Met in HD: Kristine Opolais in a powerful, moving ‘Madama Butterfly’

Kristine Opolais, Roberto Alagna reignite their earlier romantic chemistry in “Manon Lescaut,” providing a moving, almost unexpected 4-hanky finale to another Puccini classic.

Kristine Opolais as Cio-Cio-San and Roberto Alagna as Pinkerton in Puccini's "Madama Butterfly." (Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

WASHINGTON, April 5, 2016 – Reigniting their surprising romantic chemistry last seen in the Met’s recent production of “Manon Lescaut,” soprano Kristine Opolais and tenor Roberto Alagna made beautiful music together again in Puccini’s even more popular classic opera, “Madama Butterfly.”

This marvelous reprise of late film director Anthony Minghella’s beautiful, abstract production was seen Saturday at theaters worldwide by patrons of the increasingly popular “Met in HD” series of live opera simulcasts.

Compact and geometric, Minghella’s kabuki-style re-imagining of this heart-rending operatic tragedy is initially off-putting for its apparent economy. But it gradually grows on you as you place it in the context of traditional Japanese theater, which highlights moral and emotional contrasts by its use of mythic types as opposed to Western theatrical tradition.

Minghella’s concept visually downsizes the stage by the use of lighting and movable Japanese-style screens, both of which are used to effect rapid changes in the physical and emotional setting of each scene without interrupting the continuity.

Aside from some multi-colored costumes worn by the opera’s sparely used chorus, the predominant colors displayed in this production are white, red and black, each with its own primary symbolism: white for innocence and love, black for both night and emotional darkness or absence, and red for the color of blood as recollected in Act I and in reality in the tragic final scene.

Although many a tear has been shed for poor Mimi, the charming but consumptive heroine in another Puccini classic, “La Bohème,” Puccini’s Butterfly is perhaps the most tragic heroine of all.

Brief anecdote: back in the day when this reviewer worked on a U.S. merchant vessel for college tuition money, there were always a few shipmates who boasted they’d be heading downtown to “get married” when the ship reached the next port.

That’s the notion we explicitly encounter in the opening moments of “Butterfly,” when a conversation between the opera’s anti-hero, B. F. Pinkerton (Roberto Alagna) and the American consul, Sharpless (baritone Dwayne Croft) makes it crystal clear that Pinkerton’s imminent “marriage” to teenage geisha Cio-Cio-San, aka Butterfly (Kristine Opolais), is a sailor charade good mainly for sex as long as his U.S. Navy vessel remains anchored in the Nagasaki harbor.

But there’s a big problem. The innocent and trusting Butterfly buys into the imagined reality of American marriage (which, she believes, is “forever”), secretly converts to Christianity, expresses a willingness to be an American citizen and falls head over heels for Pinkerton. In diplomat-ese, Sharpless tries to warn the randy young U.S. officer that Butterfly is in this for real.

Pinkerton, smitten by Butterfly’s beauty and apparent devotion to him, ignores his advice. Eventually sailing off, he unknowingly leaves Butterfly with child, leading to the opera’s heartbreaking climax when he returns with his new American wife in tow.

We’ve seen this popular opera any number of times, including a couple of great performances locally by the Washington National Opera. But this Met production, as we viewed it in HD Saturday, operated on a genuinely ethereal plane.

The style and simplicity of the production brought the “foreignness” of this clearly Italian opera to the fore, more than any lavishly constructed sets often do. But the primary virtue here was that the starkness of the setting put the story squarely in the hands of its pair of romantic leads and in the capable voices and hands of its additional pair of supporting cast members.

Read also: Met in HD: A noirish, beautifully sung ‘Manon Lescaut’

Met followers already know the near-miraculous story of Mr. Alagna’s last-minute substitution for the scheduled tenor in the company’s recent production of “Manon Lescaut.” Mr. Alagna, who’d never sung the role of that opera’s male lead, des Grieux, actually mastered it during the barely two weeks that remained before opening night. We were fortunate to see that production last month in the Met in HD series, and admit we were astonished at the chemistry that developed between Mr. Alagna and Ms. Opolais—again cast as Manon, his co-star—despite their almost nonexistent rehearsal time together.

This chemistry carried forward even more strongly in the current production of “Butterfly,” the one Mr. Alagna and Ms. Opolais were actually scheduled to perform together. This proved true even though Mr. Alagna had to make the switch between the ardent des Grieux to the clueless Pinkerton, and though Ms. Opolais had to make her own emotional shift between the rather amoral Manon Lescaut and the devoted innocent, Butterfly.

Not a problem. If anything in this production, the chemistry—albeit a fleeting chemistry for Mr. Alagna’s character—ignited the stage with a surprisingly real and heartfelt passion, one the audience could really feel. Both leads’ stage acting abilities were superb in realistically rendering each character’s virtues and flaws. Their remarkable and extraordinarily compatible voices then sealed the deal.

Pinkerton is actually a relatively small role, though a crucial one as the character sets the plot in motion. He is the dominant character in the opening act, but disappears entirely during the opera’s middle, only to return in shame and quickly slink away in the tragic finale. It is to Mr. Alagna’s credit that he was able to strongly establish his character’s strengths and quirks in Act I the better to throw light on his actions in the finale, as the tragedy of his miscalculation and youthful indiscretion finally dawns upon him.

Ultimately, however, this is an opera that is owned, perhaps more than most operas, by its winning but tragic lead, Butterfly. Beautiful, loyal, devoted, generous, artistic and sexually available, Butterfly is, in the flesh, the very embodiment of every 19th century man’s ideal wife.

Essentially forced at an early age to become a geisha—by no means a dishonorable profession in the context of an older Japan—Butterfly is eager to redeploy her skills and her affections to her new American husband. And Pinkerton is glad to receive them, at least as long as his ship remains in port. But he doesn’t get it. And indeed, in the 19th century, coming home to the U.S. with such a wife might not have endeared either Pinkerton or Butterfly to American society.

That said, as the perceptive Sharpless keeps pointing out, Butterfly believes in the fantasy, though no one else does, including her only remaining servant, Suzuki (mezzo Maria Zifchak). When Butterfly is finally forced to come to grips with reality in the opera’s final scenes, including giving up her beloved young son to the American couple, her romance, her fantasy and indeed her life have all come to an end.

It’s this palpable sense of terribly betrayed innocence that lies at the heart of this opera, and in a cynical 21st century, it’s a tough concept to put across. But that’s exactly what Miss Opolais does in this production in a role she not only embraces but owns.

From her subtle facial expressions and manner—perhaps best seen in HD close-up rather than in person—to the endlessly subtle manner in which she colors and genuinely embodies Butterfly’s emotional transitions, Ms. Opolais is the best, the noblest, the finest and the most tragic Butterfly we’ve yet seen. Even the sometimes-noisy movie theater environment at our local AMC Tysons 16 was absolutely silent as Butterfly’s tragedy played out. It was an extraordinary, unforgettable moment.

Backing up this production’s romantic leads, Dwayne Croft was a sympathetic, elegant and world-wise, world-weary Sharpless, offering adult counsel to characters of his own and a foreign culture, doing his duty but likely knowing he would be ignored. Vocally, he approached the role by projecting wisdom and sorrow at once. Would that our own real-life diplomats could be—well, so diplomatic.

In the smaller but still key role of Butterfly’s servant, Suzuki, veteran mezzo Maria Zifchak was, in a sense, the Japanese counterpart of Sharpless. Devoted to Butterfly, she’s fully aware of the scenario and cautiously tries to convey the truth of it to her charge, bit by bit, knowing she’s not likely to succeed. She injects this sense of resignation into her vocal lines, which adds greatly to the sorrow and inevitability that grows until it can no longer be ignored.

Under the baton of Karel Mark Chichon, the Met Orchestra performed well—although in all honesty, the work of the soloists was so gripping, one frequently failed to notice the orchestra at all.

The Met chorus and several brief, supporting roles were nicely executed as well, particularly in the plaintive, wordless “Humming Chorus” that serves as a prelude to the tragic finale.

As is usually the case, this HD production reprises Wednesday of this week at most participating theaters. See details below.

Rating: **** (Four out of four stars)

Encore performance: As is nearly always the case, the Met also recorded Saturday’s simulcast of “Madama Butterfly” for rebroadcast to participating movies theaters this week. The date: Wednesday, March 6, 2016. The time: 6:30 p.m. in all time zones. (Check your local theater’s schedule just to make sure.) For tickets, contact your local theater or visit Fathom Events via this link.

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