del fiorito, assul" that Puccini
tacked on in Act III so that Pinkerton could show some remorse? It might
please the tenor du jour, but it doesn't do much to restore Pinkerton's
good name (already sufficiently tarnished). At least Puccini had the good
sense to shorten the roles of some of Cio-Cio-San's pesky relatives as
heard initially in Act I at the Scala premiere and later
discarded. They're still there on stage, but have less to sing. And who
wants to put up with uncle whatisname and his drunken revels?
I know that Giocomo Puccini claimed that "Butterfly" was his favorite...but
for me, his score for "Madama Butterfly," interest tends to flag after
Cio-Cio-San's Act II aria, "Un bel di.Vedremo."
And in the conclusion of Act II, there's that "humming chorus" which always
strikes me as a musical banality and somehow the musical inspiration ebbs
thereafter. That perception of musical ebbing didn't change all that much
last night, but what ensued dramatically made it somewhat more palatable.
But let me say right off the bat ...that Butterfly's entrance has never
worked to better effect in Act I, with Cio-Cio-San and her chorus of women
appearing as rising from that aperture at the back of the set and then
descending downstage. A lovely effect!
The darkness that prevailed with this set wasn't because Met management
wanted to lighten up on its electric bill (sorry about the pun)...the
effect was an essential to accommodate the Bunraku-clad figures -- very
stylized in their movements and not so conspicuous on a dark stage, as when
handling the puppets -- and in the case of "Trouble" so expressive in ways
a live, fidgety human child could never be. But the stylized presence of
several of the puppets (more than one) added greatly to the highly-charged
theatrically. What was so touching about this particular puppet
"Trouble"...the way his handlers turned his head as his attention was
directed here and there, as if this mere child, wise beyond his years (like
his mother), was in some way comprehending the enormity of all that was
transpiring and made it all the more heartbreaking sad. His incredulous
eyes seem to imply that he was somehow grasping the tragedy that was unfolding.
The few soji screens moved here and there worked marvelously and showed
that you don't need a lot of sets for this opera. In compensation, Han
Feng's costumes were an eyeful. And let me not forget to mention Peter
Mumford's subtle lighting! And some nice choreographical touches
contributed by Carolyn Choa that impart the feeling of a society full of
Another arresting touch later in Act II was the appearance of geisha
figures, again seen higher up near that rectangular aperture at stage
rear...correspondingly enacting in a dumb show, illustrating the role
Cio-Cio-San's fate would have decreed for her -- had she become a geisha,
one of the few choices open to Japanese women of the day...had she not
married B.F. Pinkerton...it served as a nice counterpart to the musical
thought Cio-Cio-San was expressing at that moment, bringing home the
reality of her situation. It was a rationale for her willingness to hang
on to the slightest hope that Pinkerton would return. I've always thought
how can she be so incredulous-- she's meant to be only 15--but seems so
knowing and intelligent in her comments that suggest a greater maturity
than you would expect.
Also, at the conclusion ...prior to her suicide, another set of faceless
menacing figures briefly appeared across the aperture further up stage
rear. To me, they were Japanese furies of a sort...representing ancestral
values or social taboos that demanded of Cio-Cio-San the ultimate
sacrifice, having fallen in rejection and disgrace, as had her father, as
told to us early on in Act I -- all very nice and thoughtful touches that
made the finale so poignant.
At the conclusion, all we see is Cio-Cio-San's lifeless corpse on a
darkened stage, alone and solitary... and when Pinkerton appears, he starts
to approach, then runs back upstage and off like the coward that he
is. The class of cultures that lies at the heart of this work has never
been shown to greater effect.
Vocally, I already said it -- "generic," even though all concerned,
Cristina Gallardo-Domas's Cio-Cio-San, Marcello Giordani, Pinkerton, Duayne
Crofta, Sharpless and Maria Zufchak as Suzuki, all performed admirably.
"Butterfly" remains a real crowd pleaser and will continue to draw them
in...but for those that thought that they had seen it all ...there was
something new to explore (and savor).
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