This production of Madama Butterfly was Peter Gelb’s first opening night of the Met and remains the most beautiful production of his regime as General Director. This was the third time I had seen it and while on the outside it is still gorgeous I have grown more wary of its glossy surfaces, just as I have of Gelb’s artistic mission.
Puccini, Madama Butterfly. Metropolitan Opera, 2/17/2012. Production by Anthony Minghella (revival), conducted by Placido Domingo with Patricia Racette (Cio-Cio-San), Adam Diegel (Pinkerton), Laurent Naouri (Sharpless), Maria Zifchak (Suzuki).
(Obligatory n.b.: this production, directed by the late Anthony Minghella, was first seen at the English National Opera.)
Perhaps my intellectual hackles were raised because I was never able to fully immerse myself emotionally in this performance, something I hadn’t had any trouble with on previous outings. This was primarily due to Placido Domingo’s pale and shapeless conducting, which did the score’s intensity and complexity a great disservice. Honestly, that major companies hire him to conduct is a disgrace. Under a different conductor this would have been a very different experience. But Placido gave me a V-Effekt and it didn’t stop.
This was particularly a shame because Patricia Racette’s Cio-Cio-San is really marvelous. She’s a naturally sympathetic singer, and brings a believable youthfulness to the part along with the needed vocal power. Her wide vibrato can sometimes obscure her pitch, but her sweet tone and solid chest voice matched with her unbroken sincerity and soulfulness makes her a touching Butterfly. I only wish the orchestra had matched her portrayal.
|Racette with puppet son|
Adam Diegel deputized for the ill Roberto De Biasio as Pinkerton, so I’ll cut him a break on his stiff acting. His voice has a pleasant bright quality and freshness, but he lacks the ringing high notes to really score in Puccini, and sometimes failed to fill the house vocally. I missed hammy Roberto Alagna, the last Pinkerton I saw in this production, who is fantastic in this role. It’s hard to believe that this evening marked Laurent Naouri’s Met debut (to anyone who watches European DVDs he is a familiar presence, particularly in Baroque repertoire), but he was an excellent Sharpless, with a deeper-than-average voice for the role and very sensitive and complex acting. Maria Zifchak was again Suzuki and was again great; other supporting roles were fine. We seemed to get the chorus’s B team, who in their first entrance sounded especially winded from their climb up Butterfly’s hill.
I’m not going to describe the staging in great detail because it is well known at this point and available on DVD. You can see a trailer at the bottom of this post. It’s elegant, with a spare set and extravagant costumes, with a plethora of sliding screens and a falling flower petals and paper lanterns. It does not challenge Puccini’s text. This is, after all, the Met, one of the few theaters in the world where a giant mirror onstage serves no purpose beyond producing a pretty reflection. Minghella and co. offer a modern continuation of Puccini’s well-intentioned Orientalist mission. They explore a strange “Other” culture–attempting research and presenting their results as something enchanting and different whose very appeal lies in its foreignness, its stylization, surface decoration and essential unknowability. Butterfly’s son is represented by a Bunraku puppet, who receives his own program note.* Is he, ripped from his native theatrical context and created by the British group Blind Summit Theatre, anything more than a modern version of the Chinese music box Puccini supposedly used as a source for Turandot? And, as a non-Japanese person myself, do I have any right to be offended on behalf of a people I likewise didn’t consult?
Attempts to challenge the exoticizing elements of Butterfly are numerous, notably by two of my favorite directors, Stefan Herheim and Peter Konwitschny (read those reviews, they’re really interesting and by a critic whose knowledge of Japanese culture vastly exceeds my own), but I think anything along these lines at the Met would probably cause a riot. Minghella treats his characters with respect, as does Puccini, and with a performer as heartfelt as Racette it would be easy to let these concerns recede. But I can’t do that in good conscience. The spectacular irony of having a white soprano as Cio-Cio-San and an Asian tenor as Pinkerton (Diegel is Korean) only underlined the fact that we can and should do better than treat another culture as a curio. Next time remember that Butterfly stages Puccini’s own Westernness, or ask a Japanese person before you do it (provided you are not already one yourself).
*“Western audiences are accustomed to seeing puppets used in the spirit of provocative comedy… or as homespun, educational entertainment for children… The puppets featured in the Met’s Madama Butterfly, on the other hand…”
Trailer (previous cast, same soprano):