Spellbinding soprano proves shattering in Met’s “Butterfly”

December 10, 2011
By Marion Lignana Rosenberg

Liping Zhang as Cio-Cio-San in Puccini's "Madama Butterfly." Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

The world premiere of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at La Scala in 1904 was an ugly, riotous fiasco. A rival to Puccini’s publisher Ricordi had the knives out for the composer, and the opera as originally presented was found long and trying. Still, Puccini and his work had their champions, and a leading poet of the day wrote before the revised Butterfly’s triumph in Brescia three months later, “Your little butterfly will take flight: her wings are scattered with dust, with a few drops here and there, drops of tears and of blood.”

Madama Butterfly once again took flight Friday evening at the Metropolitan Opera, on the strength of the late Anthony Minghella’s stunning production (which premiered at the house in 2006) and the extraordinary performance of the soprano Liping Zhang in the title role.

The staging, co-created with and directed by Carolyn Choa, is a thing of spare, poetic beauty. A sloping mirror rises over the lacquer-black set designed by Michael Levine, offering deep, shifting reflections of the onstage action. Minimal furnishings (cushions, chairs) keep the focus squarely on human interactions, while gliding shoji screens reframe the performing space and hint at the opacity and illusions that drive the tragedy.

Peter Mumford’s lighting bathes the horizon in liquid, saturated tones of teal, acid green, and blood red, echoed in Han Feng’s sumptuous costumes for the Japanese characters. The two Americans, the seducer Pinkerton and the consul Sharpless, wear garb of Yankee drab. Dances (choreographed by Choa) and pantomimes open the three acts, with billowing silks telling of blood and silent screams. Bunraku-style puppets by Blind Summit Theatre stand in for servants, Butterfly (briefly), and her son, a toddler of wide-eyed, heartbreaking innocence as “real” as any of the fleshly performers thanks to the artistry of puppeteers Kevin Augustine, Frankie Cordero, and Marc Petrosino.

Gorgeous as they are, none of these trappings would matter without a compelling Cio-Cio-San, Puccini’s child-bride whose long, difficult role encompasses music of gossamer delicacy along with declamation over scoring as thick and pitiless as anything in Wagner. Liping Zhang’s entrance promised little good: the ensemble flirted with cacophony under Plácido Domingo’s uncertain baton, and Zhang added her own vinegary mite with a curdled high note. (Sopranos almost never make magic with the optional D-flat. Why do they insist on attempting it?) From then on, though, her performance grew from strength to shattering strength.

The opera’s libretto (by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, after David Belasco) reminds us insistently that Butterfly is a child, and Zhang, a petite woman, was completely credible as the girl Cio-Cio-San. This made the Act I duet uncomfortable viewing—and for good reason. After all, despite the enchantment wrought in the pit and on stage (with cascades of petals and pearly lanterns glowing in the night), this “love” duet enacts the violation of a fifteen-year-old by a cynical and predatory man.

Zhang’s Butterfly was never coquettish. She was dignified in her first exchanges with Pinkerton, still amidst her relatives’ chatter, solemn in her avowals of devotion—and alone, dreadfully alone, whether pursued by her husband or clinging to her maid Suzuki in an embrace that is not returned. One might prefer a touch more tonal heft at the climax of Che tua madre dovrà, but Zhang sang Puccini’s music on her own terms and with wrenching, understated mastery. Her reticence in relating her father’s end (a shift of the head, a staccato “Morto”) told more than any bit of scenery-chewing. Her Un bel dì was intimate and conversational; and the life simply drained away from her voice when Sharpless hinted that Pinkerton might not return. Zhang’s engagement with the text was spellbinding throughout, and those early unhappy moments aside, her singing was always musicianly and often meltingly beautiful.

Two baritones vied with Zhang for vocal honors. Luca Salsi was a splendid Sharpless: alert, engaging, with crystalline enunciation and rich, rolling tone. A tall, handsome man who commands the stage, Salsi has the makings of an important career. The same is true of Luthando Qave, a member of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. His dark, compact voice and dramatic flair made a star turn of the small role of Yamadori, Butterfly’s unwelcome suitor. Jennifer Johnson Cano, a Lindemann graduate, made an affectingly humane Kate Pinkerton.

The tenor Robert Dean Smith had almost everything that Pinkerton needs—a robust presence, a smarmy cluelessness, winning gusto, and an artist’s great heart. What this accomplished Tristan lacked, alas, was blooming, seductive tone. Maria Zifchak was a lovable, stalwart Suzuki. Joel Sorensen (Goro), David Crawford (the Imperial Commissioner), David Lowe (the Registrar), and Daniel Sumegi (the Bonze) acquitted themselves honorably.

A wondrously great singer, Plácido Domingo is no more than a routinier as a maestro, a fraction of a second off at the climax of Un bel dì, and several other great moments. Still, thanks to its leading lady and its inspired production team, this Butterfly takes flight, flecked with tears and blood.

Madama Butterfly runs through December 30, 2011, with additional performances (starring Patricia Racette in the title role) from February 17 through March 8, 2012. metoperafamily.org; 212-362-6000.


2 Responses to “Spellbinding soprano proves shattering in Met’s “Butterfly””

  1. Posted Dec 10, 2011 at 7:50 pm by Adrian sims

    Why has nobody mentioned that Liping Zhang had rather more than one curdled note; throughout, in the middle register she was consistently out of tune.

  2. Posted Dec 15, 2011 at 5:08 pm by Alphonse Crespo

    The production was indeed extraordinary except for the orchestra that tended to drown Pinkerton and Sharpless’ voices with unnecessary fortissimos. As a former tenor Placido Domingo should have know better…