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Il Trovatore at Castello di Vigoleno (Piacenza), Italy
07 Jul 2007

Love and death among battlements

In 2003, at Cagli’s Accademia del Teatro, Elisabetta Courir directed a compelling Così fan tutte, minimalist, sophisticated and low-budget; quite unlike Daniele Abbado, whose Lohengrin for Bologna’s Teatro Comunale integrated “hard” scenery, video projections and historically informed costumes into a dream-like pageant.

Giuseppe Verdi: Il Trovatore
Castello di Vigoleno (Piacenza), Italy


Yet both stagings had in common a deep respect for — and knowledge of — the original dramatic concept and the underlying music, something increasingly rare nowadays.

In fact, both young directors have one more common feature, since their fathers Duilio Courir and Claudio Abbado rank among Italy’s shining stars — in music criticism and in conducting, respectively. Being born into the trade at such top levels may rather work as a hindrance, at least when a budding professional is determined to build his/her own independent career without relying on family connections. Ms Courir is one such case, having debuted in opera direction relatively late in 1994 with an appreciated staging of Vivaldi’s Tamerlano at Verona’s Teatro Filarmonico, at the age of 30 and after diverse experiences in spoken drama.

Elisabetta CourirActually, most of her educational curriculum pointed towards opera. The 10-year girl who used to sing in the children’s choir at La Scala grew up to study music at the Scuola Civica di Milano, alongside humanities, theater and musicology at the State University in the same town. For a period, she even took singing lesson from the vocal scholar Rodolfo Celletti, also attending the masterclasses held at Fiesole (Florence) by Walter Blazer, the well-known teacher from the Manhattan School of Music. As to direction, she apprenticed with such masters as Dario Fo and Luca Ronconi — but particularly Egisto Marcucci, noted for his rigor, discrimination of, and in-depth research on, texts, whether sung or spoken.

Courir’s latest opera staging, Verdi’s Il trovatore, generally counts as popular fare; however, her reading thereof appears unconventional, aristocratic and upstream — starting right from its location: an outdoor arena at Vigoleno, soaring high on the green hills between Parma and Piacenza in the Po Valley. The castle and hamlet of Vigoleno, built in its present form during the 1390s, was a meeting point for the culturati during the 1920-30s. Gabriele D’Annunzio, Max Ernst, Jean Cocteau, Artur Rubinstein among Europeans, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Elsa Maxwell from the USA; all were guests here at the duchesse de Grammont’s, born princess Maria Ruspoli (incidentally: from the same family who offered lavish hospitality to young Handel in Rome).

Il Trovatore — Act IIIThe castle itself, with its towers, battlemented walls and gates, provided a hyperrealistic backdrop to a plot set in no less than two castles in Spain during roughly the same age: Aljaferia and Castellor. Light years far from the current trend of European opera direction, where the setting would be typically a dilapidated industrial plant, a garage, a gay bar, a spacecraft or whatever else. Tall wooden boards, all crooked and scorched, served as a camouflage for covered bays were patrols were doing their rounds. A drawdbridge suspended over a dark gulf was alternatively the springboard whence Manrico was expected to launch his treacherous high Cs in “Di quella pira” and the stairway plunging into the dungeon “where the State prisoners languish”. Less blacksmiths than dyers, the Gypsies hanged out the garish product of their industry from virtual battlements mirroring the real ones, or celebrated and sung by torchlight while squatting down in circles around certain disquieting cauldrons. Tribal and gloomy with a shade of the Orient — such was the medieval Spain conjured up by Courir and her team: set designer Guido Fiorato, costume designer Artemio Cabassi and Fiammetta Baldiserri in charge of lighting.

Stage at Castello di Vigoleno (Piacenza), ItalyWithin that (basically reliable, yet never archaeologic) framework, bodies shaped their passions in the mould of unavoidable melodrama. The lecherous Count attained by bitter qualms of conscience in the end; Leonora a compassionate Madonna in light-blue train; Manrico a greyish bachelor, moonstruck by misfortune and clearly a noble born-looser. Azucena towered throughout in her fiery red gowns, as young and sexy as possible. Rather than Manrico’s mother, she looked like his paramour, while a manly Ferrando kept jerking her with ill-conceived desire. Side characters, nuns, warriors, courtiers and sundry extras navigated smoothly, then suddenly disappeared behind the boards. Perfect clockwork and grand opera on a grand scale, though with limited means.

The junior singing company was enough well-matched (a crucial requirement for Il trovatore), with baritone Claudio Sgura getting the best applause for both his vocal qualities and sensitive acting. Rachele Stanisci (Leonora) has her strongpoint in agility, as Laura Brioli (Azucena) in sheer power; yet a more restrained vibrato during their forte passages would not spoil. As Manrico, the experienced tenor Renzo Zulian sounded strangely fatigued and/or unhappy with his upper register, probably due to a last-minute stand-in for an ailing colleague. Orchestra Filarmonica Toscanini and Coro del Teatro Municipale di Piacenza, both emerging ensembles, were led by Massimiliano Stefanelli with unrelenting pulse, despite a troublesome acoustic environment. Outdoor venues have their pros and cons, particularly during a windy early Summer as this is proving to be.

Carlo Vitali

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