Madame Butterfly’s America of the imagination at the Israeli Opera - review

Polish director Mariusz Trelinski seems to have included sharper pins than usual in the opera, which makes the link between collecting butterflies, and how men and women can cause one another pain.

(photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)

The tragic love story between Japanese teenager Cio-Cio-San, who sought to escape the life of a geisha, and US Naval Officer Pinkerton, in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, is being told in a stunning production now playing at the Israeli Opera.

Polish director Mariusz Trelinski seems to have included sharper pins than usual in the acclaimed opera, which makes the link between collecting butterflies, and how men and women can cause one another great pain.

Pinkerton, who buys an arranged marriage for a paltry sum, can be portrayed in a variety of ways. Here, he is transformed from a man clad in uniform with deep personal flaws to a towering giant of a man clad in white, reminding us of a butcher’s apron.

So brutal was the performance by tenor Valentin Dytiuk that he threw the chest with the meager possessions of his young bride over his shoulder, unable to restrain his desire for her during the long wedding. The contrast between his white costume and the red kimono worn by soprano Aurelia Florian was enhanced by her petite figure and his large frame.

The visual language created on stage, in no small part by the costumes designed by Magdalena Teslawska and Pawel Grabaczyk, cried out to the audience in a stunning display of emotions. Tenor Anthony Webb – in a white face mask that lends a ghoulish aspect to his Goro, the matchmaker who secures Madame Butterfly for Pinkerton – was in every aspect a direct quote from classic Japanese theater. Webb excelled as part shrewd merchant, part comic relief.

Attention to detail

The attention to detail, large and small, extended further than clothes. During the letter-reading scene, in which US Counsel Sharpless (baritone Ionut Pascu) attempted to deliver a message to Madame Butterfly on behalf of Pinkerton, large Japanese letters painted on the backdrop began to move as if the audience was serving as the counsel’s eyes.

When a relative, a Buddhist priest, angrily storms the wedding and rails against the young woman, an enormous red dragon head drops from above and leers. While baritone Yair Polishook, with a Japanese letter painted on his naked chest, performed the role of the Bonze remarkably well, this particular stage decision seemed a bit forced. When compared to the meticulous, detailed beauty of other scenes, it seemed the confrontation between tradition and teenage rebellion was more in tune with heavy metal concerts than a lonely paper-made home nestling on a hill overlooking Nagasaki harbor.

During the aria “E soffitto e pareti” (“And ceiling and walls”), Pinkerton describes his new residency as “a magic house which obeys my magic wand.” With such an unpleasant beginning, it is not surprising he tarnishes the trust given to him and causes disaster. Pinkerton not only abandons his Japanese wife for several years, he also returns to Japan with an American partner (Tamara Navoth). 

Puccini makes the point that, in a world controlled by selfish men, women usually act more decently toward each other. The contempt Pinkerton richly deserves was manifested by Navoth in a single flick of the wrist when he attempted to reach her on stage. The precise physical language adopted by the cast for this production was a wonder to watch.

Why does Madame Butterfly refuse to see the obvious – that Pinkerton is not worthy of her loyalty, and accept the offer of Prince Yamadori (Julien van Mellaerts) to start a new life with him?

Perhaps Madame Butterfly’s unique passion for all things American can offer us a much-needed clue.

“The Japanese gods are slow and lazy,” she snipes at her maid Suzuki (Shay Bloch). “The American god could help us, if he only knew where we were.” When matchmaker Goro suggests that she accept the marriage proposal of the prince, she explains to him that “in my country, the US, the law protects women.”

This infatuation with an imaginary US, which serves as a beacon of hope, can be understood when we consider that, for her, to return to the life of a geisha is worse than death. In this production, her eye-opening scene is also a moment when things move in a full, neon-bright circle. The young Japanese bride who prided herself on keeping “an American home” adopts the most traditional, demanding honor codes of the culture she claimed to have forsaken.

Florian gave a stunning performance, enhanced by the force Dityuk brought to his own role. Grateful patrons lavished their praise and did a remarkable thing. They overcame the bad habit of hurrying out of the opera house as soon as the last aria is sung to beat the traffic on the ride home. Instead, they stood and clapped, as conductor Dan Ettinger took his place on stage alongside the cast and bowed.

Madame Butterfly will be performed at the Israeli Opera until Friday, December 16. Sung in Italian with English and Hebrew subtitles, the three-hour opera has one intermission. Tickets range from NIS 195 to NIS 445. To book, call: (03) 692-7777. The Israeli Opera is at 19 Shaul Hamelech Blvd., Tel Aviv.