Met Opera: Puccini’s Heartbreaking “Madama Butterfly” Returns With Hui He and Aronica

Jader Bignamini
Huffington Post

If you feel in the need a good cry, and who doesn’t now and then, the Metropolitan Opera has revived its splendid production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and with Hui He singing the title role of the betrayed Cio-Cio-San and Roberto Aronica as Pinkerton, the American Navy officer who jilts her, it’s a three-hanky night at the opera that is immensely satisfying.
Hui He, a Chinese soprano whose only previous Met appearance was an Aida seven years ago, runs Cio-Cio-San’s emotional gamut with agility. She has a soaring, passionate voice, and her “Un bel di” is so full of fervent faith that one can almost see the ship bringing her American lover back to her on the horizon. 
Cio-Cio-San is one of the more difficult soprano roles in the repertory. She is onstage nearly the entire opera and she must range from bashful schoolgirl in the opening, to hopeful expectation as she waits for Pinkerton’s return, to despair as the realization of his duplicity becomes clear. Hui He is credible throughout, shy, devoted, and ultimately tragic. 
Aronica, an Italian tenor with a booming delivery that is full of bravado, conveys a sense of American superiority that is an ugly American at its ugliest. Yet the love duet that ends the first act, beginning with Cio-Cio-San’s “Vogliatemi bene” (“Please love me”), is tender and his sense of guilt at the end is genuine. 
Jader Bignamini, making his debut in the Met pit, conducts a sweeping and dramatic reading of the score, and a fine all-round cast includes the always dependable mezzo Maria Zifchak as Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San’s maid; David Bizic, a Serbian baritone, as the U.S. Consul Sharpless; Kidon Choi as the rejected Japanese suitor Yamadori; and Tony Stevenson as Goro.
The other star in the Met’s Madama Butterfly is Anthony Minghella’s production, still riveting after it first captivated Met audiences 11 years ago. Minghella, whose untimely death at 54 came two years after his Butterfly premiered at the Met, was a superb film, TV, and stage writer and director known for his fine attention to detail, however small. 
He was also one of the most imaginative and innovative directors in any medium. For Butterfly, his first and only opera assignment, he employed Bunraku puppets, including one for Cio-Cio-San’s young son, which are unobtrusively handled by a baker’s dozen puppeteers from the Blind Summit Theatre, all costumed in black Ninja-like suits and veils. Another is of Cio-Cio-San herself in a dance sequence that separates the two scenes of Act II.

Minghella’s staging enhances the drama. A raked ramp stretches across the width of the stage from which the wedding party and others arrive, and mirrors hanging in the flies give the audience a bird’s-eye view. Even before a note is played, a solo dancer, Hsin-Ping Chang, enters upstage and performs a traditional Japanese fan dance. 

Read the rest of the review here