Anthony Minghella’s Breathtaking Production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly on Great Performances at the Met Friday, August 19 at 9 p.m. on PBS

The late Anthony Minghella‘s critically acclaimed production of Puccini’s classic Madama Butterfly comes to THIRTEEN’S Great Performances at the Met Friday, August 19 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings).

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Great Performances at the Met, courtesy: WNET New York Public Media. (PRNewsFoto/WNET New York Public Media)

Kristine Opolais brings her heartbreaking interpretation of the title role to the series for the first time. Roberto Alagna sings Lieutenant Pinkerton, the callous officer who crushes Butterfly’s dreams of love. Debuting conductor Karel Mark Chichon leads a cast that also includes Maria Zifchak as Suzuki and Dwayne Croft as Sharpless.

The opera is based in part on the 1898 short story “Madame Butterfly” by John Luther Long, which had its genesis in Pierre Loti’s 1887 French novel Madame Chrysanthème. Long’s version was dramatized by David Belasco as the extremely popular one-act play, Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan, which premiered in 1900 in New York. Puccini first saw it London later that year.

The opera had its World premiere at Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1904, and premiered at the Met on February 11, 1907. That year, Giacomo Puccini came to the United States for the first time for the Met premiere of Madama Butterfly. Geraldine Farrar sang the title role, and her 139 appearances in this opera remain a Met record. While in New York, Puccini attended a Broadway performance of Belasco’s play The Girl of the Golden West, which would become the basis for his next opera.

The title character of Madama Butterfly — a young Japanese geisha who clings to the belief that her arrangement with a visiting American naval officer is a loving and permanent marriage — is one of the defining roles in opera. The story triggers ideas about cultural and sexual imperialism for people far removed from the opera house, and film, Broadway, and popular culture in general have continue to riff endlessly on it. The lyric beauty of Puccini’s score, especially the music for the thoroughly believable lead role, has made Butterfly timeless.

Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924) was immensely popular in his own lifetime, and his mature works remain staples in the repertory of most of the world’s opera companies. His librettists for Madama Butterfly, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, had also collaborated with the composer on his previous two operas, Tosca and La Bohème. Giacosa, a dramatist, was responsible for the stories and Illica, a poet, worked primarily on the words themselves.

Puccini achieved a new level of sophistication with his use of the orchestra in this score, with subtle colorings and sonorities throughout. But the opera rests squarely on the performer of the title role: on stage for most of the time, Cio-Cio-San is the only character that experiences true (and tragic) development. The singer must convey a complex array of emotions and characteristics, from ethereal to fleshly to intelligent to dreamy-bordering-on-insane, to resigned in the final scene.

The opera takes place in the Japanese port city of Nagasaki at the turn of the last century, at a time of expanding American international presence. Japan was hesitantly defining its global role, and Nagasaki was one of the country’s few ports open to foreign ships. Temporary marriages for foreign sailors were not unusual.

Reviewing the present production, The New York Times raved, “Ms. Opolais’s voluptuous, expressive voice soared over Puccini’s dense orchestration, and there were riveting moments in her portrayal.”

The New York Observer noted, “This jewel of understated direction and sleekly minimal design ennobles the familiar narrative, elevating the melodramatic story of a Japanese child bride abandoned by her American husband to a poignant tragedy…” and praised Opolais as “a bold artist, the kind of singer who makes attending the opera a transformative pleasure.”

New York Classical Review opined, “[Kristine Opolais] had a tremendous partner in Alagna, who was at his absolute best as Pinkerton, unleashing his signature bright power and focus…His singing was a thrill to hear, and his characterization of the American Lieutenant was intricately layered.

Tenor Matthew Polenzani hosts the broadcast.

Madama Butterfly was originally seen live in movie theaters on April 2 as part of the groundbreaking The Met: Live in HD series, which transmits live performances to more than 2,000 movie theaters and performing arts centers in over 70 countries around the world. The Live in HD series has reached a record-breaking 20 million viewers since its inception in 2006.

The story triggers ideas about cultural and sexual imperialism for people far removed from the opera house, and film, Broadway, and popular culture in general have riffed endlessly on it. The lyric beauty of Puccini’s score, especially the music for the thoroughly believable lead role, has made Butterfly timeless.

ACT I: Japan, early 20th century. Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton of the U.S. Navy inspects a house overlooking Nagasaki harbor that he is leasing from Goro, a marriage broker, who has also arranged his union with a young geisha named Cio-Cio-San, known as Madame Butterfly. The American consul Sharpless arrives for the wedding ceremony and Pinkerton describes to him his philosophy of the fearless Yankee roaming the world in search of experience and pleasure. He is not sure whether his feelings for the young girl are love or a whim, but he intends to go through with the wedding. Sharpless warns him that the girl may view the marriage more seriously, but Pinkerton brushes off his concerns and declares that someday he will take a real, American wife. Butterfly is heard climbing the hill with her friends. In casual conversation after the formal introduction, Butterfly admits her age, 15, and explains that her family was once prominent but lost its position, and she has had to earn her living as a geisha. Her relatives arrive and chatter about the marriage. Cio-Cio-San shows Pinkerton her few possessions and quietly tells him she has been to the Christian mission to convert to her husband’s religion. The Imperial Commissioner reads the marriage agreement, and the relatives congratulate the couple. Suddenly, a threatening voice is heard from afar—it is the Bonze, Butterfly’s uncle, a priest. He curses the girl for rejecting her ancestral religion. Pinkerton orders everyone to leave, and as they go the Bonze and the shocked relatives denounce Cio-Cio-San. Pinkerton tries to console Butterfly with sweet words. She is helped by Suzuki into her wedding kimono, and joins Pinkerton in the garden, where they make love.

ACT II—PART 1: Three years have passed, and Cio-Cio-San awaits her husband’s return. Suzuki prays for help, but Butterfly berates her for believing in Japanese gods rather than in Pinkerton’s promise to return one day. Sharpless appears with a letter from Pinkerton, but before he can read it to Butterfly, Goro arrives with the latest potential husband for Butterfly, the wealthy Prince Yamadori. Butterfly politely serves the guests tea but insists she is not available for marriage—her American husband has not deserted her. She dismisses Goro and Yamadori. Sharpless attempts to read Pinkerton’s letter but is repeatedly interrupted by Butterfly in her excitement to hear from her husband. Finally giving up, he asks her what she would do if Pinkerton never returned. The shocked Butterfly replies she would either become a geisha again, or better die. Sharpless, resigned, suggests that perhaps she should reconsider Yamadori’s offer. Butterfly is outraged and runs out, returning with her small son. Sharpless, too upset to tell her more of the letter’s contents, leaves, promising to tell Pinkerton of the child. A cannon shot is heard in the harbor announcing the arrival of a ship. Butterfly and Suzuki take a telescope to the terrace and read the name of Pinkerton’s ship. Overjoyed, Butterfly joins Suzuki in strewing the house with flowers. As night falls, Butterfly, Suzuki, and the child settle into a vigil watching over the harbor.

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ACT II—PART 2: Dawn breaks, and Suzuki insists that Butterfly get some sleep. Butterfly carries the child into another room. Sharpless appears with Pinkerton and Kate, Pinkerton’s new wife. Suzuki realizes who the American woman is and agrees to help break the news to Butterfly. Pinkerton is overcome with guilt as he remembers his days in the house and runs from the scene. Cio-Cio-San rushes in hoping to find Pinkerton, but sees Kate instead. After a moment, she grasps the situation. Now left without hope, she agrees to give up the child but insists Pinkerton return for him. She dismisses everyone and takes out the dagger with which her father committed suicide, choosing to die with honor rather than live in shame. She is interrupted momentarily when her son comes running in. After saying an emotional goodbye she blindfolds the child. Then she stabs herself as Pinkerton is heard from outside calling her name.

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