The late lamented film director Anthony Minghella’s thoughtful production of Madama Butterfly may be nearly 20 years old, but it’s still looking good. His staging, which started out at English National Opera in 2005 and inaugurated Peter Gelb’s tenure at the Metropolitan Opera in 2006, has been around a few blocks, notably touring to the Perth International Festival in 2015. If you didn’t catch it there, next year’s HD broadcast will be a chance for Australian audiences to experience a production that honours its Japanese roots by incorporating elements of noh theatre and bunraku puppetry, while engaging the senses through filmic and, more crucially, dramatic moments of heart-stopping intimacy on the Met’s challengingly vast open stage.

Madama Butterfly. Photo © Richard Termine

Puccini’s tale of a turn-of-the-19th-century geisha wooed and deserted by a feckless American naval officer, only to have him return, new bride in tow, hoping to reclaim his abandoned child, is one of the great, tragic operatic storylines, but one with pitfalls in a modern era. Lt. B. F. Pinkerton can, and should, appear thoughtless or caddish, but given Butterfly’s age (she claims to be only 15), he can too easily come across as a sex tourist, and a criminal one at that. And for all Puccini’s respect for the Japanese, and the trouble he took to incorporate actual traditional tunes in his gorgeous and evocative score, the opera lives on a knife-edge between homage and cultural appropriation.

Minghella is alert to both these dangers. His use of Japanese theatre techniques tackles the latter, his staging always respectful, and with a great deal added by the evocative choreography of his Hong Kong-born second wife Carolyn Choa. On three occasions at least he highlights the dangerous nature of the sexual drama: firstly in the US Consul Sharpless’s overt disapproval when he learns of the bride’s lack of years; secondly in emphasising Butterfly’s vulnerability when Pinkerton removes the bridal gown; and thirdly in an unexpected emotional exchange when she is rough-handled by Prince Yamadori, the nobleman who comes to bid for her after everyone assumes Pinkerton has gone for good.

Hui He as Cio-Cio-San, Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki. Photo © Richard Termine

Elsewhere, the production benefits from a succession of powerful visual images: the bobbing lanterns that surround the wedded couple in the nocturnal finale to Act I; the magical disappearance of Pinkerton at the top of Act II (he simply vanishes behind a passing screen); and especially in the use of a bunraku puppet to represent the child, aptly named “Sorrow” by his unhappy mother. This isn’t simply a gimmick, and the three puppeteers who manipulate the little boy (Kevin Augustine, Tom Lee and Jonothon Lyons) are responsible for many of the opera’s moments of gut-wrenching and tear-jerking power.

The cast for this revival is decent, if not spectacular. In the title role of Cio-Cio-San, Chinese soprano Hui He creates a compelling portrait of a girl forced to become a woman all too quickly. Strong on the otherworldliness that accounts in large part for Pinkerton’s poorly thought through desire to wed and bed, she also delivers vulnerability in spades, her acting nuanced and touching. Vocally she has real presence, her pearly tone and fine diction coming over loud and clear. Only at the top does she have a problem. She’s shy of the high D Flat that graces her entrance and, again, fractionally below the top note in the love duet. Un bel dì vedremo is done with real style, but the triumphant B Flat feels cut short. She is, however, wonderful in many other places, the love duet and her final aria in particular.

Hui He as Cio-Cio-San, Paulo Szot as Sharpless. Photo © Richard Termine

As Pinkerton, Sardinian tenor Piero Pretti is the cast’s weak link. He has all the notes, but it’s not a big voice, and it hardens at the top making insufficient vocal contrast with Scott Scully’s well-sung marriage broker, Goro. Pretti is at his best in the love duet, but generally his acting is wooden and his personal charisma is low level, lacking the rakish charm that might otherwise lend the character credibility. Unfortunately, his Sharpless, Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot (familiar to Australians as both Onegin and last season’s Juan Péron) has roguish charm in spades, making you wonder more than once why Butterfly doesn’t just transfer her affections there. Singing with warm tone and respectable heft, Szot also delivers a finely acted interpretation, making his long Act II scene with Butterfly a real highlight. American mezzo Elizabeth DeShong brings a bel canto beauty to Butterfly’s maid Suzuki, putting in a performance of vocal sumptuousness and enormous dramatic sympathy.

There is, however, a real fly in the ointment down in the pit. The Met has a fine orchestra, but you wouldn’t always know it under the routine baton of Italian maestro Pier Giorgio Morandi. From the outset, the strings felt scrappy, and the pacing was unremittingly four-square throughout. It’s a brilliant orchestration, and much of Puccini’s colour managed to struggle through the clouds, but at no point did the conducting raise the emotional level above tepid and the ending, devoid of even a skerrick of rubato, was almost desultory in its refusal to acknowledge the dramatic stakes. Surely the Met can do better?

Hui He as Cio-Cio-San. Photo © Richard Termine

The production runs at the Met until Nov 25 (with Andrea Carè taking over as Pinkerton but notably without Plácido Domingo who has withdrawn as Sharpless). It then returns next year in April. The Met in HD broadcast (with Pretti’s Pinkerton) can be seen across Australia on January 18, 2020 and is worth catching for Hui He, DeShong and Szot. Otherwise, the staging is still available on Sony DVD with Patricia Racette in the title role.


Madama Butterfly is at the Metropolitan Opera, New York until April, 2020. Australians can see it in cinemas on January 18, 2020

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