Since I generally prefer traditional productions, I was somewhat skeptical as I sat down to watch and hear Anthony Minghella's production of the most performed opera in the Unites States, and perhaps the world - Madama Butterfly. Adding to my concern and curiosity was the advertised use of puppetry in this Metropolitan Opera HD series event. Let me come right to the point in this critique: this opera pulls you in! I was totally mesmerized and after three beautiful hours, felt like I should feel after hearing and viewing an opera. My reaction is not surprising when I review the different facets of this production:
(1) THE SETS: yes, they are minimalist, but, when you think about it, this is one opera which doesn't really need elaborate sets; most of the drama occurs inside a Japanese house, which does indeed make use of sliding screens. The use of these screens in this production was actually quite clever and did reinforce the notion that the setting is Japan.
(2) COSTUMES: credited to Han Feng; just a glorious display of color. Easily, the best costuming I've seen in any production of this opera, at least, those available on DVD.
(3) THE MUSIC: Maestro Patrick Summers conducts a flawless performance of the Met's Orchestra; the music never overpowers the singers and yet, reaches our ears with the power to move us as the composer intended. Puccini would have applauded.
(4) THE SINGERS: Let's begin with the title role. Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly) can be compared with that of Juliet in "Romeo and Juliet". Ideally, one would cast a mid-teen young lady, and yet, to date, there has never been a young female actress/singer capable of expressing all the emotions that their character calls for. In the PAST world of opera, one had to be content with a soprano up to the demands of a role such as Madama Butterfly, that calls for an almost continuous stage presence from the middle of the first act until the end of the third and final act. Historically, singing ability was the criterion, making factors such as age and appearance, irrelevant. (Examples: a grossly overweight Pavarotti as a "handsome" Radames in Aida; a sixty-year old Sutherland as "the Daughter" of the Regiment in an Australian Opera production.) BUT, in TODAY'S world, where operatic productions are being filmed as well as recorded - where the visual aspects of a production will be important to the sale of DVDs and Blu Ray discs - singers are being groomed who cannot only sing but who are believable as the characters they represent. Thinks of handsome tenors such as Florez, Villazon and Kaufmann; beautiful sopranos like Netrebko, attractive mezzos like Garanca and baritones like Keenlyside, etc. I submit that Patricia Racette strikes a good balance between youth and experience and is here a very convincing Butterfly. I do not agree with those reviewers who found some faults with her voice; I, for one, did not detect any, and indeed, of the seven DVDs I own of this opera, her death scene is the best both vocally and dramatically.
All of the principal singers were in good form the day they recorded this production. Tenor Marcello Giordani, whose rendition of "Nessun Dorma" in the Met's last production of "Turandot", compared with Pavarotti's, impresses me here with his clarity of tone and ability to portray Pinkerton, not as a villain but as a flawed human being who does not realize the tragic consequences of his amorous affair with his Japanese bride. Dwayne Croft, a veteran of the Met, as Sharpless, is a good example of why baritones today are being afforded the prominence once reserved to their tenor colleagues. As Suzuki, Maria Zifchak, another Met stalwart, is able to bring out all the nuances in her character; she is not just Butterfly's servant, but companion in suffering. I was particularly impressed by her actually coming to tears when she is about to inform her mistress of Pinkerton's new wife.
(5) THE USE OF PUPPETS: Easily, this is the most controversial aspect of this production. It shouldn't be. A cardinal rule in criticism is that one shouldn't condemn a work one hasn't read, seen or heard. That rule applies here. Even though several puppets were employed in this production (several servants and one of Butterfly in a ballet scene), the one puppet who manages to captivate the audience is Butterfly's young son. Of all the child actors who have been cast in this part, THIS PUPPET IS THE FINEST OF THEM ALL! No three-year old would be capable of portraying awe, happiness, wonderment, sadness, and affection in the way that this three-foot tall "artificial child" has managed to do it. Great credit, of course, must be given to his three black-clad handlers, but after a while, they seem to disappear in the viewer's eye and mind. Please do not let the idea of puppets deter you from experiencing this magnificent production. You will be captivated by their use and might just forget that they are in the production.
(6) BUTTERFLY'S DEATH SCENE: has been described by other reviewers. Such a simple idea: use red cloth to symbolize blood. But add light effects and I could have sworn that the entire stage was covered with Cio-Cio-San's blood. Very effective, and coupled with Puccini's dramatic music, a powerful ending.