Cher Public

Wise woman

After first Patricia Racette, then Hei-Kyung Hong withdrew, “the third time’s the charm” when Ana Maria Martinez’s tremendously impressive Cio-Cio-San dominated the season premiere of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at the Met. 

Though Martinez frequently appears at most major U.S. houses as well at many European companies, her absence from the Met roster since her 2005 debut as Micaëla had left many stumped. I had never heard her live but missed her Met return last fall as Musetta. However, I was grateful to experience her marvelous Butterfly Friday which revealed just how much New York audiences have been missing.

The late Anthony Minghella’s ravishing stylized production, lovingly revived by its choreographer Carolyn Choa, Mingella’s widow, provided the perfect framework for Martinez’s admirably restrained Butterfly. Hers was a forthright, intelligent geisha, wise beyond her years, who calmly took charge of her own destiny. Fixing her belief in a bright future on a charming but unworthy man became her tragedy. Sometimes Butterfly can be excruciating—its hapless heroine mercilessly beaten down until she kills herself—but Martinez conjured such moving nobility that one admired this Cio-Cio-San as much as one pitied her.

Although its top lacked bloom, Martinez’s opulent dark soprano was seductively warm and enveloping in its crucial middle register. Her somewhat tentative entrance aria was capped by a slight but true high D-flat, but from then on she was on commanding form, eschewing the annoying child-like inflections adopted by some sopranos to characterize Cio-Cio-San’s extreme youth. Only Martinez’s mincing gamboling about the stage occasionally detracted from her otherwise fully realized portrayal.

“Un bel di” began quietly and built inexorably to a powerful climax while her grave “Che tua madre” throbbed with emotion. Perhaps because it was set far back on the bare stage, her “Tu, tu, piccolo Iddio” lacked impact, but her dignified, generous greeting of Kate as the happiest woman on earth proved devastating. Martinez had sung Rusalka in Houston on February 10, so she had barely a week at the Met to rehearse this complex production. That she gave such a formidable performance was a testament to her confident, mature artistry.

Losing his scheduled soprano ten days before his Met debut must have caused anxiety for conductor Karel Mark Chichon, but only some minor stage-pit coordination problems, particularly in act I, surfaced. Chichon was particularly attentive to and supportive of his late-arriving prima donna who clearly had her own definite ideas about phrasing, particularly in spinning out some bewitching high pianissimi. Otherwise Chichon’s reading was fleet, lush and expansive drawing supple if occasionally erratic playing from the Met orchestra.

Of the other principals, Polish baritone Artur Rucinski, another debutant, as Sharpless stood out for his appealing, supple baritone and sympathetic manner. One hopes he will return in more challenging repertoire, perhaps giving an overexposed compatriot some time off. Tony Stevenson repeated his slimy Goro and Tyler Duncan showed promise as Yamadori but Ricardo Lugo was mostly inaudible as the Bonze.

Roberto De Biasio, whom I had previously admired at the Met as Gabriele Adorno and Ernani, made a conscientious but underpowered Pinkerton, his sweet secure tenor sounded much reduced in volume from those previous appearances. His superficial acting meant he joked uncomfortably with Sharpless and gingerly pursued his swooning bride. In the final act his callow, awkward anguish at his betrayal of Cio-Cio-San made the caddish American sailor even more despicable than usual.

Friday was the Minghella production’s 57th performance since its premiere in 2006 and Maria Zifchak has been its Suzuki in all but six. Though she remains a touchingly devoted servant, her mezzo has become increasingly pinched and harsh and it stubbornly refused to blend with Martinez’s in the Flower Duet. She is scheduled for the remaining 12 Butterflys this season but shouldn’t another mezzo have a chance? Elizabeth DeShong was a sumptuous Suzuki opposite Amanda Echalaz in 2014; she has since moved onto bigger things but Carolyn Sproule was recently an unusually strong Ines in Il Trovatore at the Met—maybe we could hear her Suzuki sometime?

With nearly one out of every three performances this season—68 in all—a Puccini opera, everyone is suffering from “Lucca-Master Overload.” However, next season at the Met will feature “only” fifteen Bohèmes and eight Manon Lescauts.

Unfortunately, Martinez is absent from the 2016-17 roster but, as much as I’m looking forward to Netrebko’s Manon, I’d gladly endure Sir Richard Eyre’s latest error a third time to see it with Martinez, who would surely be compelling in the part. Any revival of the new Mary Zimmerman Rusalka should feature Martinez in one of her most acclaimed roles. In the meantime, however, her sole remaining scheduled Butterfly plays tonight. Who knows when she’ll be back?

Photos by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

  • armerjacquino

    Note to all the people who were saying that OTELLO is ruined when the slap doesn’t go on: Martinez doesn’t look even remotely Japanese in any of these pictures and guess what? It doesn’t matter.

    • Kenhere

      I saw the Met’s Otello again yesterday, on PBS. It was hardly ruined but I did have to suspend disbelief for no good reason -- only because some people would have confused veracity with racism, and insisted it was racist when the obvious intent was pointed out.

      It’s the latter that gives political correctness its bad name, the fact that people clearly want to take offense, or take offense on other people’s behalf. The “tolerance!” crowd is not tolerant.

      Martinez may not look Japanese, but her skin color isn’t radically different, and apparently in some scenes (I haven’t seen the production) she wore a kimono.

      • armerjacquino

        Veracity? Oh this is PRICELESS.

        A white man wearing make up to look like a black man is TRUTHFUL, kids. And only ‘intolerant’ people would say otherwise.

        • Kenhere

          It’s easy to rebut arguments when you caricature them, isn’t it?

          • armerjacquino

            It’s easy to rebut that argument. A six year old could do it.

            • Kenhere

              As the saying goes, show, don’t tell. You also left a couple posts unaddressed when this subject came up a week or two ago.

      • Martinez may not look Japanese, but her skin color isn’t radically different, and apparently in some scenes (I haven’t seen the production) she wore a kimono.

        Oh, does that mean you also lose your s*** every time a singer of color plays Madama Butterfly?

        • armerjacquino

          So help me, if we’re about to hear about white geisha make-up…

  • The Poet Lenski

    I am hoping that the preponderance of good reviews for Martinez will translate to an increased presence at the Met. It’s mind-boggling that she hasn’t sung there more since her debut — especially when there are weaker sopranos on the roster singing her rep (would that she were Nedda instead of Frittoli) — but she is still in her prime.

    I kind of wish Rucinski was singing Onegin next season. He’s excellent in the role. As for De Biasio, it’s a nice voice, but I struggle to think of a current singer who looks less comfortable onstage. Not to be crude, but to me he spent much of Friday night looking like he was about to mess his pants.

    • Porgy Amor

      Rucinski sang the last two performances in the recent ROH run, in accommodation of Hvorostovsky’s treatment schedule. Had I been in London and buying a ticket to that, I’d have been more interested in one of the Rucinski performances. Dima was a great Onegin for a long time, but I think the best years have passed to catch him in that particular role, especially on the stage. He was talking about the time being right to set it aside around the time he was appearing in the Carsen show with Fleming, and that was, what, almost ten years ago? He’ll be 54 opposite Trebs next year. (I didn’t see a word in protest of that when the season was announced, just the much younger Diana Damrau’s supposed inappropriateness for Juliette.)

  • Milady DeWinter

    Martinez was truly memorable. Even over Sirius, one felt Cio-Cio San’s strength, dignity and composure, and her mid-voice singing and those lofted pianissimi were gorgeous.
    Rucinski really made me sit up and listen and their Act II scene together was wonderful; the Flower Duet with Zifchak was the most lovely in recent memory.
    DiBiasio really puzzled me, since he was quite acceptable in Ernani, but fairly awful here. During Act I he seemed ready to vocally burst at the seams, stabbing at the music as if the voice were about to fail. The Act I Love Duet was not good (nor was Martinez’ climactic C -- I couldn’t even hear what DiBiasio was doing at that point.) He returned in better voice by the last act, but by then, who cares.

    • uwsinnyc

      I’m also at a loss to explain her sporadic appearances at the MET. It’s a very rich, lovely, even voice. It’s not a particularly big voice (it has warmth rather than bite) but was always audible in the big MET.

      I did not find her to be a particularly moving actress, but then Butterfly is such a physically unique role that it’s hard to generalize about a singer based on this role.

  • SilvestriWoman

    About d*** time!!! When I saw that she’s singing Tatiana here in Chicago next season, I nearly swooned.

  • John L

    To be honest, I don’t know much about her but it seems like she’s been a big boon to Chicago, San Francisco, and Houston.

    Any parterrian/parterriatti/parterriani going to Butterfly this Saturday?

  • phoenix

    Without a doubt, one of the highlights of this Met season for me. I always listen to her broadcasts and she never disappoints me.

  • grimoaldo

    I look forward to seeing Matinez, who replaced Stoyanova, in Don Carlo in SF in June.

    • manou

      Matinee?

  • Satisfied

    I leave it for Parterrians to debate whether Ana Maria is a Butterfly for the ages or not, but she was certainly the most poignant Cio-Cio-San I have seen. One of the best nights I’ve had at the Met all season (and fortunately, there have been quite a few this past year).I only hope Gelb has big plans for her in the future.

  • antikitschychick

    Very happy for Ana Maria. I found the broadcast online and will try to listen to compare to Opolais.