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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Opera Review: A Butterfly That Stamped

The Met revives the Puccini classic.
by Paul Pelkonen.
Here comes the bride: Cio-Cio San enters in Act I of Madama Butterfly.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2004 The Metropolitan Opera.
Seven years ago, Anthony Minghella's production of Madama Butterfly kicked off a new era at the Met under general manager Peter Gelb. Now directed by Carolyn Choa, it remains a stylish, cinematic interpretation of Puccini whose widescreen effects are best experienced in the opera house. 

The star of this revival is soprano Liping Zhang. Hers is a riveting interpretation of this famous title role, charting the character's arc from girlish innocence to abandonment, madness and suicide. Ms. Zhang brought all of her vocal resources to the part, crafting a potent "Un bel di" that ached with each carefully placed phrase. 

This production splits the last act at the Humming Chorus, which injures the dramatic arc of the opera. But Ms. Zhang returned to the third act with power, showing the rawness of Butterfly's pain and making the character's final suicide a moving act. Also impressive were her interactions with "Trouble", the bunraku puppet used in the role of Butterfly's son. The puppetry (by Blind Summit Theater) also works better in the opera house.

She was aided immeasurably by Plácido Domingo, the superstar tenor who now spends more time conducting at the Met than singing on its stage. (He is scheduled to take the small role of Neptune in the upcoming The Enchanted Island.) Mr. Domingo showed that this is one opera he can conduct well. Lyric lines were stretched to appropriate tension, and Goro's music was blessed with rhythmic snap.

Less impressive was the tenor onstage, Robert Dean Smith. He had a strong first act, and managed a lovely, seductive lyricism in the magical wedding night duet. But Mr. Smith's voice seemed to fade in "Addio, fiorito asil", the aria that Puccini added for Pinkerton to soften the character's actions in the finale. Then again, one's view may be colored by the character--making Pinkerton sound sympathetic right before Cio-Cio San kills herself is a near-impossible task.

Mezzo Maria Zifchak was one of the pleasures of this evening. Her rock-steady Suzuki was the perfect complement to Ms. Zhang's Butterfly, bringing out the firestorm of emotions behind the façade of the perfect Japanese servant. Luca Salsi was weak and vacillating as Sharpless, though he sang well. Character tenor Joel Sorensen was effective as the pimp Goro, the only character in the opera more reprehensible than Pinkerton. Baritone Luthando Qave rocked an impressive full-dress costume as Prince Yamadori, and sang with rich, dark tone.

Having first seen this Butterfly on video, it can be reported that Mr. Minghella's staging carries a much harder punch in the theater. Butterfly's plight seems like some strange dramatic ritual here. The cutting golden fans and shimmering rolls of silk become the trappings of that ritual, the forces of ill fate surrounding and overcoming the opera's heroine. With Mr. Minghella no longer with us, the performance was splendidly directed by chorographer Carolyn Choa.

Contact the author: E-mail Superconductor editor Paul Pelkonen.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.