'Madame Butterfly' at the Israeli Opera.
'Madame Butterfly' at the Israeli Opera. The plot appears more piercing and painful from a modern perspective. Photo by Yossi Zwecker
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Giacomo Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" is one of the most frequently performed operas in the world. Between 2005 and 2010 it was eighth on operabase.com's list of the most popular operas, with the first three places taken by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "The Magic Flute," Giuseppe Verdi's "La Traviata" and Georges Bizet's "Carmen." The current production at the Israeli Opera, directed by Mariusz Trelinski of Poland and with sets by Boris Kudlicka, is the production that made the director famous. After this production was staged at the Polish National Opera in Warsaw (of which Trelinski is now the director ) in 1999, it was produced successfully at the Washington National Opera in 2001 under the direction of Placido Domingo, and it has already been seen on the stage of the Israeli Opera, in 2008 as part of a year to promote Polish culture in Israel.

And to my ear and eye - and I believe I am not alone in holding this opinion - it is the most impressive production in the Israeli Opera's history. It is also an example of how it is possible to perform a familiar repertoire item - and ostensibly one with which it is very difficult to be innovative, and that has a plot that is hard to seriously relate to (as opposed to the wonderful music, which is beyond the purview of this column or its writer's expertise ) - and nevertheless transform it into a multifaceted and brilliant theatrical diamond.

Let us begin with the plot, which takes place at the end of the 19th century (around the same time the opera was written and first performed, in 1904 ). "Madame Butterfly" is based on a French novel by Pierre Loti - which apparently was based in turn on autobiographical materials, a plot concocted by American lawyer John Luther Long and a play by American producer David Belasco. Unlike many popular operas it is not based on a real or imagined historical incident or a familiar play. There is also no other way of relating to it than as the skeleton of a story that is an excuse for a series of stunning arias and vocal ensemble pieces.

Puccini's subtle criticism

Almost from the very first moment, "Madame Butterfly" is a story about human trafficking; a relationship that exploits the colonial strength of the "democratic" United States as compared to oriental, exotic Japan; the oppression of a weak woman by powerful men; and a sexual relationship with a minor.

It could be that, when the opera was first performed, the plot was perceived as a melodramatic or tragic story about an innocent victim over whose fate a tear could be shed. But today, human trafficking - or more precisely trade in women for the purposes of prostitution - has not left public consciousness and is, conversely, a focus of attention. Thus it is no longer possible to relate to this plot equably. However, when you pay attention to the words and music (and to the staging of the current production ) it is perfectly clear that, in subtle ways, Puccini includes elements of criticism in his story, which Trelinski has exploited very well.

Thus, for example, the American naval officer who intends to buy himself a 15-year-old virgin for a marriage of convenience, including the acquisition of a house "let for 999 years with a monthly option to break the lease" (i.e. pretending eternity ) is named Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. His forenames are those of the American statesman and diplomat, one of the framers of the American Declaration of Independence, which declares that "all men are created equal." He serves on the ship "The Abraham Lincoln," named after the president who freed the slaves. Pinkerton reveals his plans to the American consul in Nagasaki, Sharpless (as in not sharp ) and, despite the fact that evil is about to be committed under the auspices of the American fleet and state, the consul expresses only limp objections, solely out of concern for the officer's possible emotional entanglement with "a local." So as to leave no doubt in the listener's mind, Puccini plants a quote from the American national anthem in the first act. In Trelinski's staging the officer and consul raise their glasses while moving around to the strains of "The Star-Spangled Banner," transforming the moment into something preposterous and nearly parodic, and giving the plot a contemporary context.

The opera's plot appears even more piercing and painful from a modern perspective when the heroine, Cio-Cio San, the butterfly of the title, enters the trap willingly and enthusiastically, ready to alienate herself from her family and religion in the name of love. In the love duet between her and Pinkerton she clarifies for the audience her nickname that is the opera's title. She asks the man who is about to exploit and abandon her whether it is true that in the West people hunt butterflies for their beauty and pin them to a wall. Pinkerton assuages her concern with a slick lie.

Trelinski and costume designer Magdalena Teslawska take excellent advantage of this moment planted in the first act: In the third act, Pinkerton's American wife Kate (the one he always intended to marry - Butterfly was only a temporary, exotic plaything for the white man ) arrives looking like a white butterfly, wearing a dress that looks like wings. She persuades Butterfly to give up the son she has borne to the American out of love for him. Kate, the supposedly liberated Western woman who conspires with Western men against her own oppressed sex, is the butterfly with the pin stuck in it, even if she is unaware of or refuses to admit it.

Innocence crushed

This is just one instance of the production's uniqueness, which is also one of the most beautiful ever performed at the Israeli Opera. Some of the inspiration for its design (set designer Kudlicka has been working regularly with Trelinski ever since this production was first created ) is taken from the first scene, in which Japanese matchmaker-procurer Goro shows a Japanese house to the American. The house is both solid and fluid. Its walls can be moved and, with the flick of a hand, the bedroom becomes the living room and indoors becomes outdoors. The large, deep and open stage, controlled by means of black screens that reveal and conceal as necessary, is similarly both solid and fluid. The action onstage is also at once indoors and outdoors: From the end of the first act it tells the story of Butterfly waiting for Pinkerton to return and the entire stage is black, smooth and shiny. Small boats glide on it, carrying Butterfly and her retinue or passing in the background.

The back wall, which is an endless blue sky, also helps create an illusion: When part of it is covered by a black screen cutting across the backdrop on an angle it creates the impression of Butterfly looking out into the distance. And then, with the movement of a screen, colorful and powerful scenes are revealed, such as the arrival of her uncle, the Bonze, who curses Butterfly, or the Japanese nobleman with long fingernails who is prepared to redeem Butterfly from her "desertion."

The production's visual climax is in the third act. When Butterfly is told that Pinkerton's ship has anchored in the harbor and she is hoping he will return to her (not knowing that he has come back to crush her once and for all ), an angular line that resembles the prow of a ship passes slowly across the back wall, covering the sky and overshadowing a small Japanese boat onstage in front of it. This scene presents a stand-alone image of Western progress forging ahead and crushing the innocence of Butterfly's love along the way. "America forever," sing Pinkerton and Sharpless, "America over all."

Another design element in this production is a trio of dancers, who traverse the stage in Emil Wesolowski's choreography and are servants of the plot. It is they who open the opera by pulling a red cloth across the width of the stage, they who in an almost ritual-ceremonial moment take from Butterfly's hands the child who is the fruit of her innocent love, whom she is forced to hand over to Pinkerton and his wife, and they who place in her hands the knife with which she will commit ritual suicide. The final scene is played out while the backdrop and Butterfly are both dressed in red, as she stands on an empty stage and, with her profile to the audience, plunges in the dagger to the sounds of the final chord.

Another achievement of this Israeli Opera production, at least on the evening of the premiere, is that apart from Pinkerton (played by Serbian tenor Zoran Todorovich ) and the dancers, who are Polish, the cast consists entirely of Israeli singers - with Vladimir Braun in the role of Sharpless, Yosef Aridan as Goro and Ira Bertman as Butterfly.

This is a sought-after production internationally and rightly so. The performance this Thursday will be shown simultaneously on a large screen on the plaza in front of the Performing Arts Center. This is part of an attempt to increase the appeal of the opera - a genre that is traditionally expensive to produce and to see. Assuming that the sound quality will be good, this is an excellent and spectacular opera for the big screen. The images projected onto the screen will lack the depth that exists onstage, but those who cannot be in the auditorium will have to content themselves with this.