Although Anthony Minghella’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly still seems unconvincing to my eyes (small-scaled for a theatre as big as the Met and often clumsy in its attempt for cleanliness), the musical experience proved to be significantly improved in its 2007 incarnation.
The cast remains light-voiced to the music, but conductor Mark Elder showed understanding of how to accomodate singers’ needs without sacrificing his orchestra. The gentler string playing helped otherwise to create a colouristic effect with richer woodwind sound. The brass section has seen better days, though – even Puccini’s quote of their national anthem did not seem to inspire these musicians to produce something decent. Comparing Patricia Racette to Cristina Gallardo-Domas in this production’s title role is rather enlightening. Both are lyric sopranos whose voices resent loud and high writing (something a lirico spinto would not need to complain about). Gallardo-Domas’s sound is basically lighter and brighter (therefore, more immediately convencing for a 15-year-old character). However, she is the kind of singer who lets herself be overwhelmed by the dramatic charge (especially in such an opera) and although there is no doubt about her commitment, the sound was often strained and laborious.
Patricia Racette’s creamy soprano, however, is handled with great technical skill. Her low and medium register are natural and pleasant, her phrasing is varied and subtle, the occasional mezza voice properly floated and if many a dramatic passage resulted rather colourless tone, she could produce stunning crescendo effects in climatic top notes. If this intelligent and sensitive artist’s portrayal does not rank with the great Butterflies from the past (is there any exemplary Cio-cio-san around these days?), it is probably because all her skill cannot replace the proper effect a brighter and more concentrated sound would produce in this music (yes, as far as lyric sopranos are concerned, I am speaking of Victoria de los Angeles).
The only remainder from the original cast, Maria Zifchak proved her Suzuki gained intensity since last year and if she could work a bit more on her Italian, she would have been excellent. Roberto Alagna is far from the most musicianly or elegant among tenors, but his voice is often pleasant on the ears – and he has the today rare ability of giving life to the text, making for a particularly friendly approach to this rather unlikable role. That said, his high notes were mostly congested and unflowing. I wonder how he can sing Manrico this way. Finally, Luca Salsi’s forceful baritone and crispy delivery of the Italian text were most welcome.