Opera Review: Madama Butterfly (Metropolitan Opera)

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by Susan Hall on May 7, 2024

in Music,Theater-New York


Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian, a soprano whose international career began with a startling Cio-Cio-San in Stockholm, makes her Metropolitan Opera debut in the same role in Madama Butterfly for performances through May 11, 2024 (she began on April 26). She sang the role a few years ago in Anthony Minghella’s ravishingly beautiful interpretation in Vienna, and that is the same production playing at the Met, directed by Carolyn Choa, with Xian Zhang in her Met debut conducting the Giacomo Puccini score with vim and vigor, driving it along energetically. Grigorian truly is a magical and captivating performer. When she takes to the stage, you can’t take your eyes off her. She does not use cheap tricks or simply follow a director’s instructions. She clearly works inside out, giving a a satisfying dramatic and complex performance — and movement is central.

Asmik Grigorian as Cio-Cio-San in Puccini's Madama Butterfly

When Patricia Racette sang the role at the Met, she shuffled, which helped to make Cio-Cio-San as a very young girl credible. Ms. Grigorian walks with a grown-up step, offering an older geisha who does not flutter like a butterfly. Instead her arms are extended as wide as wings. Playing the teenager as older is not without precedent, as this was how the American diva Geraldine Farrar, who debuted the role stateside in 1907, played Cio-Cio-San — although she was not a favorite of the composer’s, who found her voice out of tune and unable to carry in a big house; fans — young women called “gerryflappers” — disagreed. At the performance I attended, busloads of high school students filled the opera house for Grigorian’s debut. Will she be able to attract a passionate following too? It looks that way, as the Met has announced that in future seasons Grigorian is set to perform Strauss’s Salome and Janacek’s Jenůfa.

Asmik Grigorian as Cio-Cio-San and Jonathan Tetelman as Pinkerton

The ceremonial deflowering of Cio-Cio San and the ritualistic taking of her life bracket a central vigil, as Butterfly, her son Trouble (a Bunraku puppet) by the American naval officer Pinkerton, and Suzuki her maid (Elizabeth DeShong), await the arrival of Pinkerton’s ship years after he left town and a pregnant geisha.

Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki and Asmik Grigorian as Cio-Cio-San

With a well-researched libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, it starts in 1904. Butterfly’s home is the setting. In Japan, the mistress of the house and the house itself were merged. US naval officer Lt. Pinkerton (Jonathan Tetelman, a fine tenor and the new favorite of the general manager’s) is seeing the world in the name of war and pleasure. When ashore in Nagasaki, Japan, he seeks the best and fairest woman and is offered Cio-Cio-San. Transfixed by her exotic beauty, Pinkerton marries her on sight. She is enthralled by his American ways and promise of a modern life in America, and falls wholeheartedly in love with him. However the dastardly Pinkerton is keenly anticipating the future when he will marry “a real wife, a wife from America.” In contrast to Cio-Cio-San’s devotion to her American husband is Pinkerton’s callous commitment to his Japanese wife. He first discusses her like a piece of property with the American consul Sharpless (Lucas Meachem) and the matchmaker Goro (Tony Stevenson). Then he abandons her for three years, only to return with an American wife, Kate (Briana Hunter) to reclaim Trouble, the son he had with Cio-Cio-San.

Asmik Grigorian as Cio-Cio-San

The opera is unusually still, with a plot that spans years in which little happens. Minghella wanted to make the stillness of the opera meaningful, so the action is interior and stylized with lacquered floors, which doesn’t always display Ms. Grigorian’s dramatic style (her Salome and Chrysothemis in Elektra were electrifying in the Festspielhaus in Salzburg). Still, Ms. Grigorian does stillness well. She has captivating phrasing which reflects emotion and character, and her dynamics are impeccable. Some tones could be more richly colored and in some passages her voice can’t ride over the orchestra, particularly when the brass are busy, but she cut her teeth in European opera houses which don’t exceed 2200 seats — the Met has 3776 seats — so I recommend sitting as close as possible to the stage.

Asmik Grigorian as Cio-Cio-San and Lucas Meachem as Sharpless

Ms. Grigorian was born in Vilnius and studied at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre. A founding member of the Vilnius City Opera, she has twice been awarded the Golden Stage Cross, her country’s highest theater award: in 2005 for her role debut as Violetta (La traviata) and in 2010 for her interpretation of Mrs Lovett in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. At the International Opera Awards she was voted Young Female Singer of the Year in 2016 and Female Singer of the Year in 2019. Following Butterfly, Grigorian is set to reprise Turandot at the Wiener Staatsoper and will sing Polina in The Gambler at the Salzburg Festival. She also sings Norma and Don Carlo in Vienna next season.

Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly

photos by Richard Termine / Met Opera

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