Madama Butterfly shines on

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):

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  1. I struggle with Puccini and cultural appropriation. Turandot is bad, Butterfly is worse and, if the stage directions in the libretto are followed, Fanciulla is completely intolerable.

  2. My wife is Japanese and she thought that the "puppet" was quite charming. She was thoroughly moved by it. I can only speak on that aspect. The set was never discussed, but is unoffensive enough to not be a problem.

  3. Interesting review and thanks for the links! The Herheim was a wonderfully cathartic experience for its nailing of the audience’s voyeurism, and having the onstage Puccini trying to ‘save’ Butterfly functioned on one level as a neat bit of misdirection to make that point (I'm sure there were people disgusted by his ending who would have been equally put out of joint had she not died). That Herm managed it without being too snotty towards our beloved bourgeois Publikum deserves extra points for being classy. But he didn't do much beyond, as you put it, challenging the text in this quite specific way. In short, it wasn't at all dialectical. That, to my mind, is what makes Konwitschny's production so interesting. I have long, complicated thoughts about this staging, which I think ought to be regarded as ground-breaking, but articulating them would totally hijack your comments thread plus I’ve got blogging and non-blogging things yet to do this evening. Writing a straightforward descriptive review short-changed it, but I will definitely see this production again, perhaps even this season, and try to unpack it in a bit more depth.

    About Minghella: it’s been some time since I saw this production, but I remember my reaction to it being fairly strong. I have – and still would have, I think – problems with the insidious idea that so long as the staging is well-intentioned, elegant and transcends japonaiserie, then it’s OK to take lazy and expedient short cuts and yet pass it off as the real thing. Contra your commenter’s Japanese wife, my former Japanese native speaker teacher, who being an avid opera-goer saw this production (and was, incidentally, a close friend of Edward Said), was also quite uneasy about it.

    There have been and there are women like Butterfly in Japan, so I think this opera can ditch the inscrutability and be made to work from her perspective so long as you get – sorry to use the Japanese term – the nihonjinron right. Konwitschny did that, either with help or some study of Japanology. I don’t imagine it’s easy to do it as well as he did, but directors who don’t even try is one of the many reasons to avoid traditional productions of this opera.

  4. Interesting comments. We agreed with others around us that Domingo's conducting was very good. This was our 2nd time but first time with Domingo conducting. We thought the conducting was much better this time round. More in sync with the singers.

  5. Zwölf, interested in what you have to say about Konwitschny. The essential difference I've seen between his stuff and Herheim's (I will attempt to make a big yet poorly thought-out point briefly) is that K often radically upend the perspective and moral balance of the piece to make it entirely about his (K's) view of what it means, while H deconstructs the traditional or historical reception and sporadically estranges us from a conventional appreciation of its charms.

    Final Anon, I'll grant that Placido's synchronization wasn't the problem, his problem was, well, everything else. I've heard Mark Elder and Asher Fisch conduct this production before. Elder was very good, Fisch was perfectly OK, both were worlds ahead of Domingo–he has no sense for the texture of the orchestration or any real dramatic pace, it's all kind of flat and directionless.

    Other Anon, perhaps I should have cut Diegel some slack for the volume issues since Domingo probably wasn't helping him out there. It's a nice voice, but in this he sounded more like an Alfredo than a Pinkerton.

  6. Pinkerton calls for a full liric sound (especially in a theater this big) and the sub-tenor in this case was miscast. While he may fill out the costume, his limited vocal resoures cannot fill the house with the sound needed to ride over an orchestra of such magnitude. He would have done well to follow Naouri's example as the baritone's path to such an important venue has been marked by years of experience and preparation. One needs time to hone their craft, but unfortunately young singers are too much in a hurry to make their mark. Instead they should reflect and find their niche in the right repertoire and stick to it, ignoring temptations to sing such important roles in such an important opera house. Let's hope that Diegle discovers this before his vocal resoures are tapped out.