Whether or not it was because of Giacomo Puccini’s tuneful and heart-wrenching score, New York Fashion Week, or the first outing of soprano Ana Maria Martínez, a singer curiously absent from the Met, in a prima donna role, the Metropolitan Opera was jam-packed for the premiere of Madama Butterfly on Friday, February 19th.
Most opera fans are familiar with Puccini’s drama about a Japanese geisha who is disappointed and humiliated when Pinkerton, the U.S. Naval officer she married and believed to be faithful, returns from a three-year absence with a new wife to retrieve the child Pinkerton and Butterfly had together. Stripped of her honor, Butterfly then kills herself with a ceremonial dagger. Replete with “Asian” motifs and intense demands from the singers and orchestra, Butterfly is especially difficult to execute for such a core work of the standard repertoire. This run of performances at the Met (13 in total) was originally supposed to feature Patricia Racette and Kristine Opolais as Butterfly, but because of a series of repertoire changes and illnesses, Racette’s performances bounced from her to Hei Kyung Hong (who steps into the kimono starting February 27th) to Ana Maria Martínez for only two performances.
Martínez possesses an ample, amber-colored voice with a resonant, grainy middle, and she uses it with intelligence and security. However, her high notes have the tendency to fade away, and on Friday, she just couldn’t get to the musical climaxes, the high notes, at the heart of all of Butterfly’s arias, even despite smart and sensitive phrasing choices throughout. It’s not that the high notes aren’t there, but that there is little force behind the upper register compared to the thrust in the rest of the voice. Other high notes, though, defied this tendency and were spun into dazzling pianissimi. Martínez’s Butterfly was refreshingly reserved at the beginning of the opera, and slowly descended into desperation throughout. She wasn’t naïve, but an inevitable victim of a society that objectifies women. And by the end, when Butterfly is faced with dishonor and suicide is the only option, it still feels like a conscious choice. Martínez is light on her feet and hard to take your eyes off of. She played well with the other singers and was able to easily and gracefully negotiate the raked stage in the gorgeous but obviously-cumbersome kimono she wears for much of the opera. Butterfly, though well-executed by her in almost every category, just might not be the perfect fit for her voice.
As Pinkerton, Roberto De Biasio hammed it up as a playful playboy and was more or less unmemorable. The voice is slender and a size or two too small for the Met, and he struggled to distinguish himself in any of the ensembles. Both his arias were muscled through, and though not for lack of trying, he seemed mismatched with Martínez’s much more assured Butterfly.
Artur Rucinski, a baritone with a serviceable voice who made his Met debut on Friday, gave a performance that suffered from both a lack of line and garbled diction as Sharpless, the American Consul. Maria Zifchak, a stalwart Suzuki, may be showing signs of a wobble, but she is still one of the few Met artists that consistently delivers with a gleaming voice and warm stage presence.
Karel Mark Chicon, also in his Met debut, conducted with uniformly brisk tempi, and though he was able to emphasize the drama in Puccini’s inherently dramatic score, the singers and chorus seemed frequently stranded and searching as the opera relentlessly surged on.
Anthony Minghella’s production, now ten years old, is still an intelligent staging that gives the music every opportunity to shine. It’s also singer-friendly – there is room for singers to put their mark on the characters. Michael Levine’s sets are spare and evocative, Han Feng’s costumes are detailed and striking, and Peter Mumford’s lighting is just phenomenal. Blind Summit Theatre provides the puppets, one of which stands in for Butterfly’s son, Trouble. After ten years, audiences seem to be finally acclimated to this initially arresting but ultimately effective innovation.
Martínez performs the title role one more time on Monday, and then Hei Kyung Hong, singing Butterfly for the first time in her long career, takes over the part until March 5th. Kristine Opolais steps in for the remaining performances and the run ends April 12th. Other singers to join the cast are Gwyn Hughes Jones and Roberto Alagna as Pinkerton and Dwayne Croft as Sharpless. Tickets available here.
Photos by Marty Sohl