The late film director Anthony Minghella’s production of Madama Butterfly was a stunning application of his cinematic skills. The opera begins in complete darkness and silence, and as the black screen in front is lifted, a dancer clad in white kimono appeared from the backstage, now lit in red. The music finally begins as she dances with a fan. She quickly exits as Pinkerton and Sharpless enter from the back to begin their dialogue. Action moves swiftly with movable shoji screens on black stage; other props are brought in and out by black-clad and masked figures as they are called kuroko in traditional Japanese theater, invisible stage helpers. Colorful kimonos of the chorus women as they enter with Butterfly in Act I and bold lighting enhance the cinematic and exotic quality of the production.
Lovingly directed and choreographed by Mr Minghella’s widow Carolyn Choa, the production that opened the Met season in 2006 is still breathtakingly beautiful in its simplicity and boldness. After the wedding ceremony of Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton and its disruption by her uncle, The Bonze, their love duet is performed on dark stage lit by Japanese paper lanterns carried by kuroko in a romantic setting that reveals no hint of the coming tragedy. The second intermission is inserted at the night vigil with the quiet Humming Chorus. The last scene opens with the Butterfly’s plight enacted by a male dancer and a puppet. The stage returns to its bare black for the Butterfly’s suicide, as two rivers of red sash for blood stream from her body. As the black screen falls, the Japanese characters “Madama Butterfly” slowly appears in white as an end roll.
The production is a great showcase vehicle for Puccini’s complex and sophisticated music as well as for the singer in the title role. Kristine Opolais completely inhabited the character and, despite some vocal shortcomings, scored a success in her heartbreaking portrayal of a geisha falling for an American sailor who returns with an American wife to claim their child.
Ms Opolais has an expressive voice that she employs skillfully to achieve great effect. Butterfly’s entrance aria showed her in good voice, and she capped it with an extended high note. Her singing was at its best when she sang softly, at the beginning of her love duet with Pinkerton in Act I, and at the end of the magical Flower Duet with her maid, Suzuki, in Act II. While one may wish for a singer with warmer and richer voice, especially in higher range, Ms Opolais excelled with her keen sense of drama and deep connection to music. Her voice sometimes followed the contours of melodies as played by a single instrument with astounding mastery; it was as if her voice became part of the orchestra.
The soprano’s showcase aria “Un bel dì” in this production takes place rather unexpectedly and innocuously as the Butterfly discusses her situation with Suzuki. Ms Opolais sang the aria quietly, and even as the Butterfly reiterated her conviction of Pinkerton’s return, her voice never rose in excessive volume. It was an effective way to convey her belief. Her real tour de force was Butterfly’s extended last scene. As she bid farewell to her child (a puppet skillfully handled by three kuroko), praising him as a gift from heaven who would cross the ocean to a new life, there was not a dry eye in the theater. It was clear from Ms Opolais’s final gesture as she stabbed herself, with Pinkerton’s voice calling to her, that it was her child that was her last thought, as Ms Opolais extended her arm towards the son, and not to the approaching Pinkerton.
Two veterans of this production, Dwayne Croft as Sharpless and Maria Zifchak as Suzuki, both contributed to the success of the evening. The Met Orchestra led by Karel Mark Chichon, except for occasional mishaps, brought out hidden gems in the score, especially in the strings and the harp. It was an evening of a happy marriage of theater and music.
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