Peter Konwitschny continues to revolutionize how we look at operatic warhorses more than any other contemporary director. His re-evaluation of Puccini’s venerable “Madama Butterfly” regularly rips through the Fourth Wall to make the opera an interactive experience, starting even before the curtain opens.
Each program for the production contains a folded piece of paper with a bitter, stream-of-consciousness rant, describing “these last days of mankind” and “the terrible end.” It quickly becomes apparent this is Cio-Cio-San’s suicide letter.
The note ends with a comment on the victimization of operatic heroines from Brunnhilde to Mimi: “The bystanders are helpless. The audience is titillated.” And so we are. We’re not buying tickets to watch a happy ending: We’re there for the blood, preferably a soprano’s.
Konwitschny never lets us forget our bystander status. At the end of the great love duet that closes act one, Cio-Cio-San (Eva Jenisova) and Pinkerton (Ludovit Ludha), at opposite sides of the stage, grab the red velvet curtains and draw them shut, preventing our further voyeurism. As startling to us as it is to Cio-Cio-San and her companion, Suzuki (Monika Fabianova), the house lights come up before the heroine’s ritual suicide. We feel squeamish, maybe even a little guilty.
By act two, Cio-Cio-San and Suzuki are thoroughly Americanized: trash covers the floor as the women sulk on a broken sofa blanketed with the stars and stripes, guzzling Jack Daniels and wearing sunglasses. Instead of clanging ritual bells to pray for Pinterton’s return, Suzuki clinks an empty glass against the bottle and moans “Oh! la mia testa!” (“Oh, my head!”). When the dispirited American consul Sharples (Dalibor Jenis) attempts to read aloud Pinkerton’s letter announcing he’s married an American, Cio-Cio-San reveals her child (Daniel Hurinsky), a rowdy blond kid in cowboy regalia, cap-guns blasting.
Ultimately, the characters’ self-imposed blindness leads to their tragic ends. On their wedding night, Suzuki blindfolds the lovers with black strips of cloth, and they stumble about, empty arms extended, singing of their ecstasy. Most trenchant, Cio-Cio San ties her blindfold over the eyes of the child while uttering her final words, “Va, gioca, gioca!” (“Go play!”), painting the whole drama as nothing more than an ill-fated game.
As usual in a Konwitschny production, the level of commitment is astounding down to the smallest role. Jenisova scores a triumph, making a complex, defiant modern woman out of a hackneyed stereotype. Fabianova’s moving Suzuki is more confidante than servant, the frustratingly-ignored voice of reason.
Ludha is not your usual caddish Pinkerton, realizing the heinousness of his behavior when he finds his letter among the trash on the floor. And Hurinsky is perfect as the child, bratty one second, heartrending the next.
Hanna Wartenegg’s deliciously extravagant costumes for the dizzying choral ensemble sharply contrast Jorg Kossdorff’s effective, minimalist settings.
Conductor Olivier Dohnanyi offers a lean, theatrically-compelling reading, never indulging in the organ-grinder bathos which can swallow this score. As with every element of this “Butterfly,” sentimentality is eschewed for raw theatrical power.