A cultural bridge too far

Puccini’s Madame Butterfly flutters over the Israel Festival

‘MADAME BUTTERFLY’ in full flight. (photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
‘MADAME BUTTERFLY’ in full flight.
(photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
For some years now, directors of timeworn stage productions have done their best to bring the storyline up to date, and make it more accessible to ever-widening circles of culture consumers. Around three decades or so ago I recall catching a rendition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet complete with leather-clad actors, and even a motorbike, on stage. Then again, there are works that are more amenable to being brought into the here and now.
Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is clearly tailored to a contemporary mindset, and there are social and cultural messages in there that are just as relevant today as they were when the opera premiered at La Scala, in 1904. Opera lovers who make the trip to Jerusalem’s Sultan’s Pool at the foot of the Old City walls, on Thursday, will be able to catch what promises to be a spectacular, and user-friendly, offering of the ever-popular work, as part of the current Israel Festival.
While the actual events took place over a century ago, the subject matter clear lends itself to a here-and-now rendition.
“The production is an entirely contemporary production,” said director  Gadi Schechter.  “I bring the story into the present. The pimp-owner of night club, where the first act takes place, he has an iPad with all the data he needs – about all the apartments he owns, and the ones he wants to buy, about all his women, his relatives.”
 He’s not only savvy one, about the ways of the cutting edge technology. “The members of the choir have iPhones... Not real ones, of course,” he laughed. “After a day at work they come to the night club, loosen their ties, slip off their suit jackets, relax and send messages. This is a totally modern production.”
Still, presenting an opera al fresco is pretty different from the more frequent indoor, more acoustically-inclined, audience-convenience fashioned format. Mind you, Schechter does have some hands-on experience with the production.
“I have worked on this opera several times before,” he said. “This is my second time as the director. It’s the same production, but I have a completely different cast with completely different soloists.”  The latter, inter alia, include South Korean soprano Elisa Cho, Ukrainian tenor Valentin Dytiuk, Romanian baritone Ionut Pascu and Israeli mezzo-soprano Shay Bloch.
There are, of course, numerous elements that go into an operatic production which can lead the director along a particular aesthetic line of thought. Madame Butterfly tells the tragic tale of a love found and achingly lost, based on a short story by John Luther Long which, in turn, was inspired by real-life accounts of travelers who joined the American navy.
Set in late-19th century Nagasaki, the opera recounts the story of Cio Cio San (Madame Butterfly in Japanese) who falls in love and marries a US naval officer named Pinkerton (Dytiuk). Sadly Cio Cio San’s bliss is abruptly curtailed when Pinkerton returns to the States. Unbeknown to him, his Japanese lover gives birth to a baby boy, and nurtures a dream that, one day, her son’s father will return and they will all live happily ever after. Meanwhile, her erstwhile paramour has regained his place in western society, and has married an American woman. When Pinkerton eventually makes his way to the Land of the Rising Sun he travels with his wife, with a catastrophic bottom line for poor Cio Cio San.
Naturally, the conceptual kernel of the storyline references the interface, and cultural discrepancies, between western and eastern cultures. That will come across, in highly visual form, in Schechter’s version. “The traditional side is the side of [Madame] Butterfly,” the director explained. “All the Japanese women who come to the night club, in the first act, wear kimonos.”
The cultural ping pong thickens. “In the second act we see Butterfly’s house. Half of it is a traditional dwelling – we see her kimono and the place where she prays – but the other half of the house is completely American. There’s an American flag there and a photograph of Pinkerton. She tries to take on something of the American culture, as much as she can, as much as she knows about it at all.” The partitioning of the house is also a means of accentuating the divide between the two societies and ways of thinking which, as we learn, can only badly.
While some operatic productions offer abridged versions of lengthy works, this performance incorporates every word, every note of music and the complete storyline of the original libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. “It is not easy to shorten Puccini operas,” Schechter said “You can do that with some Verdi operas which have what I call ‘numbers’. But with Puccini it is all story-based, and the scenes flow seamlessly. So you can’t really cut Puccini, and you really shouldn’t.”
 In addition to the aforementioned vocalists, the forthcoming rendition features the Israeli Opera Chorus, with chorus master Ethan, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ishai Shtekler. There will be subtitles in English and Hebrew.