What has become known as “The Minghella Butterfly”, first seen at English National Opera and so named for the late film director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, Cold Mountain) who conceived the production, just opened in revival at the Met. It is 11 years old now but has physically lost none of its luster. Minghella's wife, Carolyn Choa, directed and choreographed. Michael Levine’s stunning set consists of a tilted mirrored ceiling that reflects and doubles the stage action, gliding screens that both define the spaces and offer characters their exits, and a lacquered floor that curves upward at the back of the stage.

<i>Madama Butterfly</i> at The Met © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Madama Butterfly at The Met
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

The brilliantly colored costumes by Han Feng add to the visual feast; indeed the opera opens in silence as a dancer engulfed in a gigantic red train moves about the stage, riveting our attention. When Pinkerton and Butterfly are left alone for their Love Duet, the stage is stripped of color, save for white paper lanterns manipulated by unseen dancers (mirrored by the ceiling, they perform a dance of their own) and the white of the couple's costumes. Two beautiful draperies of cherry blossoms descend to envelop the couple at the duet’s end. Peter Mumford’s dramatic lighting, some of it from spots on the sides of the stage, is part of the production’s success.

The most controversial element of the show is the use of a puppet in place of Butterfly’s silent child. Handled with amazing skill by three black-clad puppeteers from Blind Summit Theatre, the effect is initially off-putting, but it’s more than a gimmick; a real presence is felt. And when it collapses into Butterfly’s lap as a tired child would, it is difficult not to be moved. Much to Minghella’s and Choa’s credit, the concept works brilliantly – the initial disbelief is banished quickly.

Hui He (Cio-Cio-San) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Hui He (Cio-Cio-San)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Would that the singing had lived up to the staging. Hui He’s voice is a fine instrument – perhaps it is not memorable and does not open with either the bloom or power at the very top that is ideal, but that’s not the issue. What is the issue is her odd combination of rote throughout the first act that did not keep the audience’s interest and her overly-rehearsed “Un bel dì” and death scene, in which every word and every gesture “meant” something: the effect was to lose all organic movement and practically turn both moments into recital pieces. Butterfly is Puccini’s saddest and most changing heroine; a keen sense of drama, both physical and vocal are required. The requirements were not met and though admirably sung, Miss He did not touch the heart.

Roberto Aronica's burly sound is impressive but he cracked and struggled through the higher aspects of the role in Act 1 enough to draw attention to the tenor rather than the character. His “Addio fiorito asil” and the ensemble in the last act were impressive but one was still left with the memory of a totally humdrum and/or strained Love Duet and a high C at its close that was a dual mess. David Bižić’s Sharpless was warmly sung and effectively acted, and Maria Zifchak, who almost owns the role of Suzuki at the Met, proved again how important this character can be. Tony Stevenson’s Goro had all the arrogance he could muster, all to good effect.

Hui He (Cio-Cio-San) and Roberto Aronica (Pinkerton) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Hui He (Cio-Cio-San) and Roberto Aronica (Pinkerton)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

The fine conducting of the amazing Met Orchestra (and Chorus) was by Jader Bignamini, in his debut opera at the Met. Sympathetic of his singers, the climaxes were a bit underpowered.

Later in the season Ermonela Jaho takes over the title role; it will be worth revisiting.