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Thursday, October 26, 2017

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Madama Butterfly

East meets West with disastrous consequences in Puccini's tragedy.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A dancer in the opening scene of the Met's production of Madama Butterfly.
Photo courtesy the Metropolitan Opera.
The Met struck operatic gold earlier this year with its La bohéme. As another relatively new soprano, Hui He sings her first Met performances as Cio-Cio San, the company hopes that their Puccini luck continues. This is one of the greatest love stories of the operatic canon. It's a sharp commentary on American imperialism and the uncaring treatment of "natives" by "enterprising" Yankee vagabonds. It's both. It's brilliant. It's Butterfly.

What is Madama Butterfly?
This is Puccini's sixth opera, the story of a culture clash between West and East. It is based on a Broadway play by David Belasco. In this story. different ideas about the meaning and sanctity of marriage have deadly consequences for the show's titular heroine.

What's Madama Butterfly about?
In the Japanese "open city" of Nagasaki (located on the southern end of Kyushu and the site of America's second atomic bomb drop in the Second World War) an American naval lieutenant, B.F. Pinkerton, marries the geisha Cio-Cio-San (the titular "Madama Butterfly") against the wishes of her family. They spend a night of passion together and he departs. Three years later, she has had his child (named "Trouble") and has been exiled from her family and friends. In poverty, she awaits his return. When he finally arrives, it is with a blonde lady, his "real American bride" to collect the child. Cio-Cio San, seeing no alternative, commits ritual suicide.

What's the music like?
Puccini poured his genius into the blossoming, flowing miracle of a score that has made this opera beloved for over a century. And then after Butterfly failed on opening night, he was forced to revise the work, honing its edge and creating a work that pleases the public ear but also holds to the highest level of artistic integrity.

Who's in it?
Roberto Aronica is the feckless Pinkerton for most of the performances. This is a wonderful role for the tenor, and if he does his job right you will want to slap him by the end of the evening. His Butterflies are Hui He (in the fall cast) and Ermonela Jaho in the spring, when the swallows return to Lincoln Center. Maria Zifchak sings all performances in the role of her faithful maid Suzuki.

How's the production?
This handsome staging by the Oscar-winning filmmaker Anthony Minghella (The Talented Mr. Ripley, The English Patient) announced the start of a new era at the Met. Sliding shoji and colorful costumes are set off by a black background and bright primary colors. The only unusual element: the part of Butterfly's child "Trouble" is played by a shadow puppet.

Why should I see it?
Because as the writer Will Berger points out in his excellent analysis Puccini Without Excuses, this is an evergreen opera that never fails to break the heart and move the listener. Plus it has the gorgeous, soaring aria "Un bel di," a challenge for any soprano.

When does it open?
The Met is offering two runs of Butterfly. One opens Nov. 2 and the second starts Feb. 22, 2018.

Where can I get tickets?
Tickets  are available through MetOpera.Org or by calling the box office at (212) 362-6000. You can save service fees by going to the box office in person at the Met itself, located at 30 Lincoln Center Plaza. Hours: Monday to Saturday: 10am-8pm, Sunday: 12pm-6pm.

Is there a Live in HD broadcast planned?
No, but this production has been filmed and is available on DVD.

Recording Recommendations:
Coro e Orchestra de Teatro dell'Opera di Roma cond. Sir John Barbirolli (EMI, 1967)
Cio-Cio San: Renata Scotto
Lt. B. F. Pinkerton: Carlo Bergonzi
Sharpless: Rolando Panerai
Suzuki: Anna di Stasio
Goro: Piero da Palma

There are a number of fine Butterfly recordings, but this set is ahead of the pack, thanks to the expert conducting of Sir John Barbiriolli. The British maestro leads an authentic, Italian chorus and orchestra, with excellent results--this is passionate music-making. The young Renata Scotto is at her best as Puccini's heroine. Carlo Bergonzi is a seductive, impressive presence as Pinkerton, and almost makes you feel sympathy toward his feckless character.

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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.