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Great Performances at the Met | Madama Butterfly

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Watch Friday, August 19 at 9pm on WMHT-TV

The late Anthony Minghella’s critically acclaimed production of Puccini’s classic Madama Butterfly comes to THIRTEEN’S Great Performances at the Met Friday, August 19 at 9pm on WMHT-TV.

Kristine Opolais brings her heartbreaking interpretation of the title role to the series for the first time. Roberto Alagna sings Lieutenant Pinkerton, the callous officer who crushes Butterfly's dreams of love. Debuting conductor Karel Mark Chichon leads a cast that also includes Maria Zifchak as Suzuki and Dwayne Croft as Sharpless.

The opera is based in part on the 1898 short story "Madame Butterfly" by John Luther Long, which had its genesis in Pierre Loti’s 1887 French novel Madame Chrysanthème. Long's version was dramatized by David Belasco as the extremely popular one-act play, Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan, which premiered in 1900 in New York. Puccini first saw it London later that year.

The opera had its World premiere at Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1904, and premiered at the Met on February 11, 1907. That year, Giacomo Puccini came to the United States for the first time for the Met premiere of Madama Butterfly. Geraldine Farrar sang the title role, and her 139 appearances in this opera remain a Met record. While in New York, Puccini attended a Broadway performance of Belasco’s play The Girl of the Golden West, which would become the basis for his next opera.

The title character of Madama Butterfly — a young Japanese geisha who clings to the belief that her arrangement with a visiting American naval officer is a loving and permanent marriage — is one of the defining roles in opera. The story triggers ideas about cultural and sexual imperialism for people far removed from the opera house, and film, Broadway, and popular culture in general have continue to riff endlessly on it. The lyric beauty of Puccini’s score, especially the music for the thoroughly believable lead role, has made Butterfly timeless.

Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924) was immensely popular in his own lifetime, and his mature works remain staples in the repertory of most of the world’s opera companies. His librettists for Madama Butterfly, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, had also collaborated with the composer on his previous two operas, Tosca and La Bohème. Giacosa, a dramatist, was responsible for the stories and Illica, a poet, worked primarily on the words themselves.

Puccini achieved a new level of sophistication with his use of the orchestra in this score, with subtle colorings and sonorities throughout. But the opera rests squarely on the performer of the title role: on stage for most of the time, Cio-Cio-San is the only character that experiences true (and tragic) development. The singer must convey a complex array of emotions and characteristics, from ethereal to fleshly to intelligent to dreamy-bordering-on-insane, to resigned in the final scene.

The opera takes place in the Japanese port city of Nagasaki at the turn of the last century, at a time of expanding American international presence. Japan was hesitantly defining its global role, and Nagasaki was one of the country’s few ports open to foreign ships. Temporary marriages for foreign sailors were not unusual.

Reviewing the present production, The New York Times raved, "Ms. Opolais's voluptuous, expressive voice soared over Puccini's dense orchestration, and there were riveting moments in her portrayal.”

The New York Observer noted, "This jewel of understated direction and sleekly minimal design ennobles the familiar narrative, elevating the melodramatic story of a Japanese child bride abandoned by her American husband to a poignant tragedy…” and praised Opolais as “a bold artist, the kind of singer who makes attending the opera a transformative pleasure."
New York Classical Review opined, "[Kristine Opolais] had a tremendous partner in Alagna, who was at his absolute best as Pinkerton, unleashing his signature bright power and focus…His singing was a thrill to hear, and his characterization of the American Lieutenant was intricately layered.”

Tenor Matthew Polenzani hosts the broadcast.