"Everyone will be talking about the Met. When was the last time you could say that?" asked the chief critic of The New York Times.
"As Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton sang their spine-tingling duet at the end of Act I," wrote The Guardian of London, "there was a hush over Times Square broken only by the odd taxi horn. Manhattan had almost been conquered."
With the first production of new general manager Peter Gelb's tenure, the Metropolitan Opera won the attention — and, in many cases, the hearty applause — of critics, celebrities and opera lovers in the house for a glittering gala, ordinary New Yorkers and even passing tourists watching the simulcast on the big screens in Lincoln Center Plaza and Times Square.
"Gelb has declared his desire to broaden the Met audience," wrote Howard Kissel of the New York Daily News, "and [Anthony] Minghella's gorgeous production is the perfect vehicle to further that goal."
The AP's Mike Silverman said, "All the elements — costumes that explode in exotic colors, subtly changing shades of lighting, petals drifting from the sky, and a traditional Japanese bunraku puppet — combine to reinforce the visceral power of the drama and Puccini's heartbreaking music.
"Most important," he continued, "Minghella has elicited superb performances from his singers, getting them to strip away the posing and perfunctory gestures all too common in grand opera in favor of honest displays of emotion."
The most discussed single feature of the production is surely Minghella's use of a bunraku-style puppet to portray Butterfly's three-year-old son Trouble, rather than the adorable but unpredictable young child usually put onstage in the role.
Audience members and critics could be heard debating the wooden doll's performance in the Met press room, the lobby, the plaza outside and in Times Square.
While a few critics thought that a puppet simply cannot be as engaging or believable in the part as an actual human child — "If the object of [Butterfly's] desperation is a wooden dummy," sniffed Martin Bernheimer in the Financial Times, "her ultimate sacrifice seems a bit silly" — numerous others applauded the choice.
"The child moves with eerily human gestures, and his baldish head has a wizened, hopeful yet anxious look," wrote Anthony Tommasini in the Times, while David Patrick Stearns of The Philadelphia Inquirer found the puppet "better able to project the needed primary-color emotions than a live [child] actor."
"Manipulated with amazing art and skill by black-clad members of a troupe called Blind Summit Theatre," said TheaterMania.com's Michael Portantiere, "this puppet had the audience alternately chuckling, sighing, and weeping."
Cristina Gallardo-Domê¢s, "one of the most awesomely talented and exotically beautiful sopranos on the current scene" (TheaterMania.com), has been showered with praise for her work in the title role. The Daily News's Kissel wrote that "she shapes every phrase with unerring dramatic instincts," while Tommasini found her presence "riveting" and admired her "vulnerable, utterly honest and, in its way, elegant performance."
"She was a great success," wrote Stearns, "thanks to an original, potentially controversial characterization of Butterfly as someone who had emotionally outgrown repressive Japanese culture before the opera started. That opened the door to full-blooded displays of temper and tragedy, plus a compelling loss of poise inconceivable in traditional productions."
The Met's Pinkerton, the now-svelte Marcello Giordani, "sang with full-bodied Italianate passion, warm, rich tone and clarion top notes," wrote Tommasini, "And I have never seen him act with more involvement and subtlety." Manuela Hoelterhoff of Bloomberg News agreed: "I have never heard him sing with such radiant high notes, brilliance and expression."
Virtually every critic praised mezzo Maria Zifchak and baritone Dwayne Croft for their professional vocalism and involved, sympathetic portrayals of the maid Suzuki and the American consul Sharpless. As Goro, the marriage broker, Greg Fedderly was commended for bringing dignity and seriousness to a role that too often devolves into caricature.
Metropolitan Opera music director James Levine, who has been at the house since 1971, was conducting his first Madama Butterfly there. (Possibly his last as well: Asher Fisch is taking over for the rest of the run.) Stearns wrote that he "delivered a rich blanket of sound that you wished would never end," while Tommasini found that he "had this familiar score sounding vigorous, lean and intricate."
"There's no exaggeration in what you've heard about this production," Portantiere summed up for TheaterMania.com. "Not only it is better than you've been led to believe, it's better than you could possibly imagine. Count it as unmissable."
Perhaps an even better assessment came from Muriel Kaparis, an audience member in Times Square, talking to Bloomberg News about watching the opera amid all the stimulus overload that the neon-drenched crossroads provides. "The performance is so riveting I don't care," she said. "They could show nude dancing, I wouldn't notice. Every other Madama Butterfly in the world should quit. This girl has it nailed."