Jetske Mijnssen puts on a shocking ‘Madama Butterfly’, sharply conducted by Enrico Delamboye.
By: Peter van der Lint
The opera that is the most associated with a clichéd image is undoubtedly ‘Madama Butterfly’ by Giacomo Puccini (1904). The heartrending story about a Japanese girl that in complete surrender marries an American navy lieutenant, scorns her faith and her culture, and subsequently spends years in poverty waiting for him to return. When he finally does so, he has married an American woman in the mean time and they together have come to take away his son by Butterfly. Nothing remains for her except harakiri.
There are not many opera stories that can be told in two sentences, and usually it is a sign of great theatrical power and persuasiveness. Puccini saw the play on which the opera is based in London, and although he could not understand English, he was perfectly able to follow the drama. He knew immediately that it could become an universal opera. However that universal quality, saturated with exoticism, has become somewhat depleted during the course of more than a hundred years.
The japonaiseries that were put into the score by the composer are often invariably pared by directors with images of rice paper houses with sliding doors, tottering geisha, fans, cherry blossom and ritual hara-kiri. It is difficult with this tragedia giapponese, as Puccini sub-headed his work, to think of something new and something contemporary; to save the opera from its anecdotal character, and to create something truly universal from it.
That is what the Dutch director Jetske Mijnssen has magnificently succeeded in doing in the production that she made for the Theater Basel. Thursday saw the successful premiere of Mijnssen’s ‘Butterfly’, flamboyantly conducted by the Dutchman Enrico Delamboye. Mijnssen previously directed among other things with Opera Zuid Rossini’s ‘Il barbiere di Sivilglia’ and with the Komische Oper in Berlin Ravel’s ‘L’enfant et les sortilèges’. Berlin will also see the premiere of her vision on Donizetti’s ‘Don Pasquele’ this season.
The clever thing about Mijnssen’s production is that it fits together extremely logically, despite – or perhaps because of – the gross deviations from the libretto. She is relating her vision on a tragedy of a contemporary woman and ‘sie tut das’, wrote a Swiss newspaper, ‘mit grosser Genauigkeit in einer realistischen, die psychischen Zustände ausleuchtenden Figurenzeichnung’. The director makes her characters lifelike and recognisable. She shows, as another newspaper reported, ‘mit einer handwerklich überhaus soliden, höchst detaillierten Personenregie auf allen Ebenen, was gutes Theater aktuell zu leisten imstande ist.’
Lieutenant Pinkerton draws his wallet three times in the first five minutes – a flashy yuppie who believes money can buy him everything. Consul Sharpless is not shown here as the old and wise man, but as a contemporary of Pinkerton, just as boastful, but unlike his friend he is convinced of and impressed by the (inner) beauty of Butterfly. How clever that Mijnssen is able to depict this quickly and effectively.
The little house that Pinkerton has rented for himself and his child bride has not yet been finished. The walls consist of joined plasterboards, some of which is still covered by builders’ plastic. A hasty, false marriage in a hastily built, unfinished house. In that environment Butterfly seduces her lieutenant, dressed as a geisha. Her friends have also put on Japanese-like costumes for the occasion. However we do not find ourselves in Japan, this is the modern, harsh and globalised world. Butterfly also belongs to this world and even before the wedding ceremony she gives Pinkerton a passionate French kiss. When she takes off her Japanese clothes, two ‘ordinary’ people of flesh and blood remain, who make something completely believable and sensual out of their long love duet. It helps that Mijnssen has found in Maxim Aksenov and Svetlana Ignatovitsj such terrific actors/singers.
After that Mijnssen focuses completely on the child of Butterfly. Seven years (longer than Puccini meant) have passed and in an even smaller plasterboard house it is one big mess. Butterfly and Suzuki (more a sister than a servant here) have to scrape, they cannot handle life. On the plasterboard wall the child has drawn a ship on the waves and three puppets; later on he stabs the one that represents his father with Butterfly’s harakiri knife.
When the ship finally docks there is no picking of flowers, as Puccini wanted, but maids are packing everything in removal boxes – away from this misery! In the famous night watch with humming chorus it is not Butterfly who remains awake, but the child. Eating crisps he is not visited by his father, but by social workers from child protection services. A woman sees the knife in the wall and puts it in her bag. The outcome is clear. Butterfly has to be deprived of her parental rights.
And so it is that Butterfly does not sing her stirring final monologue to her child –which has already been taken away by the police – but to an ideal image. The shock that the hara-kiri knife is missing causes her to panic. With a pair of scissors with which her child had been cutting and playing, she cuts open her arms. A shocking end to a fiercely realistic production.
The audience in Basel followed the performance with silent fascination and there was a lot of applause for all those involved. Delamboye (son of the tenor Hubert Delamboye) with the Basel orchestra kept coming closer to the raw reality on the stage. The sentiment chafed beautifully. The young singing cast, many of whom came from the Basel training, did the rest. It is striking that during the entire evening you don’t really think about the culture clash that this opera actually is. That is until Kate Pinkerton suddenly enters the stage –an Afro-American woman! It could be a coincidence, but it does deliver the final blow in this drama.
Translated by: Jaco Mijnssen