‘MADAME BUTTERFLY’ under the direction of Mariusz Trelinski.  (photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
‘MADAME BUTTERFLY’ under the direction of Mariusz Trelinski. (photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
Trelinski’s Madam Butterfly returns to Israel

Puccini’s Madame Butterfly returns to the Israeli Opera on Friday, December 2, under coordinating director Jerzy Krysiak with soprano Alla Vasilevitsky assuming the title role of Cio-Cio San. A 15-year-old Japanese geisha swept off her feet by dashing United States Naval officer Pinkerton.

The male lead role alternates between Valentin Dityuk and Otar Jorjikia. Both tenors are sure to intrigue us with their depictions of the callous man.

“Dovunque al mondo lo Yankee vagabond,” Pinkerton exclaims as soon as he enters the stage, “si godee traffica sprezzando rischi” (A Yankee travels the world taking his pleasure and profit wherever he finds it, ignoring the risks). He is joined on stage by Sharpless, the American Counsel in Japan, who officiates his marriage to Cio-Cio San. Together they cheer, in English, “America Forever!”

When late director Anthony Minghella staged Madame Butterfly at the Met, he had the diplomat toss his drink in disgust after he understood Pinkerton sees nothing wrong with exploiting the innocence of a teenager.

In this version, created by Mariusz Trelinski, the two appear to jointly revel in American might to the musical strains of the US National Anthem. Puccini baked that into the 1904 opera from the start but as critic Michael Handelzalts described in his review of the 2012 revival (with soprano Ira Bertman in the title role), the result is both preposterous and parodic.

 ‘MADAME BUTTERFLY’ under the direction of Mariusz Trelinski.  (credit: YOSSI ZWECKER) ‘MADAME BUTTERFLY’ under the direction of Mariusz Trelinski. (credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)

Third time's the charm for Telinski's Madame Butterfly in Israel

This is the third revival of the Trelinski vision for Madame Butterfly here. The first was the 2008 production during the Polish Year in Israel with soprano Hiromi Omura in the title role. It is a triumph of dedication and logistics over COVID-19, as it was meant to be staged two years ago.

When asked why Trelinski’s opera became such an important vehicle since it was first staged in 1999 at Warsaw’s Grand Theater – National Opera, Krysiak explained that the production restored his faith in opera when he first watched it.

“For a long time I stayed away from opera,” he said, “seeing it as a genre full of bad taste and kitsch. An empty form which does not invite thought.” He mentioned one other great opera with similar ground-breaking qualities, Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger as directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski.

“This opera showed me the form was not dead, that opera is still able to say something important.”

Jerzy Krysiak

“This opera,” he added, returning to Madame Butterfly, “showed me the form was not dead, that opera is still able to say something important.”

This was largely achieved thanks to the collective efforts of Terlinski, stage designer Boris Kudlika, and choreography master Emil Wesolowski.

Drawing their inspiration from Japanese theater, the trio designed a precise body language for this opera which differs from more traditional productions.

For example, when Madame Butterfly shows Pinkerton what little possessions she has, she presents him with the Ottoke, ritual dolls which represent her ancestors. In the Met’s Opera production, they are real objects.

“In this production,” explains Vasilevitsky, “I present him (Pinkerton) with various items, like a mirror, but my hands are empty, only the ritual sword (Cio-Cio San inherits from her father) is real. We ask the audience to use imagination.”

“Metaphorically speaking,” explained Krysiak, “Kudlika scraped the powder off what can be staged in a very sentimental manner. This is, so to speak, Japan without cherry blossoms.”

Vasilevitsky, who generously gave her time to The Jerusalem Post during lunch break during rehearsals while wearing the long black wig and makeup of her character, lauded Krysiak for his patience and kindness.

“SOME DIRECTORS like to pull the blanket in their direction,” she said, “here, I feel that I am being offered as much of the blanket as I need. It is a great gift for a singer when our efforts are honored, as an artist is a delicate instrument.”

Vasilevitsky watched the 2008 revival with Omura in the title role and appreciated the fact that in this production “every movement has a reason; (we are informed) why it is so.”

She also lavished praise on conductor Dan Ettinger for “caring deeply that everything would be perfect.” “It is an honor for me to work under such a conductor,” she concluded.

Krysiak expressed how happy he is with the “fantastic talents I work with in this production”, noting that the selection was made by the Israeli Opera. He also lauded Vasilevitsky as having “great tenderness as an artist.”

“She really takes the role into her heart,” he noted, “she identifies with it.”

The Polish director also said the famous role allows different sopranos, respectively, to show different qualities Madame Butterfly possesses.

Soprano Aurelia Florian, who alternates with Vasilevitsky, has a tremendous fighting spirit, he suggested, and is able to shine a spotlight on the brave teenager who is willing to give all for love, even if it means being disowned by her people.

He lauded Mezzo-soprano Shay Bloch as having a fantastic voice, noting she has the unique ability to be intensely focused while inhabiting the role of Suzuki, the loyal maid of Madame Butterfly. 

When Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai presented Madame Butterfly to the public gathered at Hayarkon Park two years ago, he pointed to the painful historic roots from which the opera blossoms.

“Which foreign bride,” the mayor asked rhetorically, “does not long for a husband who will whisk her away to America?”

When Madame Butterfly was first performed at La Scala, with its tragic tale of an uneven relationship between East and West, the Russo-Japanese War broke out.

The stunning defeat of the Russian Army under Czar Nicholas the Second was the first time a European colonial power was pushed back by an Asian one. The war tore apart and reshaped the lives of millions.

 In Japan, it transformed Zen monk Kodo Sawaki. Swept by nationalistic fervor he argued that “discarding one’s body beneath the military flag is true selflessness”, Kodo would end up as Homeless Kodo, refusing for many years to serve as an abbot and reviving his branch of Zen Buddhism in Nippon.

A medical doctor in the Czarist Army, Polish-Jewish Physician Henryk Goldszmit witnessed the cruel fate of ordinary people during conflict and bitterly complained the role of a military healer is like that of a watch-maker tasked with fixing clocks broken to pieces just so his fixed devices be shattered once more.

Goldszmit would eventually become one of the greatest educators the world has ever known by taking up the pen name Janusz Korczak.

Against the barbarism of the strong devouring the weak, Puccini offers hope.

“Un Del Di, Vedremo” (One Good Day, We Will See) sings Madame Butterfly to Suzuki. “Tienti la tua paura, io con sicura fede l’aspetto” (Hold back your fears – I with secure faith wait for him).

Madame Butterfly will perform at the Israeli Opera from Friday, December 2, to Friday, December 16. Sung in Italian with English and Hebrew subtitles, the opera is three hours long with 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.

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