Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly, Live from the Met, Broadway Cinema, Nottingham, 2nd April 2016.
As a relative newcomer to opera I was excited to see the performance of Madam Butterfly, screened live from the Met, at our local cinema in Nottingham. I like Puccini’s operas – I enjoy the high levels of emotion, drama and excitement. This may reflect my inexperience in opera terms – but I don’t mind this – I like a good show. I have previously enjoyed a rousing performance of “The Girl from the Golden West” (Opera North in Nottingham), and this had raised the possibility in me that things do not always end badly in opera. My hunch was that would not be true tonight. I was also eager to see the impact that the sadly departed Anthony Minghella’s direction would have, and was hoping for broad cinematic scenes of controlled beauty to bring the feel of the English Patient back to me. I’m also a fan of Roberto Alagna, having seen him before in performances live from the Met (Tosca) and also in the flesh (Carmen – Covent Garden). He always seems to bring that superstar quality and add something extra to the piece.
The story most will know. In act one a young US Navy Officer called Pinkerton, who is exploring the world in many ways, falls rather easily and flippantly into marriage with a young Japanese girl (Cio-Cio-San) who takes the whole thing far more seriously. Pinkerton leaves pretty soon after the wedding to return home with the intention of settling down and getting a “proper” American wife. Act 2 finds Cio-Cio-San still waiting for her new husband to return after three years. She has a young child to care for and her husband’s honour to defend amongst her society. She displays great integrity in turning down offers of marriage to a local affluent man. Despite her young years and the lack of support from her husband and family Cio-Cio-San shows herself to be a woman of great substance and fortitude. In Act 3 (or the second part of act 2 depending on your view) Pinkerton returns with his American wife. Cio-Cio-San is initially excited by the return only to be emotionally destroyed by the realisation that Pinkerton has come with his American Wife. Distraught she agrees to hand over her 3-year-old son to the Pinkerton if he will come in person to collection the boy – after a moving last soliloquy she takes her own life. At this point Pinkerton bursts in calling her name and realises the terrible mistake he has made. He recognises the love he feels for Cio-Cio-San, and the stature of the woman he has abandoned and ends the opera a broken man.
In this performance the part of Cio-Cio-San is played by Kristine Opolais. It is a demanding and emotional role equiring great stamina. Her character is only offstage for brief periods of the whole piece, and she is put through a roller-coaster of emotions in a short time period. Opolais pulls this off seemingly effortlessly, and with an elegance and purity that is deeply memorable. For me this was singing and acting of the highest level and I think the best Soprano lead I have seen to date. Roberto Alagna was, as anticipated, a superstar. He is so watchable and always gives everything possible to the performance. He tried intently to avoid portraying Pinkerton as just a cad – and sought and managed to persuade me that he was a young and perhaps foolish young man starting out in his life who did not think through his actions clearly. The scene where he realises his love for Cio-Cio-San, and his tragic mistake, is deeply moving.
The main supporting roles are Dwayne Croft as Sharples – the Amercian Consul – and Maria Zifchak as Cio-Cio-San’s maid Suzuki. Both contribute strongly to the performance. Croft shows concern for all and is convincing as a diplomat who cares for both locals and expats. Zifchak is absorbing as the maternal housemaid that we would all like to have look after us. The singing and acting from both was excellent.
The scenery is simple and effective and beautiful. Helped by fantastic lighting and attention to detail I was left wanting to see this opera live. That I think is the thing with screened opera – you nearly always end up wishing you were really there. This disappointment is lessened in part by the informative commentary at the intervals. I always feel for the singers being interviewed straight after an emotional scene – rather like Andy Murray after a Wimbledon final one can’t expect to much really. I was impressed however by Zifchak and Croft who spoke movingly about working with Minghella and their obsession with honouring his memory by trying to follow his directions as closely as possible – this gave a sense of the gravitas of the man who directed the performance. The interview with the puppeteers and the links back to Banraku were also informative.
One minor downside for me was the camera work which was just a bit too frenetic. There was a bit too much in the way of rapid changes and close up work for me and it felt rather as though the director of the filming was carried away by all the emotion. I found myself wanting less frequent changes and fewer close ups.
So in the end this was a thoroughly memorable evening of high emotion, drama and beauty. The breadth that Opolais and Alagna borught to their characters produced something that was far more complex that a simple love story gone wrong. The scenery and the puppet work were stunning. The dance puppet scene at the start of act three was beautiful, and ensured that emotions were running high even at the start of this moving ran scene. This was a memorable evening and I would like very much to see this production again live – it was all I was hoping for and quite a bit more.