by Sam Juliano
The argument continues to rage after three years of Metropolitan Opera simulcasts of their Saturday afternoon matinee performances to multiplex movie houses around the world. Does one sustain a deeper operatic experience by attending the productions live in Manhattan, or is the ‘multiplex simulcast’ route the most enriching way to absorb the greatest of all art forms? There is no simple answer. As one who held partial season tickets to the Met for eight years, and still attends in person several times a year, there admittedly can be no replacement for being part of the intimacy that informs live performances in hushed and disciplined opera houses. In this sense, opera seen and heard on its home turf is not compromised by the intrusion of cameras and the subjective artistic decisions that dictate what one is to see, even if the hearing is unaltered or even enriched. For purists, there is no replacement to being in the opera house, even if one is doomed to the family circle in the upper rafters, or even forced to a standing room cubicle, as I have been on many occasions. Except in the rare instance where distance or angle might be so adversely extreme as to compromise vision, there can be no valid argument against lived performance as opposed to transcription to another medium. Yet, adherents of this hugely-successful public-relations venture to “bring the Met to the world” rightly claim some advantages to seeing the operas simulcast on movie screens. For one, those who are eternally doomed to seeing the operas at the Met from long distances because of spiraling ticket prices, can now enjoy glorious close-ups of their favorite stars, a close look at the scenery, and wonderful interviews during intermissions conducted by such high-profile luminaries like Renee Fleming and Placido Domingo. And with subtitles emblazoned legibly on the bottom of the screen, much like a foreign-language film, one doesn’t have to keep shifting their eyes from the stage to the back of the seat in front of them to negotiate the translation. And the simulcast ticket price is $20, far less than any ticket at the Met save for standing room.
For me, I think a compromise answer in much in order here. I believe if one has seen a specific opera or production at least once at the Met in all its resplendent glory, follow-up exposure could well be through the simulcasts, which are offered about eight Saturdays over the course of the season. I saw the Anthony Minghella production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly last year, and sat in a very good ‘dress circle’ seat, and I reviewed it, evincing some reservations about the singing that particular night, which I thought was sub-par. The singing this past Saturday afternoon was top-rank, no doubt largely fueled by the cognizance of the worldwide transmission.
As Pinkerton, the Italian tenor Marcello Giordani, who is admittedly a little on the ‘hefty’ side to physically convince as an American naval officer, is nonetheless an effectively immersed actor with a full-bodied voice, warm and lyrical. He is the production’s top singer. As Cio-Cio-San, Patricia Racette is excellent, if a bit wobbly during the high notes. She certainly is as rich as some others that have tackled this role over the years, and I prefer her myself to the Chilean soprano Cristina Gallardo-Domas, who also has played the role in this production, but Domas is physically more convincing than Racette (but Racette is a superior actress) in this penultimate Puccini tragic heroine role, and the one that has probably induced more tears than any other character in all of opera since the work first appeared to boos in 1904 by a conspiracy staged by jealous enemies of the composer. Today, opera house would have to fold without this opera and the composer’s other spectacularly-beloved work, La Boheme, generously on their schedules. Ms. Racette was highly-effective as Ellen Orford in the Met’s new production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes last season, which was also transmitted globally as part of the same ‘Live on HD’ series.
A wonderfully personable veteran singer/actress, Maria Zitchak does marvelous work as the under appreciated guardian Suzuki, (Zitchak has a lovely talk with Renee Fleming during the first intermission about her career and the significance of her role here) and the baritone Dwayne Croft is first-rate as a robust Sharpless.
Two men clad in black, and deliberately meant to appear at least partially-camouflaged operate the production’s showcase, puppet of the little son of Cio-Cio-San, who secures many of the audience tears expended on this tragic and heartbreaking tale. The child moves with eerily human gestures, and with bald head he seems carefree and happy, with a tinge of uncertainty. Reactions to this gamble have been largely favorable, as many have contended that the puppet looks “more real than any real child they could have had.” The piercing stare of this puppet boy may be the most provocative statement of verisimilitude in the entire opera, and one not easily shaken.
Michael Levine’s sets are strictly abstract and largely black, with red and green rectangles. A slanted overhead mirror gives the production a haunting quality, as it reflects on-stage action, and sliding panels allow characters to appear and disappear. The colorfully elaborate costumes by Han Feng as surely a highlight, especially for the exotic look of the opera, which is a crucial element. The use of flower pedals is very effective is promulgating the opera’s marked lyricism and sensory strain.
All opera lovers (and even some who are not fans of the form) know that the center point aria Un Bel di Vedramo, is one of opera’s most beloved soprano pieces, and the long love duet that comes before is an example of how Puccini poured his heart and soul into a sustained stretch of inspired music. It’s simply one of music’s most extraordinarily beautiful compositions. The wrenching Addio fiorito asil, the tearful Io so che alle sue pene, the wedding intermezzo and the final unbearable sequence (which typically rehashes the opera’s most ravishing musical themes) are all exceedingly beautiful passages.
The two-intermission structure is a return to the original specifications when the opera was first performed, but I’m not all that sure it is better than the single break that had been used in previous Met productions of it. The extra break is intrusive on the flow, and the opera isn’t really long enough to warrant it. Thirty minutes after the first break, another one occurs. It’s too much.
Madama Butterfly is often promoted as an opera that might turn those whom are resistant, but more than that it’s one of those defining moments in the culture, when music, story and visual elements conspire to define what true beauty in the world looks and hears like. It’s an ethereal experience.
Note: I attended the Saturday afternoon Live in HD simulcast at 1:00 P.M. in the Edgewater multiplex. The theatre was packed and sold-out. Oddly, at 54, I think I was easily the youngest person in attendance, as the opera venue is strongly attracting the seniors in the local theatres. If you can’t afford opera tickets, or just can’t get over to the Met, this option is a lot better than many purists may think. This is the third simulcast I’ve attended this year after Berlioz’s “La damnation de Faust” and Massanet’s “Thais.” I’ve managed four others live at the Met.