On opening night, a red carpet led operagoers Oscar-style across the Lincoln Center Plaza. The Metropolitan Opera’s façade was partially obscured by a giant screen installed for the outdoor viewing pleasure of those who couldn’t afford to watch Madama Butterfly in the house. To further accommodate the hoi polloi, a similar screen and roped-off seating area had been set up in Times Square, 20 blocks south. Welcome to the Happening New Met and the media-savvy stewardship of the company’s incumbent general manager, Peter Gelb.
For Mr. Gelb, who was schooled in Broadway opening nights by his father, the former New York Times culture czar Arthur Gelb, and who went on to make crossover gold as the head of Sony’s classical CD and video division, the event put into practice the preaching in his program notes: “My greatest challenge is to keep the Met—and opera, more broadly—connected to contemporary society.”
Sure, the goofy on-the-spot celebrity interviews conducted along the red carpet won’t make Bartlett’s Quotations (Rudolph Giuliani sagely observed that Puccini’s music was “incredible”). And a punitively lit exhibition of opera-themed paintings only revealed how little today’s super-ironic downtown artists understand their subject’s unironic allure. I did chuckle, though, over Richard Prince’s collage of skin-magazine cuttings emblazoned with the news that “Cio Cio San had turned into a lesbian and refused to commit suicide.” Mr. Prince is on the right track: Opera, in the voyeuristic sense, is to classical music as pornography is to art.
And I had a better time than I’ve had at any Met opening night in years. Somehow, Mr. Gelb and his publicity machine got the word out that this was an event worth dressing up for, and the prevailing fashion sense was striking. Less surprising, given that the evening also marked the Met debut of the film director Anthony Minghella, was the stardust. As I was taking my seat, I was nearly run down by a scantily covered blonde who squealed “Jude!” at the leading man in Mr. Minghella’s Cold Mountain, who looked lost in his aisle seat.
In another departure from Met tradition, Mr. Gelb chose to inaugurate his regime with a production transplanted from the English National Opera, where Mr. Minghella’s Butterfly scored a hit last season. The E.N.O. is known for on-the-cheap inventiveness, the Met for spare-no-expense opulence; I hope this unlikely partnership sets a trend.
The hallmark of the new, exceptionally alluring production is exotic delicacy. This isn’t always the case: Butterfly can easily turn into a high-kitsch weepie with an anti-American message. (How I wanted to join Licia Albanese, one of the great Cio-Cio-Sans of yesteryear, when she let out a blood-curdling boo to protest the vulgar disrobing of Cio-Cio-San and Lieutenant Pinkerton at the opening night of the Met’s previous Butterfly in 1994.) The new production’s technical means—a black-box stage, sliding shoji screens and a light panel of mood-changing colors—were remarkably spare for the Met. Yet they served to remind us that behind Han Feng’s hyper-Japanese costumes, the opera is a desperately intimate affair that charts the heroine’s awakening to love and betrayal in scenes involving no more than three or four characters at a time.
Butterfly, of course, is also a very dark fable about mismatched cultures, and Mr. Minghella and his team accentuated this aspect of the piece by introducing an artifice borrowed from Bunraku puppetry: veiled, choreographed “stagehands” who flitted in and out of the action like black moths, adding a subliminal layer of menace to the tragedy. The production’s most brilliant—and, on opening night, controversial— decision was to make the child of Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton a boy puppet, visibly manipulated by ghostly puppeteers. Magically, the little doll, dressed in a sailor suit, became a figure of great poignancy, more moving than what we usually get, which is a child actor plucked from the Professional Children’s School.
The Met likes to trot out its biggest names for opening night, but here, for once, was a cast whose ensemble work outshone the individual performances. I have heard Cio-Cio-Sans with far greater vocal glamour than that of the Chilean soprano Cristina Gallardo-Domâs, whose strong, penetrating top register thins out dangerously in the middle and lower registers. But her dramatic intensity was unflagging, and she may possess the most Met-filling pair of eyes since Teresa Stratas. Marcello Giordani was an unusually charismatic Pinkerton, spinning out those arching Puccini melodies with ringing ease and acting with commendable restraint. Dwayne Croft presented a dignified, sympathetic Sharpless, while Maria Zifchak’s Suzuki was a tower of ultimately helpless strength.
Puccini will never make James Levine’s well-known list of favorite composers, but the conductor’s wonderfully transparent reading of this overwrought score somehow banished any hint of shamelessness. Though I vowed some years ago to avoid Madama Butterfly if I could help it, this production kept me so engaged that I felt as if I’d never heard it before.
AS IF TO ACCENTUATE THE FRESH WIND blowing through the house, the Met followed up with a staging of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda that had its premiere 40 years ago, on the second night of the company’s first season at Lincoln Center. Although Margherita Wallmann’s original production has been restaged by Peter McClintock, with new choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, it remains a white elephant, groaning with so much Venetian architecture and revelry that I almost choked when the curtain rose on the Doge’s courtyard.
Perhaps there’s no other way to stage a 19th-century warhorse whose breakneck plot boggles the mind with improbabilities and whose only appeal to serious opera lovers rests on how well the leading singers can hold up under a steady diet of do-or-die arias, duets and ensembles.
In any event, the Met’s Gioconda, its first in 16 years, managed pretty well, thanks to a lot of powerhouse singing, led by the sumptuously musical Lithuanian soprano Violeta Urmana in the title role; the Russian mezzo Olga Borodina as her rival, Laura; and a robust Serbian baritone, Zeljko Lucic, making his debut as the villain Barnaba. True to one of the Met’s most stubborn traditions, the hero, Enzo Grimaldi, was a young Venezuelan tenor, Aquiles Machado, whose sweet but underpowered voice and diminutive stature made him an unlikely object of so much swirling passion.
In keeping with another Met tradition, three intermissions made for a very long night. By the time the Act IV curtain rose on the heroine’s moldy rooms on the island of Guidecca, it was nearly midnight and more than half the audience had left. I hope Peter Gelb was as distressed as I was by the spectacle of Ms. Urmana singing (magnificently) her great aria “Suicidio!” to a half-full house. If the Met is going to connect to today’s workaholic society, it’s going to have to cut down on the intermission time it takes to change the scenery. At that hour, I too wanted to be home in bed.