Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at the Met: A Glorious Role Debut for Eleonora Buratto

Anthony Minghella’s exquisite production of Madama Butterfly is back at the Metropolitan Opera. Most know Minghella as the award-winning director of poignant and thrilling films like The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Cold Mountain, among others. Minghella’s debut as an operatic stage director was with this very production, which premiered at the English National Opera in 2005 and arrived at the Metropolitan Opera in 2006. The staging of opera by film directors has been a topic of debate for some time, the question being: do film directors really know what singers need in terms of staging in order to be well heard and seen? Without question, Minghella’s artistic sensitivity has succeeded in creating a magical, cinematic world while facilitating the conditions for the singers to perform at their best. He fashioned a universe of vivid colors and graceful movements, garlands of cherry blossoms that drop from the sky and floating lanterns, a universe that reflects the title character’s idealistic, beautiful spirit and immense capacity for imagination. Madama Butterfly’s perception of what is happening to her, at least in the beginning—love and marriage—bursts with endless wonder. In contrast, a mirror placed at an angle above the stage reflects the vibrancy of colors and glinting of lights but also ominously suggests a distorted perception. And one of the most inventive aspects of Minghella’s staging is the use of two puppets encountered in Bunraku, a form of traditional Japanese puppet theater. One puppet portrays Madama Butterfly’s three-year-old son, and another represents Butterfly herself in a dream sequence choreographed to play out the tragedy. 

This is indeed one of the most heart-shredding tragedies in all opera. It is a difficult and cruel story that has always brought into question many issues, and even more profoundly today. Some of these issues are what the Bunraku puppet dream highlights so powerfully: since the puppet representing Madama Butterfly is small, she seems a child in the dream dance sequence with the man she loves, who is enacted by an actual person, which makes the dance terribly disturbing and distressing. Through it, we are receiving a visual visceral representation of the criminal nature of this relationship: the adult man dances and plays with the child-looking Butterfly, and when he is done with her, she clings to him in desperation, as a little girl being abandoned. 

Eleonora Buratto as Madama Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San) and Brian Jadge as Pinkerton in the love duet in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly – Photo: Richard Termine / Met Opera

These visuals are painful to watch, and even more so because this dream sequence happens after we have witnessed the marriage and romantic first evening between Butterfly, also known as Cio-Cio-San, and her husband. More specifically, the dream happens after three years of her endless tears and clinging to faith and love as she awaits his return. At the beginning of the opera, Butterfly is only fifteen years old, a teenager utterly in love with an exotic “prince” who seems larger than life to her and becomes her entire world to the point that she renounces her religion to adopt his—the American naval officer Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. To Pinkerton, Cio-Cio-San is the “exotic” one, a dazzling and delicate young woman, a “butterfly” that he wants to play with and pin down, without any serious intentions of honoring the contract he signs as he marries her. His approach to the entire experience of taking a Japanese bride and encountering a new culture is one of superficial curiosity, amusement, and lust. He abandons Butterfly shortly after their marriage only to return three years later married to an American wife. And finding out upon his arrival that, in the meantime, Butterfly has given birth to a son, Pinkerton and his wife decide to take the boy with them to the United States.

The titular role requires a singer capable of demonstrating, vocally and theatrically, an emotional development that takes her from the innocent fifteen-year-old to the eighteen-year-old mother transformed through enduring her abandonment stoically, ignoring taunts and marriage offers, and ultimately losing everything. The singer portraying Butterfly needs to have both vocal delicacy and power, and an abundant palette of light and dark tones to make believable the innocence, playfulness, and awe of a fifteen-year-old in love as well as the sorrow and devastating agony of the tragedy befalling her. Sopranos who sing this role well generally have years of experience behind them that nourish their capacity to build the dramatic arc of the character in a credible and heartrending way.

Eleonora Buratto as Madama Butterfly meets her tragic end in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly – Photo: Richard Termine / Met Opera

In her role debut as Madama Butterfly, soprano Eleonora Buratto did all this and more. From the moment she arrived on stage with her wedding procession she conveyed the naivete and playfulness of her youth, while glimpses into the depth of her character became evident early on. In the beginning, Buratto’s voice transmitted innocence and sweetness coupled with determination. With an absolutely impeccable diction and sense of phrasing, sometimes it was easy to forget that she was actually singing, and it felt as though she was speaking directly to the heart. Of course, as the threads of her beautiful, clear sound flowed and developed into ample torrents, one knew that this was singing, very moving and stunning singing. It was a singing so unified with the libretto that every phrase acquired emotional colors even from the mere pronunciation of the words. For instance, to me, the following phrases from the love duet with Pinkerton reflect the soul of Butterfly: “Vogliatemi bene, un bene piccolino, un bene da bambino quale a me si conviene. Noi siamo gente avvezza alle piccole cose, umili e silenziose, ad una tenerezza sfiorante e pur profonda come il ciel, come l’onda del mare.” (Love me with a little love, a child-like love, the kind that suits me. We are a people used to small, humble, quiet things, to a tenderness gently caressing, yet vast as the sky, as the wave of the sea.)

Eleonora Buratto as Madama Butterfly with the puppet as her child in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly – Photo: Richard Termine / Met Opera

The way those phrases rise up to a pianissimo on “bambino” followed by a blossoming into an outpouring of emotion reveals the complexity of this very young character and her infinite capacity for love and self-sacrifice. Most await with great anticipation the Act II famous aria “Un bel dì vedremo” (One beautiful day, we’ll see) as Butterfly’s signature moment, which Buratto delivered with sensitivity, intensity, and alluring as well as poignant tones. But those earlier phrases always tell me whether the soprano will be capable of unveiling the deep layers of this character throughout the opera. In them, Buratto ascended to the softest, most achingly beautiful pianissimo and then unleashed a flow of musical abundance that conveyed the sheer life force in her animated by love and complete devotion. That same vocal life force took a tragic turn when at the end, parting from her child and asking him to remember her face, the anguish in her voice was almost unbearable. Buratto managed to combine agony in the utterances, “guarda ben fiso, fiso, di tua madre la faccia” (look intently, intently, at your mother’s face) with the saddest colors in the world. If painters wished to paint the colors of sadness, they might be inspired by listening to Eleonora Buratto in these final phrases addressed to her child.

Buratto is by far the most complete and thrilling Madama Butterfly I have seen and heard in a long time. Her sound is simply addictive, and you just end up wanting to hear more of its clarity, warmth, and abundance, while basking in its capacity for boundless flow and flexible dynamics. And what is truly welcome to the ears is that she does not “bark” her lower chest register as some other sopranos might do to sound more dramatic. She does not employ artifice at all. There is such a smooth transition between her high, middle and low registers, yet that smoothness does not take away from any dramatic effects she transmits. Hers is a well-rounded sound gleaming with beauty even when forceful, shimmering with emotion, and creating a very human, touching, and powerful Madama Butterfly.

Eleonora Buratto as Madama Butterfly and Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki waiting for Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly – Photo: Richard Termine / Met Opera

As Pinkerton, tenor Brian Jadge blazed through his first aria “Dovunque al mondo” (Everywhere in the world) with clarion, bright, potent colors. It is not easy to endow this character with humanity; by the end of the opera, how can anyone not despise him? Jadge displayed remorse through breathtaking tones in his second aria, “Addio, fiorito asil” (Farewell, flowery refuge) in which he accused himself of being vile. Then, of course, Pinkerton ran away, leaving his American wife and the American Consul to deal with asking Butterfly to give up her child. Overall, Jadge sang with brilliance and passion. I would have wished for a smoother shift in his dynamics from forte to piano. Often, it felt as though he preferred to revel in the display of the forte, brilliant notes he produced, and once in a while he made some abrupt transitions between forte and piano. Still, perhaps this abruptness is fitting for the character of Pinkerton who doesn’t take the marriage to Butterfly or her culture seriously and already dreams about his future real American life before even marrying her. 

Eleonora Buratto as Madama Butterfly and David Bizic as the American Consul in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly – Photo: Richard Termine / Met Opera

Pinkerton’s swagger and callousness were counteracted by baritone David Bizic’s American Consul, Sharpless, who kept warning Pinkerton that Butterfly believes him. Bizic sang the role of the Consul with genuine warmth, expressing both compassion toward Butterfly and weariness at Pinkerton’s antics. He succeeded in portraying a character torn between that compassion and weariness, and the bond he felt toward his fellow American. As Suzuki, Butterfly’s companion and maid, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong brought dignity and fierce empathy to the character. Her powerful, at times steely, glistening mezzo voice served her in moments of anger and intense emotion as in tenderness. One could tell that she truly felt for Butterfly’s plight and would have been capable to fight to the death to protect her, if it were possible. In the Flower Duet, DeShong’s imposing voice blended beautifully with Buratto’s in soaring shimmering phrases.

Maestro Alexander Soddy conducted the Met Orchestra with sensitive fluidity, guiding the musicians to respond to Puccinian theatricality and to the singers without unsettling the pacing and flow of the music. 

This production of Madama Butterfly is definitely one for the ages. Not to be missed!

Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera runs through May 7. 

Performance schedule, information, and tickets.

Top photo: The wedding procession in Act I of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly – Photo by Richard Termine / Met Opera

About Maria-Cristina Necula (129 Articles)
Maria-Cristina Necula’s published work includes the books "The Don Carlos Enigma: Variations of Historical Fictions" and "Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo and Soul," two translations: "Europe à la carte" and Molière’s "The School for Wives," and a new collection of poems, "Evanescent." Her articles and interviews have appeared in "Classical Singer" Magazine, "Das Opernglas," "Studies in European Cinema," and "Opera News." As a classically-trained singer she has performed in the New York City area at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Merkin Hall, Florence Gould Hall, and the Westchester Broadway Theatre, and has presented on opera at The Graduate Center, Baruch, The City College of New York, and UCLA Southland. She speaks six languages, two of which she honed at the Sorbonne University in Paris and the University of Vienna, and she holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center. Discover more at www.mariacristinanecula.com.