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Sunday, April 24, 2011

DVD Review: The Master of Puppets

Anthony Minghella's Madama Butterfly from the Met
Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio San, holding her puppet child
in Anthony Minghella's Madama Butterfly.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2009 The Metropolitan Opera
This innovative staging of Madama Butterfly was the first staging of Peter Gelb's tenure as general maager of the Met. Staged by Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) set the tone for much that has followed: bright colors, stripped-down sets, and above all, a Big Name at the helm of a much-hyped new production of a repertory staple. But whatever weird turns the Met has taken in the last five years, this remains the visual record of an important Butterfly that marked the start of a new artistic era.

This two-disc set, released on Sony Classics earlier this year, preserves the Met Live in HD broadcast of Butterfly, starring Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio San and Maria Zifchak as her faithful housemaid Suzuki. It also serves as a fitting memorial to Mr. Minghella, who died one year before this telecast was filmed. Happily, this is a brilliant rendering of Puccini's opera, with dramatic and scenic focus on the tragedy at hand.

Rather than some attempt to recreate the landscape of pre-atomic Nagasaki on the Met's vast stage, Mr. Minghella took this work back to its Japanese roots, incorporating elements of Noh theater. Butterfly's hillside house becomes a "zoned" acting space, cut through with small, sliding shoji. Black-clad kuroko stagehands move, ghost-like through its movable walls. Colorful, authentic Japanese costumes are very much a feature, from the elaborate kimonos to Goro's bobbing kanmuri hat, worn to inappropriate, (and hilarious) effect by this glorified pimp. The most famous effect though, is the controversial use of bunraku puppets, most notably to play Butterfly's son, "Trouble."

This is a high-level performance of the opera, anchored by the veteran soprano of Ms. Racette. She understands every aspect of the character, creating a Cio-Cio San who rapidly travels the downward slide from innocent geisha bride to unwed mother and suicide. Her potent "Un bel di" is the keystone of the entire performance, but it is the seemingly spontaneous moments like her Act II interactions with Sharpless (Dwayne Croft) and Yamadori (David Won) that help this Butterfly soar.

Mr. Giordani is in good voice as Pinkerton, portraying one of the most ungrateful louses to grace the operatic stage. The Act I interactions with Goro (Greg Fedderly) and Butterfly's large family show the character's blithe ignorance of Japanese culture, which contrast with his noble, ringing tenor with just the right amount of squillo for "America, Forever!" Mr. Fedderly is just right as Goro, an absolute sleaze, decked out an overdone costume complete with bobbing kanmuri hat. As Sharpless, Dwayne Croft is a fine actor, although his once keen baritone sounds faded and dull.

When Butterfly's child is unveiled, the performance jumps to a higher energy level. Ms. Racette draws on new reserves of power as Butterfly's downward skid gets steeper. The fact that she is focusing all her maternal and musical energies on a puppet makes the scene even more moving and disturbing. The flawlessly sung flower duet with Suzuki acquires a demented, surreal aspect as the flowers are plucked from silent, black-clad stagehands. The image underscores the difference between Butterfly's forced optimism and the harsh reality of the final scene.

When Lt. Jerkwad (excuse me, Pinkerton) shows up with his wife in tow, the bottom drops out of Butterfly's heart. Ms. Racette sings the hollow realization with dark, dusky tones, undercut with terrible resolve as she sings her farewell to Suzuki. Patrick Summers is particularly good here, letting the silence speak for itself after leading two hours of stellar music in the orchestra pit. Finally, the anger and despair comes out as Butterfly chooses her honorable end. The ending is devastating in its power, as all performances of this great Puccini tragedy should be.

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