The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of “Madama Butterfly” directed by Anthony Minghella, falls under a particularly intense microscope. Not only is the staging judged on its own merits, but a massive publicity blitz has positioned this production as the bellwether of General Manager Peter Gelb’s incoming administration.
Minghella’s take on “Madama Butterfly” is both artistically serious and pictorially beautiful. The action transpires inside an immense black box (set designer Michael Levine) with a floor of lacquered slats and a mirrored ceiling that reveals the stage as if viewed from directly above. A few screens and carefully edited props are set precisely into this minimalist frame, with color and spectacle provided by Han Feng’s richly detailed costumes.
Despite the restrained visual aesthetic, the production veers over the top at the end of the first act, when swaying lanterns, drifting petals, and a busy lighting plot steal focus from Butterfly and Pinkerton’s love duet.
Minghella’s most radical innovation, presenting Butterfly’s child as a life size puppet in the Japanese Bunraku theater convention proved at best a qualified success. The design and manipulation of the puppet (by Blind Summit Theatre) were close to flawless, and certainly an inanimate object controlled by a team of adults is less prone to unpredictable improvisation than the child actor seen in traditional productions.
On the other hand, a major emotional theme of the opera is the realistic dilemma of a mother who must give up her child. Empathy is less easy to evoke when the victim of the broken home so closely resembles a creepy ventriloquist’s dummy.
The puppet issue aside, Minghella’s production is a model of taste and—perhaps even more important in a repertory theater—practicality. Essentially you could place any top-quality performer of the role of Cio-Cio-San into this setting, sit back and enjoy a guaranteed sensation. Unfortunately, the gaping hole in the center of this “Butterfly” is soprano Cristina Gallardo-Domâs, whose threadbare lyric soprano could do little more than sketch in the rich Puccini vocal lines. As heard on September 30, the middle of the voice wavered constantly out of focus, and the top, though powerful enough, failed to land solidly on pitch.
These technical shortcomings might count for less if the soprano could muster consistently interesting and musical phrasing, but line after line emerged shapeless and self-indulgently slow. True, Gallardo-Domâs is an imaginative and fiercely physical actress in the Teresa Stratas mold, but all the emoting in the world is moot if the soprano can’t sing the music.
Fortunately, the rest of the cast achieved a high vocal standard. Though he oversang in parts of the first act, Marcello Giordani (Pinkerton) unfurled his Italianate tenor with both abandon and sensitive musicality. It’s almost decadent luxury to feast on one of the world’s most brilliant tenor voices in a role that is hardly a superstar vehicle.
As Sharpless, baritone Dwayne Croft displayed a welcome return to vocal vigor after several shaky seasons, and the young mezzo Maria Zifchak sang an unusually musical and sympathetic Suzuki. Zifchak also has the gift of connecting dramatically to others onstage, providing precious warmth in her scenes with Gallardo-Domâs.
Asher Fisch’s leaden conducting, particularly in the long second half of the opera, transformed Puccini into “Parsifal.”
James Jorden is the producer of the podcast “Unnatural Acts of Opera” at parterre.com.