The Met’s now 13-year old production of Madama Butterfly (originally seen at English National Opera) by the late film director Anthony Minghella remains a feast for the eyes. From the opening tableau of a Geisha against a blood-red rectangular background to the charm of the house’s walls/screens nimbly moved by gliding, tall, veiled supernumeraries dressed head head-to-toe in black, to the draperies of rose petals and dancing white lanterns during the love duet, the eye is riveted. Michael Levine is responsible for the sets, and the ceiling of the large playing area – essentially the entire stage – is a tilted mirror that both reflects and beautifully alters the action. Han Feng’s first act costumes and lacquered fans for the entrance and wedding scene are brilliant, standing almost as a warning that a “show” is being put on for Pinkerton’s pleasure. Peter Mumford’s lighting, some from visible, moving spots on the sides of the stage, add to the marvelously cinematic approach, from broad daylight to an almost mystical wedding night duet.

Hui He (Cio-Cio-San)
© Richard Termine | Met Opera

Still eliciting an aural reaction from the audience is the decision to use a puppet in place of Butterfly’s silent child. Handled with consummate skill by three dark-clothed puppeteers, what is immediately somewhat off-putting soon becomes almost natural. The puppet/child’s body and head movements seem to include shyness, inquisitiveness and love, and when it collapses on Butterfly’s lap as a real tired child would, it ceases to be an effect and is very moving. Mother and child comfort one another.

Madama Butterfly
© Richard Termine | Met Opera

The performances were mostly quite good but did not gel into a dramatic whole. Out of all of Puccini’s tragic heroines – Tosca, Mimì, Liù and Manon included – Butterfly is the saddest. Hui He’s Cio-Cio-San was somewhat distancing in Act 1. She appeared disengaged from her surroundings. She tried to play Butterfly in a tiny-step, little-girl fashion but never quite convinced; her reading of the text was masterful but in a learned, rather than organic manner. With memories of, say, Renata Scotto or Patricia Racette and several vivid portrayals available on disc, we somehow miss an original stamp. Butterfly is a broken 18 year old woman by the opera’s end; Ms He’s sometimes bordered on the generic “povera Butterfly”. Her voice was raw at first, with some seriously flat singing in her entrance and a continued inability to sing below forte or with much vocal coloring. She was much better with the rest of the opera after an overly thought out and performed “Un bel dì” and her voice rang out loud and clear as she confronted Sharpless – here a sympathetic-voiced but physically staid Paolo Szot – and truly rose to the occasion at the sighting of the ship. Her third act and final moments had everything but a crucial sense of desperation.

Hui He (Cio-Cio-San) and Paolo Szot (Sharpless)
© Richard Termine | Met Opera

Debutante Piero Pretti impressed as Pinkerton. He has a fine lyric Italianate sound with plenty of squillo and dead center pitch. He strikes one as a very musical singer; he clearly knew the arc of his phrases and the entire role. Pinkerton is a hard part in which to impress and it will be interesting to hear him as other, more sympathetic leads. Elizabeth DeShong was a remarkable, vivid Suzuki, her grand voice and her obvious love for Butterfly clear. Scott Scully offered a nasty Goro.

Of course the Met Orchestra and Chorus turned in fine music-making at every dynamic level, and Pier Giorgo Morandi led with a sure hand, if without any new insights. In all, a good Butterfly but one lacking that extra connection with the audience.