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Review: A Fierce Soprano Arrives at the Met in ‘Madama Butterfly’

In the most heartbreaking scene of Puccini’s opera “Madama Butterfly,” the title character waits. A teenage geisha married off to an American naval lieutenant, she remains devoted to him long after he abandons her. He will return, she believes — one fine day.

When she sees his ship approaching the shores of Japan, she and her maid ecstatically prepare the home for him. They gather flowers and spread them at the door; Butterfly rouges her cheeks and puts on the wedding garments she wore the night she and the lieutenant fell in love. Then she, their son and the maid look out through a screen and wait. The boy falls asleep first, followed by the maid. But Butterfly stays awake all night, expecting a husband who never comes.

Moments like this are perfect for the Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian, a fiercely intelligent and captivating singer who made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera on Friday. She comes to New York having already reached star status abroad, and it didn’t take long in “Butterfly” to see why.

After Grigorian knelt to wait, she smiled at her son, played by an affecting bunraku puppet. Then she let out a deep exhale and perfected her posture before reaching out to hold the hand of her maid, Suzuki. As the scene went on, her eyes seemed on the verge of tears, but only on the verge. She appeared overwhelmed with either anticipation or disappointment, or both.

Opera is known for its elevated expression, of which there is plenty in “Butterfly,” a tragedy from start to finish. But Grigorian is the type of singer who also behaves like a skilled, nuanced actress. She persuasively inhabits a character, imbuing performances of plush lyricism with empathy, sophistication and even a touch of spontaneity.

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