Arts and Entertainment | Theater

‘Madama Butterfly’: Met Opera production of Puccini classic falls short of high expectations

  • FLY AWAY | In the lead role as Cio-Cio-San in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” Kristine Opolais, center, is underwhelming.

With its poignant handling of an immense tragedy, Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 opera “Madama Butterfly” has the potential to emotionally wreck audiences, but when the work returned to the Metropolitan Opera on April 4, the lackluster presentation struggled to rise to this standard. Here instead was a halfhearted revival of a once-riveting production featuring pleasant, though unremarkable, vocals.

Based on a play by the American writer David Belasco, “Madama Butterfly” has garnered enduring popularity in the United States for the last hundred years. 

The story follows U.S. Navy Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, who has purchased a house and a wife while stationed in Nagasaki around the turn of the 20th century. But Pinkerton views his marriage to Cio-Cio-San, a 15-year-old former geisha known as Madama Butterfly, as much less genuine than his dreamed-of future marriage to an American wife. Soon Pinkerton departs and leaves his devoted bride with only two parting gifts: the promise of his return and an infant son. When he finally comes back to Japan, his thoughtless renunciation of Cio-Cio-San ultimately leads to the opera’s crushing conclusion. 

The Met’s current staging of “Butterfly” premiered in 2006, when it was directed by Academy Award-winning director Anthony Minghella (“The English Patient” and “Cold Mountain”). It includes minimal sets but brims with vivid color and draws inspiration from traditional Japanese theater. An army of nearly two-dozen puppeteers fluidly moves paper screens, furniture, and props on and offstage, and cinematically-inspired lighting creates some breathtaking visuals. However, now a part of the Met’s repertoire for nearly eight years, the production has undoubtedly lost much of the originality that once made it so striking.

Making her Met role debut as the title character, soprano Kristine Opolais took the majority of the first act to get comfortable onstage. Early on, her tone was harsh, and the high notes were labored. As the evening progressed, though, Opolais eventually brought greater lyricism and sweeter timbre to the incredibly taxing part. Her physical presence also seemed detached, detracting from the overall effect of the opera.

James Valenti played opposite Opolais as the reckless seaman Pinkerton, and his performance was equally inconsistent. The tenor brought a warm, bright tone to this character, and his singing in the upper register was free and open. Unfortunately, Valenti was incredibly difficult to hear in the auditorium, his undersized instrument regularly drowned out by the sweep of Puccini’s surging melodies. 

Maria Zifchak offered an impassioned performance as Cio-Cio-San’s faithful maid Suzuki but managed to be far more emotionally invested than Opolais. With his stentorian baritone, Dwayne Croft was the American consul Sharpless who tries to save Butterfly from ensuing heartbreak. 

Italian maestro Marco Armiliato capably drew a colorful reading of this kaleidoscopic score from the Met Opera orchestra. Often in his attempts to accommodate singers, Armiliato’s direction has the tendency to lag behind the onstage performance, but on this occasion, he skillfully connected musicians and singers.

Normally, “Madama Butterfly” would be a perfect first opera for Columbians looking to be introduced to this expressive art form, but this run certainly does not do the work justice. The musical product was underwhelming and the overall dramatic impact fell short of captivating. It’s probably best to wait until next season when the Met will offer another crop of operatic tearjerkers. 

“Madama Butterfly” runs in repertory at the Metropolitan Opera through May 9. Tickets start at $20. 

arts@columbiaspectator.com | @ColumbiaSpec

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