I caught a somewhat mediocre performance of Anthony Minghella’s stunning, touching and somewhat challenging production of Madama Butterfly at the Met just four months ago and the second-rate singing of the title role left a bad taste. I needed a palette cleanser and having heard grand things about soprano Ermonela Jaho’s interpretation of the role, I ventured forth to hear for myself. Well, happily, memories of last November’s performance are now gone.

Ermonela Jaho (Cio-Cio-San) © Karen Almond | Metropolitan Opera
Ermonela Jaho (Cio-Cio-San)
© Karen Almond | Metropolitan Opera

I had missed Jaho in her quick-flash Met debut as Violetta in 2008, after which she disappeared from the roster and I had little idea of what to expect. It’s a unique interpretation, which concentrates on the ex-geisha’s shyness and uncertainty. Her entrance scene, complete with perfect D flat in alt, was enchanting, and her economical movement throughout the act spoke of a 15-year old who barely wished to be seen. She walked quickly and gently, averting her eyes much of the time, and she relied heavily on singing softly, with the voice rising in wisps of sound, all perfectly audible to the rear of the cavernous Met. One wondered if the voice had the power for the big climaxes until a quite abandoned “Amore mio!”, sung with force and beauty. And again, in Act 2, much of “Un bel dì,” acted as well as sung, was internal and handsomely shaded, but the final moments opened wide, a cry of pain. Coy and anxious with Sharpless, angry but controlled with Goro and Yamadori, she absolutely lost it emotionally (in the best possible way) when she introduced her child to Sharpless; we watched an 18-year old crumble. Going from strength to strength, her death scene was as beautiful as it was tragic in Minghella’s production (supernumeraries pull blood-red, 20 foot long scarves from her obi). The argument can be made that her voice is not really big enough to ride the climaxes, but it’s a matter of balance: her tone is focused, the pitch ideal, and she was never even close to inaudible. Memories of bigger-toned spintos do not come to mind; rather, Renata Scotto does.

Roberto Frontali (Sharpless), Roberto Aronica (Pinkerton) and Ermonela Jaho (Cio-Cio-San) © Karen Almond | Metropolitan Opera
Roberto Frontali (Sharpless), Roberto Aronica (Pinkerton) and Ermonela Jaho (Cio-Cio-San)
© Karen Almond | Metropolitan Opera

Roberto Frontali’s Sharpless, generous of voice and utterly sympathetic, was an ideal foil for Jaho in the all-important letter-reading scene, his plight at being the bearer of terrible news was palpable. He outshone and outsang the Pinkerton of Roberto Aronica in the third act ensemble. Aronica’s insensitive, leathery singing actually made one wonder how even a near-destitute child might fall for him. Maria Zifchak’s by now classic Suzuki turned the role into a major one – she and Cio-Cio-San are as close as sisters, and Mistress’s sadness is the same as Servant’s. Tony Stevenson’s Goro was properly oily and Hyung Yun’s arrogant Yamadori was just that.

Ermonela Jaho (Cio-Cio-San) and Roberto Aronica (Pinkerton) © Karen Almond | Metropolitan Opera
Ermonela Jaho (Cio-Cio-San) and Roberto Aronica (Pinkerton)
© Karen Almond | Metropolitan Opera

Marco Armiliato’s conducting was puzzling: Forwardly propulsive and sensitive most of the time, but bizarrely slow in Act 2 and for the final tragedy – I’m not certain he wouldn’t have made the same effect if he had not milked these parts. But the orchestra and chorus were in fine form. A very enthusiastic audience brought the cast out five times. Because "Butterfly" really is all about the Butterfly singing that evening, I give this five stars despite the poor Pinkerton.