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Barbera Sings a Fascinating Recital in San Diego

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Tiziana Caruso as Tosca [Photo by Alfredo Tabocchini]
29 Aug 2008

A Muse for the Masses: Two Operatic Arenas in Review

With the revival of a 1876 Cleopatra by the local composer Lauro Rossi, a couple of world premieres in chamber opera and sacred oratorio (by Marco Tutino and Alberto Colla, respectively) and Verdi’s Attila canceled because of budget constraints, the 44th installment of the Macerata Festival will nevertheless be remembered as a bumper season, if one not particularly friendly to mainstream taste.

Georges Bizet: Carmen
Macerata, Arena Sferisterio, July 31 (new production)
Verona, L’Arena, July 25

Giacomo Puccini: Tosca
Macerata, Arena Sferisterio, August 1st (new production)
Verona, L’Arena, July 24

Above: Tiziana Caruso as Tosca in Macerata
Photo by Alfredo Tabocchini


Some popular fare was indeed provided in the Arena Sferisterio, the mid-19th-century building originally hosting a local variety of the pelota game. That destination accounts for the immoderate length of its 100-meter stage, a tough challenge to directors and set designers. The acoustics are miraculous, anyway, and the seating capacity, after the latest downsizing out of safety reasons, still amounts to a respectable 2,500, second only to Verona’s awe-inspiring 14,000. Yet even such huge venues are regularly sold out for Carmen and Tosca - those typical evergreens for outdoors arenas - as proved this Summer by their competing productions in Macerata and Verona, just days apart.

I-Komlosi_Carmen.pngIldiko Komlosi as Carmen in Verona (Photo by Tabocchini e Gironella)
Macerata’s new Carmen marked the debut in opera direction for the home-child Dante Ferretti, the set designer who scored no less than nine nominations and two Oscar Prizes from the American Academy (he is currently collaborating with Martin Scorsese on a film called Shutters Island, from Dennis Lehane’s novel, due to be released within 2008). Despite his involvement with Hollywood pageantry, Ferretti devised a minimalist set drawing from Francoist Spain during the 1930s-40s, as depicted, among others, by Luís Buñuel’s movies and Ernest Hemingway’s novels. A dusty square, a humble fountain in cast iron, two period lorries in various degrees of dilapidation, a few bicycles, two posters announcing a bullfight: that was nearly all. No colorful dragoons were around, only Guardia Civil policemen donning their ominous black monteras; therefore, with handguns instead of sabers, the duel between José and Zuniga was confined to a soon-aborted drawing. Lilas Pastia’s tavern in Act 2 was portrayed as a pretentious bordello for the lower middle-class, where whiskey was sipped instead of manzanilla and stylish French tango danced instead of flamenco or habanera. Too bad, however, that some shabbiness cascaded from the stage into the pit, where Carlo Montanaro’s conducting sounded weak, almost defeatist. The singing cast fared well overall, with Irina Lungu a sexier and more assertive Micaëla than usually expected and Nino Surguladze vocally perfect but arguably too demure, even lady-like, as Carmencita. If both ladies could exchange bodies or voices, as in Thomas Mann’s The Transposed Heads, it would fare even better. As a passionate and lightweight Don José, Philippe Do from Vietnam ventured a high D in his “La fleur”. If not perfect throughout, his unconventional performance was stimulating. Alexandra Zabala as a warbling Frasquita and Simone Alberghini an Escamillo of funereal distinction rounded up the company. To all that, Sergio Rossi’s clever lighting and prima ballerina Anbeta Toromani from Albania contributed a touch of class. Toromani’s amazingly long-limbed body seems a display of pinnacles and acute-angled forms. Whether in a traditional pas de deux or in modern free style, she can entice with serpentine motions of a very intimate character, then suddenly whirl through the air like a winged flower.

Carmen-Ballo.pngCarmen in Macerata, start of Act II [left: prima ballerina Anbeta Toromani + right: Nino Surguladze as Carmen] (Photo by Alfredo Tabocchini)

At Verona, with Daniel Oren on the podium, Zeffirelli’s Disneyesque reconstruction of Spain after Bizet found a show-stopping protagonist in Ildiko Komlosi. The Hungarian mezzo sang with great precision and feeling: her capricious rubato was compelling for sensualism, as was the stubbornly dark sound of her lower register. Her presence seemed to inhabit the extra-large stage despite the presence of a distant snow-covered Sierra and the terrific overflow of side-action involving children, soldiers, toreadors and hosts of socially-coded extras, flamenco dancers, live animals. I counted no less than five horses and four donkeys of diverse breed and size, whose unplanned contribution to the stage props caused a thrill when Don José, holding a navaja in his hand during the duel scene in Act 3, barely avoided a slippery spot. With the only exceptions of a fresh Elena Mosuc as Micaëla and the bustling participation of El Camborio, a Verona-based company specializing in Spanish folk dance, the rest was just routine. Thumbs down for the male principals, regretfully. Portraying Escamillo, baritone Marco Di Felice lacked the macho appeal of the toreador who would lure Carmen away from Don José. His low pitches wobbled since his very entrance, thus spoiling his Toreador Song and making his appearance among the smugglers rather unmemorable. Early during his performance as Don José, Mario Malagnini showed intonation problems both in the lower and upper registers. Eventually, his voice opened up and acquired firmness during Act 3 (pretty late, indeed), which allowed him to build a respectable finale, when he poured out his murderous passion with some more convincing accents and a correct stabbing technique - i.e. with his knife moving upwards. In the end, the day was saved by Oren’s deftly balanced conducting, flexible enough to keep together the boisterous and the exotic with the lyrical in the overture and the entr’actes, while aptly emphasizing dance rhythms, shivers of tragedy, and even those finely-wrought ensembles (such as the dizzyingly counterpoint-ish quintet “Nous avons en tête une affaire” in Act 2) which easy-going conductors tend to treat as mere showpieces or perfunctory comic relief.

That a first-rate conductor may make the difference also in large arenas, where the patrons are supposedly more interested in lavish stagings and muscular voices, was equally proved true by Daniele Callegari at Macerata. Under his energetic and nuanced baton, the resident ensembles Orchestra Regionale delle Marche and Coro Bellini delivered a fine rendering of Tosca. Tutti bravi in the company, despite a cold start for both Tiziana Caruso in the title-role and Luca Lombardo as Cavaradossi. Besides singing bravely, Riccardo Massi (Spoletta) and Noris Borgogelli (Sciarrone) looked like a consummate duo of rogues, virtually indistinguishable from each other. But the biggest sensation was Claudio Sgura in the role of Scarpia. Still in his early thirties, the Apulia-born baritone couples firm tone, crisp utterance and dark fascination in the way he stares around or dons his silvery costume as the loveliest villain ever since Ruggero Raimondi’s heydays. Is he the next Raimondi, as his fans keep claiming? Time will tell. Massimo Gasparon’s integrated reconstruction of clerical Rome’s architecture and customs, if not faithful to the least detail, was fascinating and duly oppressive. Despite some controversial precedents, Pier Luigi Pizzi’s pupil (and freshly adopted son) seems to have reached the conclusion that, pace many a self-styled directorial genius, there is nothing wrong in trying to meet the librettists’ and the composers’ stipulations for any given opera as to its setting in time and space.

This is certainly the case with Tosca. “In Tosca, history is definitely in the foreground”, declared Hugo de Ana earlier in 2006. “Therefore I wouldn’t feel happy about making the soldiers wear Nazi uniforms, as is the fashion today, because the atmosphere I want to project is that of the early 19th century at war”. His sober statement strikes a dissonant note within the choir of his European colleagues, who usually delight in peppering their productions with dismissive arguments about “trashy [original] dramaturgy”, boring historical background, clumsy librettos, and so on. Actually, the plot of Tosca is firmly embedded in history: June 15, 1800, in the aftermath of Napoleon’s victory at Marengo, and against the backdrop of three extant landmarks in downtown Rome: Sant’Andrea della Valle, Palazzo Farnese and Castel Sant’Angelo. However, De Ana pushes his ‘provocation’ further: “I don’t think [Puccini] wished to convey a particular interpretation of the Church, the Vatican, or to project a negative idea of religion itself. It’s simply there, creating a background to history”. Good news is that, while giving up with fashionable ego-trips, a director needs not abjure his or her creative knack.

Tosca_ActI.pngTosca, Act I/ sc 4, in Verona (Photo by Tabocchini e Gironella)

Being in total control of the Arena production of Tosca, revived this season with ever-growing acclaim, De Ana strikes the winning move by placing on the center-stage a clone of Rome’s Angelo di Castello, an 18th-century bronze statue of the archangel Michael towering on the top of Castel Sant’Angelo. Between the open arms of that gigantic lad from heaven, who is holding a drawn sword in his right hand and a rosary in the left, most of the action develops amidst a turmoil of Correggio, Giotto and Bernini masterpieces, while period artillery shoots scented salvos from the outer wings, and a backdrop resembling a bronze wall opens now and then, displaying faceless bishops (Roger Bacon-style), a jail and more. Without time machines or sundry brainwave, the outcome looks as surrealistic, avant-garde and disturbing as one could wish. As Cavaradossi, Marcelo Alvarez conquered once more through hyperdramatic singing and acting, granting the traditional encore of his climactic “E lucevan le stelle”. China’s Hui He delivered a vibrant Tosca. She lacks neither good looks, nor soft-grained lyrical tones, nor generous utterance, but appeared sometimes at loss with an unwieldy velvet cloak and did not concede an equally sought-for encore for her “Vissi d’arte”. Sensitive conducting from Giuliano Carella and ovations for everybody. Fifteen minutes of roaring applause, stamping and yelling in several languages from an audience of 14,000 suggest that opera can still count as a muse for the masses.

Carlo Vitali

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