Review: Madama Butterfly Met In HD Encore

Just days after having the wonderful opportunity to see Ben Heppner in recital in Stratford I was offered a free ticket to attend an encore screening of the Met's 2009-2010 production of Madama Butterly. Though the production was certainly not flawless, I was quite impressed by what I saw. Anthony Minghella crafted the beautiful production (more on that later) Puccini’s opera. I will start with my general impressions, and then review some roles/places specifically.

The roles:
Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly) - Patricia Racette
B. F. Pinkerton - Marcello Giordani
Maria Zifchak - Suzuki
Dwayne Croft - Sharpless

The big theme that I found while viewing this production was the "slow getting started" feel. I will make the caveat upfront that part of this could well be attributed to the writing of Puccini, Luigi Illica, or Giuseppe Giacosa (the two librettists). Though of course all opera lovers are familiar with Madama Butterfly, I will confess that I have not seen or listened to a vast variety of recordings of it and thus cannot masterfully separate the writing from this particular production.

The thing that seemed to weigh on me the most about the production was that it had a lot of moments that were big lulls required to draw out the narrative (of Butterfly waiting for Pinkerton among others). The first of these was actually when the opera first opened. The amount of time waiting before Pinkerton and Butterfly meet seemed unnecessary and slow. Note that when I say this, obviously it is what is written in the score, but the production was unable to make me at least, feel interested during this time period. The second was the time between Pinkerton's absence and his impending return. This time is certainly necessary to draw out the tension of dramatic irony in the piece. However, I felt like while this was heightened by the narrative length of time, the production failed to keep the tension high enough to draw me raptly into the world of the performers.

Similarly, two of the most popular numbers in Madama Butterfly were wracked by the same issue of being slow to start. The potent love duet "Vogliatemi bene" as well as Butterfly's dramatic aria "Un bel di vedremo" both began lackluster but had me near tears by their conclusions. Nonetheless, even in the lulls, there were some interesting things that the designer of the production brought to the fore.

Tenor shown is NOT Marcello Giordani
Thought not a new production, the visual splendor in this particular rendition of Madama Butterfly is wonderful. It is minimalistic (not an uncommon trend in productions these days due to money concerns as well as the ability for technology to replace large set pieces or backdrops), but powerful in its visual impact combining traditional Japanese concepts with minimalistic, lighting conscious design ideas. The use of a consistently dark, sloped set, sliding screens to create visual interest on stage, and lighting involving a great incorporation of both hanging lights and lanterns held by black-clad persons on stage really gave the production a wonderful feel.

The REAL Giordani
In analysis of certain performers, I must honestly mark Marcello Giordani as the weakest of the performers in the production. Though he does a reasonable job as a duet partner in "Vogliatemi bene," and is quite compelling toward the end of the opera (especially in his final entrance at the top of the stage singing "Butterfly" as he beholds his past lover's lifeless body below (indeed, perhaps he also is slow to get going in his performance)). However, throughout, his performance seems to lack consistency and sincerity. It is a classic scenario where it feels as though he failed to make a choice with the character. You cannot tell whether he is simply a dastardly man sleeping around, a foolhardy youth who grows in wisdom, or any other particular character. At times he seems remorseful, others not, at times he seems a libertine, at others, a man who had every intention to marry a loving American wife and somehow found it okay to betray a Japanese wife. I don't mean to slight Giordani as a vocalist or a performer in general, simply in this particular portrayal.

Patricia Racette's performance is somewhat more commendable than her tenor counterpart's. There are many moments where she truly shines throughout the performance. As mentioned earlier, the end of her "Un bel di vedremo" brought tears to the eyes and really touched on the heart of Madama Butterfly which is its foreshadowing. There's never a secret about what will happen to Butterfly, the drama is in the tension of knowing it before she does. Again, toward the end of the opera, as things become more and more apparent, Racette does a great job being at first slow on the uptake and then crushed by her discoveries until she can find no other escape but to "die with honor." Vocally, she does suffer from occasionally wide vibrato and a sometimes monotonous tone, but all in all her voice is beautiful and well suited to the role. I would say that her failings throughout the production are less of her own creation and more to do with the things previously mentioned. By watching her facial expressions and listening to her singing, it's clear that as a singer and also as an actress she has great experience and tremendous understanding of the character she portrays.

A quick note, the performer in Goro's role (whose name I have not been able to find) plays his part well. The role is not large or particularly emotional, but he gets the slimy character whose interest is simply in making money by selling off young girls correct, and that's what counts.

In all honesty, the performers who really shine in this production of Madama Butterfly are Maria Zifchak as Suzuki and Dwayne Croft as Sharpless. The two play their roles perfectly, giving every little emotional cue necessary to portray well-developed, thoroughly thought-out characters. In the case of Zifchak, the nurse is at once caring and knowing, but still delights in some of the joys Butterfly experiences. She is weak when struck by bad news, but yet strong in the face of that aversion. She is happy for Butterfly, even when she is careful. She is worried, but also understanding. It is an excellent portrayal. Mr. Croft plays Sharpless as a man who knows the right thing consistently, but is unable to act it or at least to act it quickly enough. It is a difficult portrayal to pull off because the character must be pure in spirit and intention, not completely inept and bumbling, but yet unable to avoid the impending tragedy. Mr. Croft does an immaculate job.

In conclusion, the imagery of the production (now four years old and apparently leaving the Met's rotation next season) is splendidly yet subtly beautiful. The characters are all reasonably well portrayed and the music rings true. As mentioned earlier, the most important part of this production is the dramatic irony of the audience knowing, almost from the beginning, Butterfly's impending tragedy, but Butterfly herself and most of the cast living in ignorance of the fact. The important thing is to keep this tension throughout the show. This production did a great job of planting the seeds (when I say this I mean the seeds of emotion that are planted throughout the show, not just at the beginning) of emotion and tension, but they don't keep them growing and threatening consistently throughout the entire production. All in all, worth seeing if you have a chance.


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