Friday, March 25, 2016

Madama Butterfly


Ana María Martínez and Robert De Biasio in “Madama Butterfly.” CreditMarty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Half an hour of intermission separates the first and second acts of Puccini’s“Madama Butterfly” at the Metropolitan Opera. But in the libretto that gap covers three years of suffering for the title character, a betrayed young geisha waiting in vain for the return of her American husband.
The soprano Ana María Martínez, appearing in her first leading role at the Met on Friday, made you disbelieve your watch. Yes, you’d returned to your seat after just 30 minutes, but in that time years seemed to have gone by onstage. Ms. Martínez’s Butterfly had transformed, in both manner and sound, from a demure, besotted girl to a weary, hardened woman. She seemed, quite simply, to have aged.
It was a bit of theatrical magic in a beautiful performance: modest and delicate, yet rising to glimpses of the epic in her final aria of self-sacrifice. (She would do well to drop a single false note: a cartoonish moment of pummeling Sharpless, the American consul, with her fists.) While Ms. Martínez’s voice has a low, dark center of gravity that makes the more conversational passages of the score really speak, once she had settled into her upper register, her high notes came out like Butterfly herself: reserved yet movingly clear.
Her artful restraint was matched by those around her, including the conductor Karel Mark Chichon, who made his company debut with a performance that kept the drama flowing inexorably forward, cutting the saccharine without stinting on Puccini’s lushness. Another new Met artist, the baritone Artur Rucinski, sang Sharpless with an easy, mellow tone, if also a blandness that made too little of this crucial, conflicted character.
Roberto De Biasio’s soft-focus tenor made the caddish Pinkerton a mild, ineffectual presence. The mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak, who reigns in New York as Suzuki, Butterfly’s maid, was, as ever, dependably affecting in Anthony Minghella’s vivid production, one of the triumphs of the Met’s past decade.
But it was Ms. Martínez’s evening. Now in her mid-40s, she has had an active career, but not at the Met. She appeared as Micaela in a 2005 run of “Carmen,” then disappeared until a few months ago, when she played Musetta in “La Bohème.”
She wasn’t originally scheduled for Butterfly, one of her signature roles, but jumped into the first two performances — the second is on Monday evening — as a replacement for the ill Met veteran Hei-Kyung Hong. It would be wonderful to see Ms. Martínez on the company’s roster more often.

[Met Performance] CID:356400 

Madama Butterfly {864}
Metropolitan Opera House; 03/25/2016

Giacomo Puccini--Giuseppe Giacosa/Luigi Illica

Cio-Cio-San.............Kristine Opolais
Pinkerton...............Roberto Alagna
Suzuki..................Maria Zifchak
Sharpless...............Dwayne Croft
Goro....................Tony Stevenson
Bonze...................Stefan Szkafarowsky
Yamadori................Yunpeng Wang
Kate Pinkerton..........Edyta Kulczak
Commissioner............David Crawford
Yakuside................Craig Montgomery
Mother..................Belinda Oswald
Aunt....................Jean Braham
Cousin..................Patricia Steiner
Registrar...............Juhwan Lee
Dancer..................Hsin-Ping Chang
Dancer..................James Graber
Cio-Cio-San's Child 
(Puppet)................Kevin Augustine, Tom Lee, Marc Petrosino

Conductor...............Karel Mark Chichon

Production..............Anthony Minghella 
Choreographer...........Carolyn Choa 
Set Designer............Michael Levine 
Costume Designer........Han Feng 
Lighting Designer.......Peter Mumford 
Puppetry................Blind Summit Theatre

Madama Butterfly is a co-production with English National Opera and the Lithuanian National Opera

Spread Your Wings and Fly: Madama Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera

 02/22/2016 03:47 pm ET | Updated Feb 22, 2016

Whether or not it was because of Giacomo Puccini‘s tuneful and heart-wrenching score, New York Fashion Week, or the first outing of soprano Ana Maria Martínez, a singer curiously absent from the Met, in a prima donna role, the Metropolitan Opera was jam-packed for the premiere of Madama Butterfly on Friday, February 19th.
Zifchak and Martinez
Most opera fans are familiar with Puccini’s drama about a Japanese geisha who is disappointed and humiliated when Pinkerton, the U.S. Naval officer she married and believed to be faithful, returns from a three-year absence with a new wife to retrieve the child Pinkerton and Butterfly had together. Stripped of her honor, Butterfly then kills herself with a ceremonial dagger. Replete with “Asian” motifs and intense demands from the singers and orchestra, Butterfly is especially difficult to execute for such a core work of the standard repertoire. This run of performances at the Met (13 in total) was originally supposed to feature Patricia Racette andKristine Opolais as Butterfly, but because of a series of repertoire changes and illnesses, Racette’s performances bounced from her to Hei Kyung Hong (who steps into the kimono starting February 27th) to Ana Maria Martínez for only two performances.
Martínez possesses an ample, amber-colored voice with a resonant, grainy middle, and she uses it with intelligence and security. However, her high notes have the tendency to fade away, and on Friday, she just couldn’t get to the musical climaxes, the high notes, at the heart of all of Butterfly’s arias, even despite smart and sensitive phrasing choices throughout. It’s not that the high notes aren’t there, but that there is little force behind the upper register compared to the thrust in the rest of the voice. Other high notes, though, defied this tendency and were spun into dazzling pianissimi. Martínez’s Butterfly was refreshingly reserved at the beginning of the opera, and slowly descended into desperation throughout. She wasn’t naïve, but an inevitable victim of a society that objectifies women. And by the end, when Butterfly is faced with dishonor and suicide is the only option, it still feels like a conscious choice. Martínez is light on her feet and hard to take your eyes off of. She played well with the other singers and was able to easily and gracefully negotiate the raked stage in the gorgeous but obviously-cumbersome kimono she wears for much of the opera. Butterfly, though well-executed by her in almost every category, just might not be the perfect fit for her voice.
As Pinkerton, Roberto De Biasio hammed it up as a playful playboy and was more or less unmemorable. The voice is slender and a size or two too small for the Met, and he struggled to distinguish himself in any of the ensembles. Both his arias were muscled through, and though not for lack of trying, he seemed mismatched with Martínez’s much more assured Butterfly.
Artur Rucinski, a baritone with a serviceable voice who made his Met debut on Friday, gave a performance that suffered from both a lack of line and garbled diction as Sharpless, the American Consul. Maria Zifchak, a stalwart Suzuki, may be showing signs of a wobble, but she is still one of the few Met artists that consistently delivers with a gleaming voice and warm stage presence.
Martinez and Rucinski
Karel Mark Chicon, also in his Met debut, conducted with uniformly brisk tempi, and though he was able to emphasize the drama in Puccini’s inherently dramatic score, the singers and chorus seemed frequently stranded and searching as the opera relentlessly surged on.
Anthony Minghella‘s production, now ten years old, is still an intelligent staging that gives the music every opportunity to shine. It’s also singer-friendly - there is room for singers to put their mark on the characters. Michael Levine‘s sets are spare and evocative, Han Feng‘s costumes are detailed and striking, and Peter Mumford‘s lighting is just phenomenal. Blind Summit Theatre provides the puppets, one of which stands in for Butterfly’s son, Trouble. After ten years, audiences seem to be finally acclimated to this initially arresting but ultimately effective innovation.
Martinez and De Biasio
Martínez performs the title role one more time on Monday, and then Hei Kyung Hong, singing Butterfly for the first time in her long career, takes over the part until March 5th. Kristine Opolais steps in for the remaining performances and the run ends April 12th. Other singers to join the cast are Gwyn Hughes Jones andRoberto Alagna as Pinkerton and Dwayne Croft as Sharpless. Tickets availablehere.
Photos by Marty Sohl

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