A correction was made to this article on October 3, 2006.
The movies, Anthony Minghella and a girl named Madama Butterfly came to the Met for opening night of the 2006-07 season. The helmer was making his directorial debut with the opera company, and the audience was filled with film personalities ranging from Naomi Watts and Jude Law to Sydney Pollack and Harvey Weinstein. In no way did Minghella’s production disappoint: Although this “Madama Butterfly” does not specifically recall any of his films, it showcases an emphatic, highly arresting mise-en-scene — a la “The English Patient” or “The Talented Mr. Ripley” — that often dominates, if not always enhances, the story.
Under the new general management of Peter Gelb, the Met had been beating the PR drum for weeks regarding its Minghella coup, even though ‘Butterfly’ was a co-production between the Metropolitan Opera and the English National Opera. The final dress rehearsal at the Met was open to the public, and Monday’s gala perf was beamed not only to viewers seated outdoors in Lincoln Center Plaza but to Times Square, where thousands saw it for free on gigantic TV screens. Gelb even went so far on preem night as to introduce that hoariest of Hollywood gimmicks: the red carpet complete with a TV bank and interviewer who invariably prefaced Minghella’s name with “Oscar-winning.”
As a stage director, Minghella is at his best when he leaves it to costumer Han Feng and lighting designer Peter Mumford to position riots of red in the void of Michael Levine’s black-lacquered box set. For such a simple structure, this one stops the show the moment the curtain rises, dividing the stage horizontally to reveal a large slit of cyclorama in the background for colorful, often silhouetted, entrances and exits. And in case one gets tired of watching the singers’ faces, there’s a monolithic mirror hanging above the stage to give a bird’s-eye view of the performers’ many wigs and headdresses.
Only here and there do the visuals devolve into a grab-bag of Western and Asian theater tricks — sliding screens, lanterns on sticks, falling cherry blossoms, puppets — that feature the busiest minimalism this side of Hollywood’s Yamashiro restaurant. Regardless, the Met audience ate it up.
Monday’s gala was the company’s 800th performance of Puccini’s Asian warhorse. So what does Minghella really think of “poor little” overworked Butterfly? It doesn’t take much to deconstruct this story, to see its heroine as not a sympathetic innocent but rather a brazen 15-year-old who rejects her family, religion and country in order to love an American she has never met. Here, after all, is a woman who commits suicide in front of her own child (OK, she blindfolds him first) on the day her jerk of a husband returns to Japan with his new Yankee wife, Kate. Talk about the memoirs of one whacked-out geisha!
Suffice it to say Minghella doesn’t go there, and no doubt Puccini himself would agree that Butterfly should be abused by Pinkerton and beloved by the rest of us. Cristina Gallardo-Domas plays her that way, and while this soprano can’t get away with looking like a teenager, she successfully presents an exceedingly fragile portrait despite the role’s stentorian vocal demands.
Speaking of which, without Minghella and his creative team, this “Butterfly” would be strictly another night at the opera.
Not so long ago, when great singers essayed this role at the Met (Licia Albanese, Renata Tebaldi, Renata Scotto and, only a few seasons ago, Veronica Villaroel), opera reviews began with an assessment of the vocal performance rather than relegating such info to the final paragraphs. For many aficionados, opera is all about the voice, and everything else (acting, direction, etc.) remains just so much icing on the tessitura.
Although Gallardo-Domas tries to give the music nuance and shape, and often does, her worn voice doesn’t always comply. She wisely eschews the high D-flat upon her entrance but can’t escape sounding wobbly and unsupported elsewhere. Occasionally, a phrase gets chopped short or an arching pianissimo breaks completely.
As for Marcello Giordani’s Pinkerton, he’s a real brute both physically and vocally.
After a long recuperation for his injured shoulder, conductor James Levine took back the podium Monday night and led his orchestra in a richly textured performance.