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Minghella’s Magical Masterpiece

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
10/24/2008 -  & 29 October, 1, 4, 8*, 11, 16, 19, 22 November, 2008, 27 February, 3, 7 March, 2009
Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly
Patricia Racette (Cio-Cio San), Maria Zifchak (Suzuki), Roberto Aronica (Lt.B.F. Pinkerton), Dwayne Croft (Sharpless), Greg Fedderly (Goro), Keith Miller (The Bonze), David Won (Yamadori), Edyta Kulczak (Kate Pinkerton), David Crawford (Imperial Commissioner), Christian Jeong (The Registrar), Laura Fries (Cousin), Linda Mays (Mother), Stephen Paynter (Uncle Yakuside), Jean Braham (Aunt)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Patrick Summers (Conductor)
Anthony Minghella (Production), Carolyn Choa (Director and Choreographer), Michael Levine (Set Designer), Han Feng (Costume Designer), Peter Mumford (Lighting Designer), Blind Summit Theatre, Mark Down and Nick Barnes (Puppetry)

(© Marty Sohl)

There was a dual poignancy about the Metropolitan Opera’a magical revival of its 2006 production of Madama Butterfly. Of course, there was the heartbreaking tale of Cio-Cio San, a naïve young girl who was used and then cast off by a man who never loved her. But there was also the very real tragic story of the premature and unexpected death earlier this year of the man behind this production – British film director, Anthony Minghella. The production team gave the audience an unforgettable visual experience that with subtlety, stylization, and economy of means allowed the beauty of the music and the power of the drama to shine through.

And shine they did in large part due to the extraordinary performance of Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio-San. Racette is a brilliant singer with a creamy lyrical voice that is capable of both great nuance and dynamic range. She was on stage and the center of attention almost from the moment she first appeared as the bride-to-be in Act I. This is a star vehicle and Racette did a star turn. A consummate actress, she portrayed with gripping intensity Butterfly’s progression from innocent love, to denial, and finally to acceptance of the unworthiness of the man she so deeply loved. Tenor Roberto Aronica was Pinkerton, the American naval officer who wins Butterfly’s heart but does not deserve her love. Puccini does not give him much to sing and what there is is generally rather graceless and charmless, much like the character himself. Pinkerton is a thoughtless, careless, and amoral man who focuses on his own pleasures and not on the costs of those pleasures to others.

Aronica acquitted himself well. He sang with power and warmth of tone. But vocally he was no match for Racette or for Dwayne Croft as Sharpless, the American Consul, who sang beautifully and acted convincingly to portray a fully-rounded character that is a moral foil for Pinkerton.

Minghella de-emphasized the imperialist ugly-American subtext in favor of a more symbolic rendering. The scenery was pared down to the bare minimum. Puccini’s subtle musical shifts were visually embodied by changes in the brilliant intense colors of the empty rectangular space that filled the stage. Sliding screens marked out interior spaces and characters arrived by processing down a flight of stairs at the back. The black floor reflected the light and the mirror above the stage gave the audience a double view of the action. Minghella who was trained in the theater, has said that in this production he used light as a substitute for the camera. Because of the stark simplicity of the staging, small gestures and lighting changes could both focus the attention of the audience and add to the emotional power of the music and the drama.

On this largely blank canvas of a stage, Minghella and his team created breathtakingly beautiful visual images. In the love duet from Act One, the light from glowing lanterns pierced the blackness that enveloped the stage. Reflected in the giant mirror, they resembled cascading moons in a night sky. A curtain of rose petals descended. Later there was swarm of origami-like hummingbirds.

The production, with its gorgeous colors, stylization, radical simplification, and feeling of timelessness -- , partially conveyed by pictorial voids and bright planes of color -- reminded me of a genre of Japanese painting and wood block prints called ukiyo-e, (pictures of the floating world), which took as its subject sensory experience, pleasure and entertainment. (Geishas were often portrayed and, of course, Butterfly was a geisha.) For more than two hundred years, Japan had remained a land apart to protect it from what were perceived as pernicious foreign influences. In 1859, American Admiral Perry arrived and Japan opened itself to trade with the west. Wood block prints, because they were inexpensive and easily transported, were a major source of western knowledge of Japan. They were widely copied by artists including Manet, Van Gogh, and Whistler and were also a major influence on the development of Art Nouveau. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a fascination with all things Japanese and Puccini partook in that fascination.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of this production was Minghella’s decision to use a Japanese Bunraku puppet to portray Butterfly’s three year-old son. Unlike other puppets, these have no strings and are operated by people in plain sight. Three black-clothed figures, costumed to recede, manipulated the doll’s head, left hand and legs. Minghella’s decision has been roundly criticized as eviscerating the emotional impact of Butterfly’s loving sacrifice of herself for the welfare of her child by replacing the child with an inanimate object. I couldn’t disagree more: Because the puppet’s gestures were so beautifully controlled, it was actually more expressive than any small child could ever be. And Racette’s relationship with it was touching and maternal. In a production so highly stylized and symbolic, the artificiality created no dissonance.

Minghella used other puppets. One in particular created an emotionally devastating impact. Dressed in a simple white robe with a red obi, it “danced” an exquisite pas de deux with a black clothed figure, just before the real Butterfly, identically attired, committed suicide. At the moment of her suicide, two long pieces of blood red fabric unfurled themselves from either side of her lifeless body against a background of empty blackness. This extraordinary image was reflected in the mirror above the stage.

The superb Metropolitan Opera Orchestra was conducted by Patrick Summers who conveyed both the dramatic power and the translucence of the music. Composing some fifty years after Wagner systematically began to use leitmotifs, Puccini made use of them as well. In Madama Butterfly, these short themes are not the structural devices they were for Wagner; rather, they served as reminders of what has gone before and hints of what is to come. Indeed, the final notes of the opera revisited the theme first heard when Butterfly decided that that she would rather die than be dishonored.

On March 7, 2009, this production of Madama Butterfly will be televised in HD at approximately eight hundred venues in North and South American, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Wherever you are, try not to miss it.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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