This page was last updated on: October 14, 2007


Madame Butterfly, New York Metropolitan Opera, October 2007
Roberto Alagna in Madame Butterfly, New York 2007

          Foretelling a Flamboyant Future, but Rooted in Operatic Tradition, The New York Times , 10 October 2007
          No Hisses for This Villain, Associated Press, 10 October 2007
          Brilliant Staging Sets Hearts Aflutter, New York Post, 10 October 2007

Foretelling a Flamboyant Future, but Rooted in Operatic Tradition
Bernard Holland, The New York Times , 10 October 2007

A year ago "Madama Butterfly" served unofficially as a prototype for the new Metropolitan Opera, an advertisement for a Met now masterminded by Peter Gelb and poised for a change toward the theatrical. This impregnable Puccini potboiler, dressed up in Anthony Minghella's gorgeous pageantlike production, returned to the house on Monday. The cast was new, but the dancing, the splendid costumes, the forays into Japanese theatrical culture and a general flamboyance were there intact.

Behind the tasteful glitter and attention-getting visual coups was a traditional, almost literal rendering of the opera. This trans-Pacific morality tale of careless seduction with bad results first appeared more than a century ago, but it remains live ammunition for those who don't think much of America's current behavior toward the rest of the world. The Minghella production demurs; it keeps clear of politics and metaphorical updates. It tells the story that the opera tells, albeit in the grandest of terms.

Cio-Cio-San, she of the title role, is one of opera's great paradoxes: the frail, 15-year-old bride given music of unrelenting hurricane force. The Met played the frailty card a year ago with Cristina Gallardo-Domâs, sacrificing vocal power for a more palpable sense of physical vulnerability. Patricia Racette sang the part on Monday as big-time Italian opera, with strength, taste and emotional generosity. What an exhausting role this must be in every way.

Classifications of tenor voices run to words like elegant or rich. Roberto Alagna, the season's Lieutenant Pinkerton, has more the working man's sound: blunt and tough, with moments of impressive muscle and, with them, lapses in musical grammar. Mr. Alagna is free (to put it kindly) in matters of rhythm and note values. He and the performance's conductor, Mark Elder, had trouble all evening figuring out what the other was going to do next.

This season's first "Madama Butterfly" had an underdone, unready quality. Contact between stage and pit drifted in and out of sync. There were a number of what sounded like backstage collisions; the Act II curtain snagged. The striking pantomime at the opening curtain was pretty much ruined on both sides of the footlights. Sets banged; audience members coughed and shuffled feet nervously. We Americans do not like silence, especially when it catches us unawares.

Maria Zifchak (Suzuki) and Luca Salsi (Sharpless) were the solid secondary principals. David Cangelosi, Keith Miller, Youn Mok Jeong, Dean Peterson, David Won and Edyta Kulczak all did well. The impressive sights of this "Butterfly" came from Han Feng (costumes), Michael Levine (sets), Carolyn Choa (choreography), Peter Mumford (lighting) and the Blind Summit Theater (puppetry).

On paper "Madama Butterfly" is an easy target: bathetic and filled with unashamed attempts at audience manipulation. In the flesh it is devastating. Puccini aims straight at your heart and defies you to get out of the way.

No Hisses for This Villain
Martin Steinberg, Associated Press 10 October 2007

There were no boos for one of opera's biggest cads.

To the contrary, the despicable Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton drew rousing applause at the Metropolitan Opera House as tenor Roberto Alagna poured out his soul in his first portrayal of that ugly American in Puccini's "Madama Butterfly."

The French-Sicilian singer was in complete control in the eye-catching production by Academy Award-winning director Anthony Minghella.
It was Alagna's second strong outing in the Met's young season. He won praise last month for Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette," his first performance here since he stormed out of La Scala opera house in December after being booed during Verdi's "Aida."

The biggest cheers Monday night went to American soprano Patricia Racette, making her Met role debut as Butterfly, Pinkerton's faithful but spurned wife.

With a girl-in-every-port mentality, the Navy lieutenant marries the 15-year-old geisha Cio-Cio-San while his ship is docked in the Japanese port of Nagasaki. She converts to Christianity, then is disowned by her relatives.

Only her maid Suzuki (American mezzo Maria Zifchak) stands by her. She helps Cio-Cio-San dress in her wedding kimono, and then the bride and groom sing their love duet as they are showered with multicolored pedals.

After Pinkerton's ship pulls out, Cio-Cio-San obsesses for her husband. She rejects a suitor and falls into poverty. Still, after three years of separation, she sings the opera's most famous aria, "Un bel di," awaiting that "one fine day"  when Pinkerton comes home to her and their son. Racette rose to the occasion, her voice filled with longing and tears of hope.

Pinkerton finally returns, but with his American wife and on a mission to take custody of his son (delightfully depicted by a life-size bunraku puppet controlled by three black-clad puppeteers). Cio-Cio-San decides her only way out is suicide. She stabs herself in the neck. Pinkerton finally feels the guilt and loss.

Alagna was a cool cad, singing smoothly and largely without effort. Filled with testosterone, he struts about in his Navy uniform, clinks glasses of whiskey with the American consul Sharpless as he celebrates his plot for conquest in the first act. Filled with remorse, he cries out Cio-Cio-San's name as she kills herself in the final scene.

Other standouts in the production included the heartfelt Zifchak and Italian baritone Luca Salsi, portraying Sharpless in a robust Met debut.
British conductor Mark Elder led the orchestra through Puccini's lush score filled with unforgettable melodies and Eastern and Western harmonies that blend into emotions transcending cultures.

Brilliant Staging Sets Hearts Aflutter
Clive Barnes, New York Post, 10 October 2007

The Met's new regime got off to a flying start last season with Anthony Minghella's luminous staging of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly."

But what is magic the second time around, when surprise has evaporated? In some ways, this season's "Butterfly," sensitively led Monday by one of Britain's finest opera conductors, Mark Elder, flew even higher.

Patricia Racette - as Cio-Cio-San, the Japanese bride deserted and betrayed by her American husband, the ardent but willful Lt. Pinkerton - is developing into a dramatic soprano of the utmost subtlety and emotional power.

Here she sang with shadings of tone and texture that made the music theatrically vivid, and she was splendidly supported by the fine singing, virile tone and compelling acting of Roberto Alagna.

Luca Salsi, in a fine Met debut, added a sympathetic Sharpless, the bewildered U.S. consul, and Maria Zifchak made a happy return as Butterfly's maid, Suzuki.

The wonders of Minghella's staging, first given by the English National Opera, remain . . . well, wonders. For the sheer imaginative invention of the production's beguiling Japonaiserie, credit must be given to the design team of Michael Levine, Han Feng and Peter Mumford.

That said, this time around I found the choreographed inserts intrusive, and the use of a bunraku puppet as Butterfly's son looked alienatingly odd.

Still, why complain? In concept and performance, this is simply a great reading of an opera far better than its snobbish detractors would suggest.