Madama Butterfly

The Metropolitan Opera on Thursday, October 5.

The articles I read made a big deal about the puppet. Director Anthony Minghella chose to use a life-sized, Bunraku-style puppet to represent Butterfly’s young son, and apparently some people found the expressive little figure distracting.

I didn’t. The puppet, manipulated onstage by the two members of Blind Summit Theatre, delivers a much stronger performance than a toddler could have done, and besides, it fits the production’s spare, East-meets-West aesthetic. Both the puppetry performance and Minghella’s Madama Butterfly as a whole are gorgeous, passionate, and memorable—everything one could want from a night at the opera.

Cristina Gallardo-Domâs plays Cio-Cio San, better known as Butterfly. Her voice is just as lithe and expressive as one would expect of a lyric soprano at the Met, but her acting is truly exceptional. Gallardo-Domâs’ entire body conveys Butterfly’s immaturity, her nervousness, her stubborn nature. Her performance emphasizes the teenager’s youth, and the scene in which Pinkerton seduces her is distinctly unsettling.

It’s beautiful, too, of course. Composer Giacomo Puccini knew how to write crowd pleasers in the very best sense—with imaginative, soaring melodies; lush harmonies; and sparkling orchestration—and the final scene of Act I exemplifies that. Minghella’s direction—together with Michael Levine’s set design and Peter Mumford’s lighting—makes the scene even more breathtaking. The stage is bare, but cherry blossoms rain softly down upon the couple, and glowing paper lanterns suggest a sky dappled with stars.

The production is so strikingly beautiful that a few times, I admit, I had to remind myself to listen, not just gape at visuals. Butterfly’s initial entrance—the center figure among nearly a dozen women in kimonos—was one such moment. The cherry-blossom cascade was another. But for the most part, the music and staging complement each other perfectly, neither overwhelming the other. The humming chorus, for example, is bewitching. By that point, I had accepted the puppet as Butterfly’s son, so my heart broke as he snuggled against her as she waited in vain for Pinkerton’s return, with Puccini’s floating hums, accompanied by the pizzicato of strings, as a poignant musical backdrop.

As we walked to the subway after the performance, my mom told me about a newspaper story she had read in which Minghella justified the use of the puppet by pointing out that opera audiences already suspend their disbelief whenever they attend the theater: After all, Gallardo-Domâs is Chilean, not Japanese, and she’s certainly not fifteen years old. I think the comparison is apt. In fact, Blind Summit Theatre’s puppet could easily stand as a metaphor for opera in general: Once you accept the artifice, you can see the truth. Opera is no place for naturalism,  and when you allow yourself to enter its world, freed from the bonds of realism and logic and tempered emotion, the beauty of that world will dazzle you.

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