19 March 2009: Puccini, Madama Butterfly

Metropolitan Opera Live in HD broadcast, Encore of the March 7 performance

It seems the Metropolitan Opera has found a way to rescue what may be its problematic finances through these HD broadcasts at some four hundred theaters (I believe) all across the country and additionally around the world. Fifteen minutes away from our house, at the multiplex in West Springfield, Mass­achusetts, we can see a series of these marvelous productions for $20.00 apiece, with better seats than we could afford at the Met itself. We have not been able to see more than two this year, alas, but we will see one more — La Cenerentola, on May 9 — and some of the nine scheduled for next year.

This production of Butterfly, mounted by a wonderful director, Anthony Miaghella (who has since died) has a strong Japanese flair and style to it, and features Bunraku puppets, most notably for the role of the child of Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton. The puppet, 3-1/2 feet tall, is controlled by three actors who seem to be referred to as “artists,” dressed in black, with black veils that hang down over their faces, making them anonymous and virtually invisible (and yet, so good is the close-up photography that one can see the expressions on the faces of the “artists” — which, remarkably, mimic the emotion being expressed in the puppet through gesture and attitude). The face of the bald-headed boy puppet is cast in the permanent guise of childish naïveté, but this wide-eyed innocence is somehow qualified or nuanced to a great degree by the skillful manipulations of the three puppeteers, who continue to achieve the most life-like, affective pres­ence, so that it is difficult for the audience to remember that this is a “lifeless” puppet.

The singing and acting were truly wonderful, most especially Patricia Rac­ette’s powerful, faultless soprano, fully up to the rigors of one of the most dem­and­ing of all operatic roles. Marcello Giordani had the full ringing sonority required of Pinkerton, the American naval Lieutenant whom everyone loves to hate. Dwayne Croft, in the baritone role of Sharpless, the American customs agent saddled with an all too thankless job, was a surprisingly strong, musically able presence and a fine actor as well, as was the Suzuki, Maria Zifchak, far more both musically and characterologically than this role of the handmaiden who usually just brings tea and then disappears might suggest.

All of this could not have happened so successfully without the clear-sighted­ness into character and motive and simultaneous vision of vivid production values that distinguished Anthony Minghella’s direction. Cio-Cio-San’s first entrance is a case in point. Her house, just purchased for her by the affluent, smitten Pinkerton, is an airy, flexible space almost infinitely malleable by the shifting left or right of a number of parallel screens. These can be moved well off to the side, also, to reveal a vista of blank blue sky, beyond which, we under­stand — that is, beyond a rise at the upstage extremity — lies, far below the hill, the city of Nagasaki in the harbor where Pinkerton’s ship, the Abraham Lincoln, lies anch­or­ed. The entrance is accomplished by a long row of women, Cio-Cio-San at their center and dressed out in an elaborate, many-layered silk costume and flowered headdress, who all at once appear coming over the rise — first just heads, then gradually the rest of their bodies, while they sing a rich musical chorus. It might have brought down the house, except that the music was too full and lovely and, anyway, we were too dumbfounded by the stunning theatrical effect to do any­thing except stay motionless in our seats. A measure of first-rate opera produc­tion is that the grandness can be full-scale and unstinting, visually rich and com­plex, and yet these values do not in the least detract from or interfere with the psychological and human values and the extension of deep and powerful emo­tion that lies in the heart and soul of the music.

This was the case today, accomplished partly, or at any rate wonderfully enhanced, by the deft, expert camera work that took us close in when closeness and intimacy were called for, and receded back to allow us to see in proper per­spective and coherently framed all of what was important and on-going on the stage as a whole.

And all for twenty dollars and a quick trip down I-91 from Easthampton. What could be better?


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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