Anthony Minghella's never really done it for me as a film director because he never digs very far beneath the surface and seems to be adverse to actual perversity (e.g., The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain), but his Madama Butterfly at the Met is stunning.
Minghella doesn't offer any new reading of the tragic story of Cio-Cio-San, the 15-year-old Japanese geisha who's seduced and abandoned by US Navy lieutenant Pinkerton, then commits suicide three years later, after Pinkerton comes back to Japan and threatens to take their son away from her. So no, Minghella doesn't interpret, he illustrates—but what illustrations! Stealing his blues and reds from the palette of Robert "If Only I Had a Heart" Wilson, Minghella unfurls one stunning visual composition after another, and salvages Madama Butterfly from the kitsch heap it so often ends up in. Butterfly's death has to be the single most striking visual I've seen all year (you only have three more opportunities to see it this season) and the use of a bunraku puppet for her son is heartbreakingly efficient. I cannot fathom why there's been so much hostility for that concept from some opera corners.
But the beauty of what's on stage never gets in the way of actual emotion, even if I do have a bone to pick with the decision to play Cio-Cio-San like a shaky, timid, virginal girl in the first act. She may be only 15, but she's also a geisha. I'd have loved to see Cristina Gallardo-Domâs at least suggest a smidgen of flirtatiousness when she meets Pinkerton. Her gradual crushing in Acts II and III would still work: Just because she's a ho doesn't mean Butterfly can't develop real feelings for her new man, as anybody familiar with Nights of Cabiria, Sweet Charity, Irma La Douce and the R&B canon will know.
If this production is indicative of the Met's new direction under Peter Gelb, count me in. Even the playbill looked better, as if the Met had finally discovered there's something called desktop publishing out there; and it wasn't all cosmetic, the content was spiffier as well. For now Gelb's strategy seems to work at least in terms of creating a new sense of urgency and relevance. Not only were there actual scalpers outside, but the crowd did look a little with it. Plus I was sitting across the aisle from Patti Smith, who may not be young and with it but still was the coolest person in the room.