Madama Butterfly was broadcast throughout much of the world today (March 7, 2009) in HD. Patricia Racette replaced the indisposed Christina Gallardo-Domâs in the title role. This replacement was of inestimable value to the performance as Racette’s impersonation is much better than that of Gallardo-Domâs who lacks the vocal means for Puccini’s daunting teenager.
I saw the first performance of this production on opening night of the Met’s 2006 season. I wasn’t very impressed with it. The two biggest reasons for my dislike of it were the vocally weak Cio Cio San of Gallardo-Domâs and the puppet used as Butterfly’s child. I’ll get back to the puppet in a bit.
The late Anthony Minghella’s staging seems to work better on the big screen than it did in the house. The end of the first act was beautifully rendered – at least it was when video director Gary Halvorson pulled his camera back far enough to see most of the stage. Alas, video directors still haven’t figured out how to broadcast a live opera performance. The TV directors of sporting events have their craft down perfectly, but we still have a long way to go with live opera.
Opera in performance was meant to be viewed from one perspective at a distance. Watching a 43 year old singer pretend to be a 15 year old Japanese girl requires a lot of suspension of disbelief. Even more of this suspension is needed when the camera is half way up her nose. Racette managed to fully inhabit Butterfly despite Halvorson’s intrusive cameras. Hers is a complete characterization that meets the opera’s great vocal challenges and which also captures all of Puccini’s pathos. It was a very moving performance.
And yet it failed Butterfly’s crucial test of effectiveness. When Cio Cio San thinks Pinkerton has returned to her and gives a cry of triumph the audience always applauds. At least they did before big time directors had their way with the opera. In this case the lack of audience reaction was not the fault of Racette. It was that damn puppet. The audience is sailing along in the second act sobbing itself blue when Butterfly brings out her son to show him to Sharpless. And what do we see? A bald puppet in a sailor suit manipulated by three puppeteers clad in black. The suspension of you know what disappeared as fast as hydrogen from the Hindenburg. Racette got a lot of it back, but not in time for a “can’t fail moment” that failed. Also, the transmission was lost for a second or two during “Un bel di vedremo” A terrible place for this to happen.
Anthony Minghella is dead so it’s not effective to beat his corpse with the puppet. Instead blame his wife Carolyn Choa who took over direction of this production. Furthermore, it seems that the puppet was her idea to start with. There are a lot of bad directorial decisions floating around the Met these days. This one is in Mary Zimmerman territory. I know Minghella did this before Zimmerman struck, but you get the idea. Racette said she loved the puppet – a white lie or dementia? You choose.
Marcello Giordani was Pinkerton. Except for a few dry spots he was very effective in the role, though he was a little loud for the part or virile and passionate depending on your want. Since the Met uses him for everything except as the ladies room attendant (I really don’t know if there’s one in there) they should have had him sing Manrico in Il Trovatore instead of the weak Marcelo Álvarez. He could have squeezed it in during his break between acts one and three. You could easily fit Trovatore into that interval.
Dwayne Croft seems to have comfortably settled into his slot a permanent second banana at the Met. His top is getting a little tight, but he was effective in his undemanding role. Maria Zifchak also did as much as is possible with Suzuki. Remarkably David Won made an impression with Yamadori’s few lines. A nice dark voice. It will be interesting to see if he’s heard from later on.
Patrick Summers conducted. He was more attuned to Puccini’s marvelous score than was James Levine who conducted when this production was first mounted. Maestro Levine was ailing back them which may explain his tepid reading. In summary, the best Butterfly I’ve seen since the great Diana Soviero. Good for Racette.