‘Madama Butterfly’: A treat for ear and eye

Few are the operas with music more beautiful, and few, too, with librettos that tell a sadder tale.

Madama Butterfly 370 (photo credit: Yossi Zvecker)
Madama Butterfly 370
(photo credit: Yossi Zvecker)
‘Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thoughts,” Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in his classic poem To a Skylark. Though he pre-dated Giacomo Puccini by more than half a century, he could very well have been referring to the Italian composer’s classic opera Madama Butterfly.
Few are the operas with music more beautiful, and few, too, with librettos that tell a sadder tale.
In a nutshell, the story goes like this: The quintessential Ugly American, the one who sees the world as his playground and everything in it as his plaything, finds his way by gunship to early 20th-century Nagasaki. There, through a marriage broker, he buys and weds a beautiful 15-year-old geisha girl who abandons her family, tradition and religion for him. He impregnates her, and then leaves for the States.
The geisha girl, Cio-Cio-San, otherwise known as Madame Butterfly, waits expectantly for three long years, believing in his return, and raising their child. He does return, but this time with an American wife. After consenting to give the child to the couple, Madame Butterfly, inconsolable, falls on her own dagger.
With brilliant lighting, sparse sets like in a Japanese tea room, and soaring vocals, this excruciating tale came to sublime life at the Israel Opera House in Tel Aviv Tuesday night in a joint production of the Israel Opera and the Wielki National Opera from Warsaw, Poland, directed by Poland’s Mariusz Trelinski.
Polish-born Wioletta Chadowicz, making her Israel Opera debut, was astounding in the role of Madame Butterfly, her voice powerful yet tender, and as such able to transmit the extreme emotions of the character she played: first restrained passion, then longing, and finally – tragically – bitter despair.
Serbian-born Zoran Todorovich was nearly her match as the American Pinkerton, clad throughout in white, though the soul of his character was anything but. He is of a Yankee class, the libretto reads, whose life is not fulfilled “unless he picks flowers at every port.”
Todorovich’s tenor was strong, powerful and robust, well befitting the character he portrayed.
These two voices were complemented by staging that simply took the breath away: not because of extravagance, because the sets were not extravagant, but rather because of their very simplicity.
Almost as if by magic, the stage through much of the performance was transformed by lighting alone into the shimmering East China Sea, upon which small fishing boats periodically glided by.
In the second scene, where the American Consul named Sharpless is trying to convey a letter to Madame Butterfly that Pinkerton wrote saying he married in the US, the consul, Madame Butterfly, and her servant Suzuki moved across an elevated stage set only against the brown background of parchment overlaid with Japanese script – creating the visual impression of a Japanese wood-etching. Truly dreamlike.
There were brief moments of grand staging, such as when an angry uncle descended from the ceiling at the wedding of Madame Butterfly and Pinkerton in what looks like the mouth of the Golden Calf, angrily castigating his niece for converting to Christianity and forsaking her relatives and people. He seemed the early 20thcentury Japanese version of Fiddler on the Roof‘s Tevye, cutting off his daughter for intermarrying. But these grandiose staging moments were brief, and the overall theme of the production seemed to be “sparse is more.” And it worked.
The use of colors to project different moods throughout the performance was artful. At the outset the dominant color, the color projected on a screen at the back of the stage, was red – symbolic of desire, of passion.
The color, after the marriage scene, turned into light blue – serenity – but a light blue that was forebodingly blacked out as Madame Butterfly longingly looked seaward at the end of Act II, scene I for her husband’s longoverdue return. And by the end of the opera, that passionate red was back, but this time an even deeper red, a blood red to match Madame Butterfly’s despair, and the final thrust of her dagger.
The colors were striking throughout the performance – for instance at Madame Butterfly’s wedding to Pinkerton when her red dress; Pinkerton’s white jacket, shirt and pants; and the guests’ imperial Japanese purple costumes seemed to paint the stage lusciously as if it were a canvass. Not extravagant costumes, but ones that captured the eye with the simplicity and harmony of the colors.
To both eye and the ear, this uncluttered performance of Puccini’s classic was a treat. Indeed, truly memorable.