Madama Butterfly at the Met

Madama Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera to be telecast in HD

Firsts are memorable: first adult tooth, first kiss, first paycheck…it’s a long list. For me, Anthony Minghella’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is memorable not only because it is memorable in and of itself but because, in 2006, it also was the first offering of the Peter Gelb era, which brought us the Met in HD, now in its tenth season.

The Met's magnificent  Madama Butterfly

The Met's magnificent Madama Butterfly

This to-be-telecast Butterfly stars Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais who, of late, has had newsworthy moments in Puccini’s arena: two seasons ago she stepped in at the very last minute to sing Mimi for a matinee telecast of La Bohème after singing Madama Butterfly the evening before; this season she starred in a mostly sizzling new Manon Lescaut with Roberto Alagna, who stepped in at the very last minute to sing Des Grieux. He appears with her again here as Pinkerton (as scheduled).

Kristine Opolais as Butterfly

Kristine Opolais as Butterfly

Opolais is a wonderful singer, vocally perfect, I would say, for Butterfly. I very much look forward to her Rusalka next season. She is an attractive singer too, perfect, I would say, for Mimi and Manon Lescaut and countless other operas in which it’s important to be young and attractive. But the HD Manon Lescaut made one aware that Opolais does not often relax the intensity of her gaze nor make frequent eye contact. In other words, she does not give the look one expects from one in love. This and the Minghella production as well give the relationship between Butterfly and Pinkerton a certain chill from the very beginning. The music of the extended love duet in Act I is passionate but tender: a very vulnerable and trusting Butterfly is surrendering out of love her childhood to him in what looks, at least to her, like a good arrangement. But through much of this scene the direction has her wandering around the stage.

Opolais adds some interesting touches which may or may not have been in the playbook from the first seasons. She clutches her stomach at times, doubles down, perhaps reflecting a lingering hysterical reaction from the trauma of her father’s suicide, as played out in a dream sequence during the interlude that precedes Act III. She faces her own terminal moments with a mix of resolve, determination and honor. Opolais admirably rises to the big moments of the score, particularly at the ends of the later Acts. Only a psychologist would nitpick the eye contact thing. All in all one walks away impressed.

Roberto Alagna as Pinkerton

Roberto Alagna as Pinkerton

Roberto Alagna again, as in Manon Lescaut, sings with a youthful ring. His Pinkerton is not, as sometimes staged, the sloppy American navy man on shore for a good time, but rather more of a gentleman, later clearly, in Act III, struck down by the ramifications of his short sighted and selfish actions.

Dwayne Croft essays the role of Sharpless in fine voice. His reactions to the events guide our own. Maria Zifchak is a supportive and strong Suzuki; Stefan Szkafarowsky’s Bonze is threatening and forceful; Tony Stevenson’s Goro is more or less omnipresent; Yunpeng Wang’s noble and sensitive Yamadori would have been a good catch. Edyta Kulczak is Kate Pinkerton.

Karel Mark Chichon gives Puccini’s marvelous score both detail and ample room to breathe.

Madama Butterfly is high up on my list of the top 25 operas. It never ceases to move me. For the record, Renata Scotto's Butterfly in 1977 was one of the most intense performances I'd ever seen, as is her EMI recording from 1966.

Reviewed performance date: March 17, 2016.

Photos: 2006 production by Ken Howard; 2016 soloists by Marty Sohl.

Madama Butterfly is performed here in three acts; the running time of the HD performance is just about three and a quarter hours, including two intermissions.

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