By Edward Kliszus

This review of Madama Butterfly at Lincoln Center continues my look at the Metropolitan Opera 2022 season productions, including Don Carlos and Ariadne Auf Naxos.

Puccini – The Man

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) wrote to a friend, “Almighty God touched me with his little finger and said, ‘Write for the theater—mind, only for the theater.’ And I have obeyed the supreme command.” He described himself as “a mighty hunter of wild fowl, opera librettos, and attractive women.” He was a fastidious dresser, well-groomed, aristocratic, rather tall, handsome, and urbane.

Giacomo Puccini, 1908, Library of Congress

Giacomo Puccini, 1908, Library of Congress

We know him as the composer of three of the most popular operas ever written, Tosca, La Boheme, and Madama Butterfly. With these productions, he achieved great wealth and notoriety. A bon vivant, he loved poker, fast boats, cars, and women.

Puccini is frequently linked to the brief (1890s) verismo period of opera, featuring a type of realism with characters in contemporary garb, plots with ordinary people, depictions of violence, and musical expressions of stark emotion. During this period, his developed style stood out, containing minimal gore and rumbling. Puccini can be described as the Italian Jules Massenet, French composer of Manon and Werther. Puccini emerged from this era with a grander, more expressive, more sophisticated melodic instinct and drama sensitivity than his peers. His melodies are everlasting and draw robust audience reactions.

Puccini’s women are all too human; Madama Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San) represents all women who have loved unselfishly.

Developing his Asian tinte (atmosphere), Puccini incorporated Japanese and Chinese folk songs into his score. Pentatonic scales abound. He quoted the Japanese national anthem and used Japanese gongs to accentuate dramatic points in the story. He cited portions of the Star-Spangled Banner to represent the American Pinkerton. These musical constructs are juxtaposed, creating tensions that exemplify a tragic clash of cultures.

Dramatic, romantic, musical vocal lines frequently ascend to the extended ranges of the singers. This provides dramatic power and displays the singer’s ability to demonstrate the color, beauty, and facility of their upper tessitura as they express the vital meaning of the text. Provided here is a chart of American Standard Pitch Designations, helping the reader understand the concept of a “high C” and more. Middle C on the piano is C4; each successive octave is numbered C5, C6, C7, etc.

American Standard Pitch Designation. Public Domain

American Standard Pitch Designation. Public Domain

The Plot

In a nutshell, American naval officer Lt. B. F. Pinkerton rents a small house in Nagasaki, intent on getting to know many ladies on different shores. He falls in love with a young, beautiful, and innocent Japanese girl, Cio-Cio-San (Madama Butterfly), and they marry. He boards his ship and leaves for three years. She pines for him, abandons her religion, and remains loyal despite amorous advances by Prince Yamadori. While Pinkerton is away, Cio-Cio-San bears their son, of whom Pinkerton knows nothing. Pinkerton has relied on Japanese law that considers abandonment a divorce, thereby freeing her and him to remarry. He returns with his new American wife, Kate, to see Cio-Cio-San and inform her of his status. He meets the boy and requests that the child return to America with him and his American wife. Cio-Cio-San agrees and commits suicide.

The Production

The stage was raised to reveal a shimmering, scarlet scene with the ceiling and backstage wall reflections that provided multi-dimensional views of the settings and players throughout the opera. In this production by Anthony Minghella, set designs by Michael Levine, choreography by Carolyn Choa, lighting design by Peter Mumford, costume design by Han Feng, and puppetry by Blind Summit Theatre were collectively breathtaking. From the moment lights dimmed and the curtain raised, we saw Puccini’s vision and entered his artistic world, thoroughly suspending our disbelief to participate in a story of sublime creative beauty, poignancy, and tragedy.

Conducted by Alexander Soddy, the orchestra began with a brief overture with its busy four-part fugato depicting Pinkerton’s exciting arrival at his new home. After the first call of the Star-Spangled Banner leitmotiv, Puccini reveals his first rich, lovely melody, Dovunque al mondo (Throughout the world), expressing Lt. B. F. Pinkerton’s wandering nature as a young American sailor, a foreshadowing of betrayal to come. This provided a preview of Brian Jagde’s magnificent tenore spinto voice.

While audiences love it, it’s not just about singing sustained high notes for dramatic effect; Puccini stretches time and develops a context that logically and ultimately leads to climactic vocal utterances. These moments are choreographed for dramatic power, irony, and a transitory sense of closure.

Original 1904 poster by Adolfo Hohenstein

Original 1904 poster by Adolfo Hohenstein

Pinkerton is bewitched by Cio-Cio-San (lyric soprano Eleonora Buratto), likening her to a fluttering butterfly. In Amore o grillo (Love or Fancy), Jagde effortlessly ascends to his first, soaring tenuto high Bb (Bb5).

Pinkerton’s vocal badinage with American Consul Sharpless (David Bizic) is marvelous. With his rich, consistently expressive baritone voice, Bizic portrays Sharpless as the virtuous conscience of the opera, frequently counseling Pinkerton on the serious nature and obligations of marrying the innocent Cio-Cio-San. Reflecting on his marriage plans, Pinkerton expresses but a verisimilitude of commitment. Pinkerton is the voluptuary, Sharpless, the man of kind, patient rectitude.

Filled with hope, Cio-Cio-San expresses her joy in Ancora un passo (One Step More) with magnificent melodic verse accompanied by choir, strings, and harp. Buratto’s breathtaking, sumptuous high Db (Db6) filled the concert hall with rapturous grandeur.

Puccini continues with an extended exordium of beautiful, reflective, elegiac melody and sublime expressions of love and hope. Bimba, non piangere (Sweetheart, sweetheart, do not weep) launches a love duet with Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San, leading to the dramatic, poignant dénouement of Act I. The duet culminates with the amorous, intense Vogliatemi bene (Love me, please). Portentous prose indeed, she asks “whether in foreign lands a man will catch a butterfly and pin its wings to a table.” The ever-meretricious Pinkerton explains, “Yes, but that ensures she will not fly away.” He embraces her, saying, “I have caught you. You are mine.” She replies, “Yes, for life.” As one, in melodic unanimity, they ascend to their respective high C’s (C6).

Pinkerton has departed on his ship and has been gone for three years.

Un bel dì vedremo (One fine day we shall see) is the work’s most celebrated aria sung by Butterfly, who dreams of the day Pinkerton’s ship appears on the horizon and he returns. She imagines he will call to her from a distance and, upon greeting her, say, “Dear wife. Orange blossom.” Burrato’s singing is exquisitely poetic, introspective, grand, and intimate, and ascends to what is now a sanguine, enchanting Bb (Bb5).

Madama Butterfly at Lincoln Center was an excellent, memorable production with music, drama, and staging at its best, with a superb orchestra and coterie of vocal luminaries. Described here is just a sampling of what is available in person. It has everything needed for a fulfilling emotional and creative experience of drama, sublime music, craft, and artistry.

To exchange or donate your tickets, call 212.362.6000.

Metropolitan Opera
30 Lincoln Center
New York, NY 10023

Readers may also enjoy our reviews of La BohemeDon CarlosIntimate Apparel, and the Largo from Dvorak’s New World Symphony.