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Pure Magic

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
12/05/2011 -  and December 9, 14, 17, 22, 27, 30*, 2011
Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly
Liping Zhang (Cio-Cio San), Maria Zifchak (Suzuki), Robert Dean Smith (Lt.B.F. Pinkerton), Luca Salsi (Sharpless), Joel Sorensen (Goro), Daniel Sumegi (The Bonze), Luthando Qave (Yamadori), Jennifer Johnson Cano (Kate Pinkerton), David Crawford (Imperial Commissioner), David Lowe (The Registrar), Laura Fries (Cousin), Belinda Oswald (Mother), Craig Montgomery (Uncle Yakuside), Jean Braham (Aunt)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Plácido Domingo (Conductor)
Anthony Minghella (Production), Carolyn Choa (Director and Choreographer), Michael Levine (Set Designer), Han Feng (Costume Designer), Peter Mumford (Lighting Designer), Blind Summit Theatre (Puppetry)

(© Marty Sohl)

The Metropolitan Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly, first staged by the company during Peter Gelb’s inaugural season as General Manager, is one of Gelb’s greatest successes. And it also has great personal significance for me, being the first opera at the Met that I reviewed for Concertonet. Thus, it was with tremendous pleasure and anticipation that I looked forward to seeing it again this season. And my expectations of a splendid evening were fully justified. Not only has the production retained its almost magical power to enchant, but the Met has given us a ravishing new Butterfly, the lovely and talented Liping Zhang.

As I have described the production in great length in my earlier review (Read here), I won’t say much more about it, except that it continues to astonish by its sheer sensuous beauty. The magic of Anthony Minghella’s vision, supported perfectly by the set and costume designs of this production and its sheer, visual splendor has not diminished one bit over the years. And while the production is extraordinarily detailed and highly stylized – with puppets, birds, and gorgeously elaborate Japanese robes -- much of its emotional impact comes from seeing the vastness of the Met stage carved into geometric spaces awash with the visual resonance of super-saturated colors. The lighting by Peter Mumford is always perfectly judged and thus contributes immeasurably to the overall effect.

This was my first opportunity to see and hear Liping Zhang and I was tremendously impressed. Her physical delicacy underlined the aching vulnerability of Butterfly who, after all, was almost a child when she was married off to the carefree and careless Pinkerton. But Zhang’s voice is actually quite powerful and she is able to deploy it with unerring attention to the psychological state of her character illuminated by her excellent command of dynamic nuance, superb phrasing, a blooming top and a marvelous legato line. When Butterfly learns the truth – that Pinkerton only came back to retrieve his son – Zhang’s voice, her face and her body revealed her despair.

L.Zhang (© Marty Sohl)

Our Pinkerton, Robert Dean Smith sang with a warm, bright voice with a fine legato line, and excellent high notes, but he just did not seem to inhabit the role. Granted, it’s a very difficult role to inhabit – such an unsympathetic, persona, a player in the worst sense of the word taking advantage of an innocent young girl. The duet on their wedding night should show him actually falling in love with her but I didn’t hear it and I did not see it in his portrayal. Smith is known mostly as a Wagnerian tenor, and he demonstrated here that his voice lacks the Italianate quality necessary to sing Puccini. The German repertoire seems a much better fit.

Maria Zifchak was a wonderful Suzuki. Her rich mezzo voice and fine acting produced a deeply moving and beautifully realized portrayal of love and loyalty. Her flower duet with Butterfly was simply superb. They sang with limpid beauty and an almost ethereal blending of their voices. The orchestral repetitions of their melody was one of many instances throughout the evening of the sensitive conducting of Yves Abel. The rest of the cast acquitted themselves very well. Luca Salsi gave us a rich, resonant Sharpless. Daniel Sumegi’s Bonze was a deep, dark authoritative presence. Our elegant Yamadori was sung by Luthando Qave in a splendid Met debut.

The Met Orchestra under the baton of Yves Abel gave a marvelous account of Puccini’s beautiful score, bringing out his eloquent and daring harmonic language and almost painterly orchestration be it delicate or full and lush.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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