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Met Opera Live: Madama Butterfly

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Composer: Giacomo Puccini

Director and Choreographer: Carolyn Choa

This livestream of the New York Met’s Madama Butterfly is simply glorious. It’s a revival of the enormously successful production by Anthony Minghella, first shown in 2006 and it has lost none of its charm. The music is of course always a joy, and this Met production has first-rate singers.

But it’s the look of it all that is so beguiling. The principal designers – Michael Levine for the set and Han Feng for the costumes – create a thing of wonder. The characters appear as if by magic from the top of the Met’s steeply raked stage against a sky of the production’s signature colour of blood red. It’s a dazzling moment when Cho-Cho-San and her entourage of women first appear, their wonderful costumes, headdresses and fans glittering.

In an interval interview, Feng talks of first being approached by Minghella and having to admit she’d never designed an opera. He admitted he’d never directed an opera before either, telling her ‘Let’s have fun’. Feng clearly has had fun, inspired, as she says, by the Japanese motif of peonies and rich patterns. There’s wit too. Nasty marriage broker Goro not only has an absurd headdress, but Feng gives him red polka dots on his robes. Similarly, she goes for an outrageous over-the-top aesthetic for the prince.

Levine’s set itself is relatively simple. Translucent panels, representing the walls of Cho-Cho-San’s house, slide back and forth to allow for a maximum of subtle changes of scene. The singers themselves are largely restricted to a flat plane in front of the house, but – in another marvellous piece of design – traditional bunraku puppeteers weave silently between them, largely invisible in their black robes against the black rear wall.

The excellent choreography is the work of Carolyn Choa who also directs this production. And what magical effects they create! Gorgeous floating lanterns are used to create a host of settings, including a wonderfully intimate space for the lovers as the lanterns cluster around them. There are pink petals and stars and, at one point, a flock of beautiful birds. Of human figures, puppets represent the other three silent servants in the house and, most appropriately of all, Cho-Cho-San’s little son is a puppet with a beautifully expressive face.

The four principal singers are marvellous. Two are making their Met debut: tenor Jonathan Tetelman looks every inch the handsome American Lieutenant Pinkerton, close-ups allowing us to see his sneering cynicism as he explains to Sharpless, the consul (a sympathetic Lucas Meachem), his philosophy that marriage to Butterfly is no more binding than his 999-year lease on the house, one he can break at a month’s notice. Elizabeth DeShong, mezzo-soprano, gives particular warmth and depth to the role of Suzuki.

Asmik Grigorian, also making her Met debut, is a thrilling Cio-Cio-San. Her voice, apart from one or two slight breaks, is rich and gorgeous and her stage presence is completely convincing. We can see real tears in her eyes as she settles down with her son during the humming chorus to await Pinkerton’s return.

The orchestra is conducted with great verve by Xian Zhang, Music Director of the New Jersey Symphony. In the interval, she talks inspiringly of Puccini’s use of Japanese motifs and, in particular, of his deliberate scoring for fewer instruments. This, Zhang says, makes the whole piece feel chamber-like and indeed the power of this production of Madama Butterfly lies in its extraordinary blend of the spectacular and the intimate.

Reviewed on 11 May 2024 and showing again in cinemas across the country this week

Glorious production

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