Thank you, Fates, for putting us at the Metropolitan Opera on this rare night. Cio-cio-san, the Butterfly character upon whom the entire evening rests, was not to be played by the soprano named in the program, nor by a second star who was ill, but by yet a third person. Soon the golden warmth, emotional vulnerability, and lustrous beauty of Latonia Moore’s voice won over the tentative. By the end of the first aria, the crowd was roaring bravos.
This is a story where you know the ending but the characters don’t. Your heart breaks from pity for their fruitless hopes and losses. It’s the turn of the twentieth century. Pinkerton, sung engagingly by expressive tenor Jones, is an American naval officer stationed for a time in Japan, where he cavalierly enters what he sees as a temporary arranged marriage with Cio-cio-san, a local girl of fifteen (!) from a poor but noble family. After he leaves, her boundless, trusting love eventually transforms into unbearable pain as she comes to understand that he does not intend to return to her. Baritone Artur Rusinski, as the civil, caring American consul Sharpless who bears the bad tidings and carries our point of view on poor Butterfly, has a magnificent, clear voice, with massive power in reserve. Maria Zifchak, Cio-cio-san’s maid Suzuki, is spot on in her quiet attentions, and stunningly affecting in the Flower duet. The orchestra swells, soars, whispers, and strains in Puccini’s lush, highly accessible score, carrying us from wave to wave.
The political resonances are unavoidable. We wonder at the prescience as trusting people in other countries are exploited, their institutions mocked, and the entitled American carelessly leaves devastation behind. And is it not also Orientalism to exoticize the Eastern, to characterize the Other as feminine and vulnerable, with the West animated by the military and male? But Madama Butterfly is so particularly about these people, even despite the swatches of Star-Bangled Banner in the score, that the ultimate impact is emotional, human, and timeless.
I teared several times from sheer beauty, beginning with the splendor of Han Feng’s costuming of Cio-cio-san’s friends. Minghella employs a small mob of darkly veiled figures to move screens, hold lanterns aloft, give wing to origami birds, and transform into heaps of flowers. The delicacy of the effects plays against a stark, metallic hill receding into a bright color field, with a novel mirrored ceiling, multiplying movement and permitting exits to linger.
Reasonable people can disagree about using Bunraku puppetry for the toddler Cio-cio-san reveals as Pinkerton’s son. The artistry is striking, and one can think of many examples where masks and puppetry create a vessel we fill with projection. It works, and is also distancing compared with having a real child engage our empathy. A dream sequence also using puppetry is, though beautiful, a dramatic error. It leadenly previews Cio-cio-san’s fate, reducing the impact of the normally shattering ending.
There are conventions that may feel like obstacles to first-time opera triers. Yes, Americans and Japanese all sing in Italian. But you soon forget, as with a foreign film, and can truly appreciate the suitability of Italian to expressive singing. And with voice supreme in casting, we don’t get Hollywood physical types. But let that all go, and give yourself over to the sounds souls make. You’ll see everything you need to.