Opolais and Alagna at their heights in an unforgettable Met “Butterfly”

March 20, 2016
By Eric C. Simpson
Kristine Opolais in Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl

Kristine Opolais in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl

There’s nothing half-way about Madama Butterfly. A star vehicle if there ever was one, it relies heavily on its soprano heroine to carry a performance, both musically and dramatically. A Butterfly can be entirely ordinary, or it can be outstanding, with much of the difference depending on the woman in the title role.

And when excellence extends beyond the name at the top of the bill, we end up with a truly unforgettable performance like the one heard at the Metropolitan Opera Thursday night. The company’s new production of Manon Lescaut, which just ended its run, featured Kristine Opolais and Roberto Alagna as the leading couple, an A-list duo that attracted considerable excitement  in the weeks leading up to the premiere. That production proved a disappointment in almost every respect, and in its wake, the Butterfly cast that took the stage on Thursday seemed a vision of what might have been: two of the world’s greatest singing actors in a classic Puccini tragedy, a superb supporting cast, excellent work from the pit, and an evocative staging made this easily one of the preeminent triumphs of the Met’s season.

Opolais sang her first Met Cio-cio-san two years ago to rapturous acclaim, and her interpretation has lost none of its brilliance. Vocally, her work was admirable, of course, employing an instrument that is somewhat light in tone but still has more than enough body to fill out the role. Her rendition of the signature aria “Un bel di” was glowingly sung, soaring in necessary moments but surprisingly intimate, as though she were singing only for herself.

What stood out most was the complete commitment of her acting, accomplished largely through remarkable specificity. Opolais had a precise intention for every line, which she played without reservation. Her surging hope as she examined Pinkerton’s returning ship through a spyglass was painful to watch, intensifying the dramatic irony of the scene to the point that the ensuing Flower Duet had an unusual poignancy.

The arc from Opolais’s first introduction as a nervous young woman to her ultimate breakdown was unnerving to witness. In the final act she looked physically exhausted and her movements become more erratic with every passing moment. After her crushing moment of anagnorisis, the devastating line “Tutto è morto per me” seemed as much a statement of resolve as of resignation, and in her vacant stare one might have detected the makings of a classic bel canto mad scene. What came instead was a wrenching account of her death aria, made more arresting by her achingly human interactions with the puppet that portrays her son.

She had a tremendous partner in Alagna, who was at his absolute best as Pinkerton, unleashing his signature bright power and focus, and barely wavering throughout the evening. Though not always subtle, his singing was a thrill to hear, and his characterization of the American Lieutenant was intricately layered. He enjoyed remarkable chemistry with Opolais, helping to give the love duet scene at the close of the first act an impressive act all of its own, and making him seem only more repellent as a brash young naval officer with little concern for the consequences of his actions.

Almost as moving as Opolais’s portrayal were Maria Zifchak’s reactions to it; she seemed to be a breath away from bursting into tears while listening to “Un bel di,” able to see her mistress’s fate but powerless to avert it. She sang with dark, generous sound that she channeled into her furious grief in the closing scenes. Dwayne Croft was no less admirable, bringing an oaken barrel of a voice to his noble and nuanced portrayal of Sharpless, finding striking emotional urgency in the letter scene, as he tried to dispel Cio-cio-san’s tragic fantasy. Tony Stevenson showed a consistent, smooth tenor as Goro, and gave an appropriately serpentine characterization of the scheming marriage-broker.

A messy prelude aside, conductor Karel Mark Chichon seemed more comfortable with the score than he had at the season premiere a month ago. His was by no means the most adventurous reading, but it was an interesting and considered one. He stayed close to the singers and drew a warm luster from the orchestra that served as a firm base on which to build the drama of the piece. The Met chorus sang with their accustomed splendor, giving a dreaming performance of the celebrated “Humming chorus.”

Anthony Minghella’s production only grows more compelling with each viewing, it seems. Dazzlingly lit, brightly costumed, and light on its feet, it is an entertaining experience on its surface, but its brilliance goes much deeper. The use of stylish, symbolic choreography and hauntingly human bunraku puppetry finds inventive and illuminating solutions to the work’s narrative challenges. Populated with performers as thrilling as those in this cast, this staging is among the most dynamic that the Met can bring to bear. This is one revival that is not to be missed.

Madama Butterfly runs through April 12 at the Metropolitan Opera. Roberto de Biasio resumes the role of Pinkerton beginning April 6. metopera.org

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