(Photo : Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)
Kristine Opolais is one of the most prominent rising stars in the opera and continued to prove her place among opera's elite on Friday April 5 in Puccini's "Madama Butterfly." The Latvian soprano made a terrific debut at the Met Opera last season in Puccini's "La Rondine," but even that terrific run of performances could not prepare the audience for the breath-taking turn that she would showcase in her first Met Butterfly.
The role is known for its massive vocal demands on the soprano. Butterfly enters the stage midway through the first act and does not stop singing until half-way throughout the third act (often referred to Act 2 part 2). However, even that break is little more than a quarter-hour breather because once she returns to the stage, she has arguably the most dramatic moment to pull off in the entire work. Many sopranos are completely drained by the time the work comes to its close, but Opolais, who admits to feeling fresher at the end of a performance, seemed to find another level as the night progressed. That isn't to say that her start was not great. Far from it. From the opening note, the soprano provided a visceral and arresting portrayal of the sweet girl who not only loses her innocence, but takes her life.
During her entrance, her slow, hunched walk personified the humble and shy Butterfly; it also gave her a rather tragic dimension of a character already at a low point. And sure enough, the character, despite her innocence, is being sold into marriage and admits to knowing poverty really well. Interestingly, Opolais' potent voice suggested the excitement and passion of the character despite the circumstance, expressing the seeming hope that the character initially clings to. During the apex of the entrance, her voice rose to a powerful high D flat on the words "al richiamo d'amor" that was full of intensity; right from this note the tragedy was already set in motion. In the ensuing scene, her Butterfly sat on the floor, almost like a servant and started to share possession with Pinkerton; particularly revealing was the fact that Opolais' Butterfly sang with delicate and subdued tone and did not really look at Pinkerton. Was she shy or was it also a sense of fear? While she did smile at times, there was seriousness to the portrayal that supported the notion of the latter and even during the famed love duet, her decisions to run away from him also suggested a growing fear. She unleashed her massive voice to its full potential throughout the opening lines, unleashing Cio Cio San's passion; there could be no doubt that her portrayal of the character was unrelenting in her emotionality. But the tragic sense continued even on lines such as "Or son contenta" which had a gravity to them; these contrasted greatly with her sweetened voice as she prepared her relatives to bow for Pinkerton and counted to three. Her "Vogliateme bene" was sung with more hushed tones, but had a pleading quality to it that heightened the character's sense of loneliness. As this lush melody developed her voice rose in intensity; the final "fonda come il ciel, come l'onda del mare" surged out of the ritenuto on the previous phrase and was full of hopeful longing. Her singing took an even more tragic complexion when she protested the name "Butterfly;" the voice showcased a rough edge filled with aggression that she would use to even more powerful effect in the final act.
The second act makes or breaks any Butterfly; Opolais elevated her performance to a truly wondrous dimension. She was riveting from the very first entrance to the final chord; it is essential to note that her performance was fully involved throughout the entire night, but it was at its most absorbing in this particular act. As the current rose, she sat by a table, took up a flower and offered it to her beloved Pinkerton. A screen moved across the stage and once it passed him, he was no longer there. The expression on Opolais' face was unforgettable in its deep sorrow; it would not leave her face for the remainder of the night; it was clear that unlike other portrayals, her Cio Cio San was aware of the truth but would do anything possible to convince herself that she was wrong. Prior to her famous "Un Bel Di Vedremo" she scolded Suzuki with aggression, but slowly calmed to a more pleading tone; she almost seemed to be convincing herself that she was right rather than truly believing in Pinkerton's return. The famous "Un Bel Di Vedremo" was mournful; there was tremendous sadness from the opening note that pervaded the entire aria. She caressed the phrases "Euscito dala folla citta" and her voice created a gradual diminuendo during the ensuing "Chi sara?" At "E un po'per non morire" the voice burst out with intensity that would gradually crescendo all the way up until the climactic B flat on "l'aspetto" that rang through the passionate orchestra.
During the scene with Sharpless, she resurrected some of the childishness from the first act; as she spoke about divorce in the United States she stood behind Sharpless and pretended to be a stern judge with a stern vocal color. Then she switched positions and became a plaintiff; she gave this impersonation a humorously nasal vocalization. But this moment was a brief respite for the more tragic moments about to unfold. She walked up to the suitor Yamadori and stared him down. Even as he melted in front of her and pleaded with his face, she remained stern and even a bit vicious. The moment the puppet child came out, Opolais clung to it with all her might. As she narrated the story of her dishonor to her child ("Che tua madre dovra prenderti in braccia"), her delivery was the equivalent of vocal weeping; the intensity crescendoed throughout the passage until her voice melted into a sobbing "Morta" on two low A flats. Opolais' pain only grew as the act developed further. As she looked out into the ocean to see the ship arrive, she was unsteady and needed Suzuki to hold her. And even when she realized that Pinkerton's ship had arrived, she fretted about and looked distraught; it was as if her greatest fear, not her great dream, had come to life and each declamation of "Il nome" had more anxiety than the previous one. The ensuing "flower duet" between Suzuki and Cio Cio San is usually filled with excitement and cheerfulness, but Opolais never cracked a smile; neither did her Suzuki. Instead the scene had a sense of dread underneath the seeming joy. At the very end of the Act, Cio Cio San, her son and Suzuki kneel and pray while a humming chorus takes over. Even here, Opolais' inner life was on full display through her physicality. She seemed restless, constantly looking at the child; at one moment she stretched out her hand to Suzuki seemingly seeking support. At the end of the scene, as the child rested its head on her, she looked at it with tremendous sadness.
As the curtain rose on the first Act, Opolais' Cio Cio San remained in the same position as she was at the end of the second; despite the fact that she was now on stage right instead of left, it felt as if she had not moved from her initial position. Throughout the opening intermezzo she watched the birds fly with the baby, always looking on at her child with a beautiful tenderness. As she walked off stage holding him ("Dormi amor mio") her voice was filled with gentleness that seemed to have a serenity to it that had not been present throughout the rest of the evening; Cio Cio San is only at piece with her child.
Her final scene was a masterful portrayal of pure pain and suffering. The moment she noticed Kate Pinkerton, she remained fixed as she looked over at Suzuki and implored her to tell her the truth. She got a bit impatient and shouted at her companion with the aforementioned aggression; this time it was full-fledged rage that took over. In the final scene with Suzuki, she sent off her friend with similar aggression; as she turned her back on her to push her out, her hands went from being rigid to slowly sliding down the doors with pained expression. Suddenly she pushed the doors out of the way and disappeared into the darkness. She re-emerged with a sense of purpose and ready to kill herself, but the arrival of her son destroyed her. Opolais' Cio Cio San put her hands in front of her son to block him out of her sight; she could not bear to look at him knowing full well what would happened to both of them. Her delivery of the line "Con onor muore chi no puo serbar vita con onore," she sang with a rather hushed resigned quality but her voice was at its most profoundly riveting throughout the final "Tu? Tu?" The final "Gioca" was delivered as a muted cry. In her final moments, Opolais stabbed herself in the neck and remained in the same position for a rather lengthy time; the death was a brutally lengthy one and her pained facial expression emphasized the physical and emotional pain that she was feeling in those final moments. It was truly unforgettable.
Maria Zifchak was heart-wrenching as Suzuki. In her opening scene she seemed a bit clumsy as she constantly went back to speak with Pinkerton and Sharpless but as the night developed, she seemed to mature into a more motherly role for Opolais' Butterfly. Her voice maintained a rather stern look that became increasingly distraught and pained as the story developed; this matched the disillusioned portrayal of Opolais' Cio Cio San. She held Opolais' Butterfly tightly during the final moments of Act 2 Part 1 and was completely destroyed when she discovered Kate Pinkerton in the "garden." In the moments prior to that, she walked about aggressively demanding to know who she was ("Chi e?") and then her voice erupted with pain on "Alla Picina e spento il sol." In her final moments with Butterfly, she seemed to plead with her to let her stay; she seemed to know exactly what would happen next and wanted to make the final intent to stop it from happening.
Dwayne Croft is well-known for his portrayal of Sharpless and he gave a highly sympathetic portrayal here. Even when Pinkerton joked around in the early scenes, he seemed as if he was only half-listening. He knew that his comrade was making the wrong move and even seemed to try to dissuade him from his actions. During the scenes with Cio Cio San in Act 2, Croft's Sharpless was full of remorse. He remained fixed for most of this scene, an exemplary portrayal of his feeling of powerless and guilt. During the final act, he poignantly scolded and guilted Pinkerton, particularly during "Non ve l'avevo ditto?"
Tenor James Valenti sports movie star looks and an athletic physique, but proved to be the big disappointment in his return to the Met Opera. His tenor has a baritonal edge in its middle and low register and his phrasing overall has a polish and elegance to it. This suited the macho and self-assured quality of Pinkerton, but the problems really resided in his upper register. His voice thinned out at the top and seemed to lack any heft or resonance; it sounded hollow and was easily shutout by every single orchestral climax. Nowhere was this more present than during the confrontation between Pinkerton and the Bonze in which Pinkerton kicks out his adversary. In the score, the tenor has ferocious high notes over a rather potent orchestral accompaniment. Valenti was barely audible and seemed to be pushing his voice uncomfortably in this moment. He also came in late in an entrance during the famed love duet and was constantly drowned out by the lush voice of Kristine Opolais.
His stage presence also seemed a bit cautious. The tenor's face is extremely expressive, particularly in the opening scene when Butterfly admitted to renouncing her culture for him; in this moment his face was filled with remorse and guilt and he could not look at the young Butterfly. However, he looked a bit stiff overall and spent the majority of his time looking over conductor Marco Armiliato; this may have been the result of nerves and staging the production for the very first time in the theater.
That is not to say that his singing lacked quality. Pinkerton is completely absent in Act 2, but makes a major return in the final Act with his famed aria "Addio, fiorito asil." From his first entrance in this act, Valenti seemed more assured vocally and his high notes resonated more potently. His singing in the famed aria had a passion and intensity that seemed lacking in the first act.
At 36-years of age, Valenti still has time to grow; he definitely has the tools and it will be interesting to see how he develops as an artist in coming years.
Conductor Marco Armiliato led a tentative performance throughout. The opening of the entire work, with its fugue-like figure, seemed a bit sloppy at times. He unleashed the orchestra with abandon throughout the night, but managed to completely overpower his singers at some select moments in the first act. Croft and Valenti were completely inaudible during spurts of their opening dialogue. Armiliato reined in the orchestral forces during the love duet, but the effect was a bit anti-climactic and a bit passionless; the apotheosis was nowhere to be found. One might argue that there is no apotheosis considering the fact that the love is false and non-existent from Pinkerton's perspective; at the same time it would be hard to imagine that Puccini wrote those explosive, passionate melodies with this intention in mind. The conductor seemed more comfortable during the second act; he and Opolais had a terrific synergy throughout her solos and the orchestra matched her breathtaking climaxes with the same level of intensity. The coda of the entire work, with its foreboding final dissonance was beautifully painful to endure.
The late Anthony Minghella directed the current production, which is one of the finest artistic achievements on the Met stage throughout general manager Peter Gelb's tenure. The production is seemingly minimalist in its execution, but is actual quite elaborate in its setup. As the curtain rises, the entire theater is pitch black save for two men on the opposite sides of the stage rising a curtain. A geisha appears upstage in silhouette and starts to dance about. The orchestral prelude, with its rigid and menacing rhythms, starts to play throughout the dance. Slowly the stage starts to form and a series of sliding doors appear onstage. As they pass from one side to the other, they seemingly leave chairs and other decorations in their wake. In this context, the sliding door has a magical effect that plays into Minghella's conception of the work as a fantasy of Butterfly's mind. Butterfly's arrival upstage has an angelic quality about it as the brilliant colors from the wardrobe of the other women around her make it seem like a fairytale. The most magical moment of the act is the end of the act in which the love duet transcends the "real world" completely; orbs of light and bead curtains appear onstage. The orbs move about with the action, accentuating the dream-like state of the love duet; this draws special attention to the artifice of Butterfly's dream existence. The second act begins with the aforementioned moment in which a slide door steals away Pinkerton from Butterfly; it makes the viewer feel as if he was never there to begin with but was simply a figment of her imagination. This scene seems to be the most direct in its staging. The characters are the emphasis here and the stage effects are intermittent at best; the choices here are extremely effective, especially considering the fact that most of this act narrates Butterflies struggle to convince others that her dream is REAL and not artifice. The only main artificial creation in this scene is the child itself with is a Bunraku puppet controlled by three "invisible" people/spirits. The child is a wondrous creation as it blends the line between the reality and fantasy of Butterfly's existence. The movements and reactions are extremely believable, but at the same time the viewer is constantly confronted with the reality that this baby is not real.
The third act brings back the fantasy with a vengeance; from the get-go, puppets dominate the stage throughout the intermezzo that played more like a dream sequence that eventually blurred into reality. A dancer dressed as a soldier appears to interact with a puppet version of Butterfly; a rather potent subversion of the story and the fantasy element. Is Butterfly coming to terms with Pinkerton's manipulation of her? Moments later puppet birds appear onstage and the real Butterfly and her puppet baby are watching them fly by. At what point does the dream end and reality begin? Or more important, are they one and the same? In the final moments of the act, the stage becomes completely engulfed in black, like the beginning, and the main character prepares her suicide. Has it all been a flashback with some aggregations from Butterfly's consciousness? The final death is beautifully choreographed as red silks from her dress are stretched out like blood flooding across the stage; even in that final haunting moment the reality has a fantastical element to it.
It is interesting to note that Opolais' less delusion approach to the role actually created an interesting contrast with the overall trappings of the production. In the context of her interpretation, the enhanced fantastical elements of the production actually emphasized the characters' attempts to believe her own delusions despite feeling in her gut that she is completely wrong. Furthermore, Opolais aggressive interaction with some of the props at major moments only enhanced her conflict between the real world and the fantastical one she is using to protect her fragile mind.
Opolais has four more performances of the role at the Met this season and there should be no doubt that like her sensational performance on Friday, she will only get better and better as the run progresses. Her Butterfly is arguably one of the best of modern times and will leave the viewer emotionally exhausted due to its visceral nature. Anthony Minghella's glorious production, which is usually one of the main draws for a revival of this wonderful work, is the icing on the cake.