Meet the New Boss

Illustration by Paul WilloughbyPhoto: Ken Howard/Courtesy of Metropolitan Opera

J ust how nobly art and music will be served at Peter Gelb’s Metropolitan Opera over the coming years is impossible to predict, but one thing seems sure. The new general manager has already given the old lady’s starchy image a cheeky makeover, and he clearly means to tart her up some more. You saw the publicity blitz last week: a dress rehearsal of Madama Butterfly open to all, posters slapped up around the city, opening night shown to thousands on screens in Times Square and Lincoln Center Plaza, a new art gallery set up in the lobby, promises of satellite radio broadcasts and global television simulcasts, ambitious artistic plans for the next decade laid out in detail. The aloof old Met, which once deemed promotion unnecessary, has suddenly turned positively manic about reaching out and becoming user-friendly.

And the PR seems to be working. Even before it happened, Madama Butterfly was proclaimed by one news service as the most significant Met opening night since Rudolf Bing launched his long regime with a new production of Verdi’s Don Carlo way back in 1950. (I can dispute that, since I’ve been attending since those days. I remember some pretty exciting opening nights after that—Leonard Bernstein in 1972, conducting Göran Gentele’s posthumous new production of Carmen, stands out. But it’s certainly better than the more recent fashion of launching the season with a hodgepodge of operatic snippets.) Even in 1950, Mr. Bing, not yet Sir Rudolf, made a game attempt to play the populist when, de haut en bas, he haughtily served coffee to us shivering fans in the standee line.

Well, let’s not throw too much cold water on the beginning of what all opera lovers pray will be a new golden age. It’s been some time since a Met opening was considered the social and fashion event of the year, but a bit of that glamour and excitement was recaptured on this occasion as Jude Law, Naomi Watts, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins showed up for a Madama Butterfly staged by one of their colleagues, film director Anthony Minghella. Still, it must have been a long evening for those mainly interested in tracking high society. As for the rest of us—well, if Minghella’s singular approach to the opera divided critics in London, where this production premiered at the English National Opera last November, it’s likely to start even more fights here in New York.

This marked the 800th Met performance of Butterfly since the company’s first, in 1907, in the presence of the composer, and I’m betting that it will not be ranked among the more memorable. One sure sign of whether a Butterfly performance is grabbing an audience comes toward the end of Act Two, Scene One, when the poor abandoned girl sights Pinkerton’s ship steaming into the harbor and triumphantly sings, “He’s returning—and he loves me!” The climactic surge of the music, the soaring vocal line that so perfectly captures Butterfly’s pathetic self-delusion, and the sheer cathartic release of the moment seldom fail to inspire spontaneous applause over the music. Here it passed in stony silence, not because of a deeply moved or respectful audience but, it seems to me, entirely owing to the mechanical rigidity of Minghella’s theatrical concept and his failure to hear and show just how powerfully the music defines the characters.

Yes, the Japanese element of Butterfly is important and skillfully woven into the score, but the piece is still an Italian opera, not the ritualized Japanese drama that Minghella wants to force out of it. The director’s treatment of stage action and character is all style and surface, epitomized by the astonishing idea of presenting Trouble, the 2-year-old son of Butterfly and Pinkerton, as a Bunraku puppet. The puppet is cute as a button, and it’s ingeniously manipulated by three onstage hooded figures, but the device succeeds only in further diverting our attention from the dramatic situation and italicizing the mechanical artifice of the staging. The stiff interactions among the real-life characters are not much more convincing, and we lose touch with them and their problems almost the moment they appear. Han Feng’s colorful costumes, especially for the wedding scene in Act One, are drop-dead gorgeous, and Michael Levine’s evocative sets—an intricate design of sliding screens and a huge mirror above the stage—would grace any Butterfly, but the scenic beauty goes for very little in a production that so chillingly distances us from the opera’s basic humanity and red-blooded theatricality.

This naturally puts an extra burden on the Butterfly, who is seldom offstage and must express a huge range of emotions. Cristina Gallardo-Domâs hardly begins to meet the challenge. Perhaps she would make a less pallid impression in the role with different direction and singing in a smaller house, but at the Met her acting has little nuance, her soprano sounds underpowered and deficient in color, and, most fatal of all, the top of her voice consistently fails to bloom and effectively ride the crest of Puccini’s orchestral climaxes. Marcello Giordani, on the other hand, is luxury casting as Pinkerton; it’s a rare pleasure to hear an ardent-voiced Italian tenor of this quality sing his own language with such authority and musical taste. Other pluses include Maria Zifchak, an efficient Suzuki, and Dwayne Croft, a sympathetic Sharpless, two thankless roles often placed in fail-safe hands.

James Levine added another notch to his belt by presiding over his first Madama Butterfly at the Met. Although not the infallible genius he’s sometimes made out to be, Levine does have a special way with Puccini and his contemporaries, focusing on a generous amount of orchestral detail without sacrificing the overall arch and thrust of the melodic line. Even though the latter half of the opera was too lovingly dwelled upon and drawn out, it’s always salutary to hear a warhorse treated with this sort of care and respect. So much for the good news. If there was any weeping to be heard at the new Met on opening night, it was for a sorry distortion of Puccini’s intentions, not the searing tragedy of his favorite heroine. Poor Butterfly.

Madama Butterfly
Puccini. Metropolitan Opera. Through November 18.

Meet the New Boss