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Giacomo Puccini
21 Aug 2008

Torre - Torre - Torre

I hoped it was not an omen of the evening to come at Torre del Lago’s Puccini Festival, when the audience was made to wait at the closed gates until about twenty minutes before curtain rise, listening to the orchestra and chorus a hundred yards away rehearse chunks of that night’s Edgar.

Giacomo Puccini: Edgar

Edgar (Marco Berti), Fidelia (Cristina Gallardo- Domas), Tigrana (Rossana Rinaldi), Frank (Luca Salsi), Gualtiero (Rafal Siwek). Fondazione Festival Pucciniano. Pier Giorgio Morandi (cond.)


Oh, sure, once before I cooled my heels at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw while Gergiev pushed that orchestra through some Shostakovich piece or another, imparting his last minute thoughts while we inadvertently watched it all on the closed circuitry meant for late-comers. But that was, well, Gergiev being Gergiev in a one-off, and this was the renowned annual festival dedicated solely to celebrating beloved local son Giacomo Puccini’s operatic output. Plus, the piece had been performed just the week prior. Hey, and at festival prices, shouldn’t they have “had it down” well before curtain time?

Happily, the performance turned out to be quite an unexpected delight, an old-fashioned confection in the very best sense. Nothing ground-breaking, no real once-in-a-lifetime performances, but Edgar was nevertheless solidly sung, handsomely mounted, and unfussily directed. If it smacked a bit (and just a bit) of “instant opera,” say like in the old start-up days of smaller American companies, never you mind. The audience was there to enjoy the show, “mille grazie,” in this season celebrating the 150th anniversary of Giacomo’s birth, and enjoy it they did.

We had reason to celebrate from the git-go, for once we got into the grounds we were able to fully appreciate the new open air theatre that opened just this summer. The raked seats were comfortable enough as these venues go, the sight lines are very good, the open-backed stage (shades of Santa Fe) reveals the lovely lake behind it, the large pit could seemingly fit in a Wagner band, and the public areas are well lit, uncrowded, and accommodating.

Future seasons will probably see some fine tuning of the acoustics, particularly as regards the orchestra. From my seat, the winds seemed muted and occasionally undefined, and the strings just a little dry. Even in this early opus, there was some lush Puccini string work that didn’t soar and throb the way it might have. The brass certainly had ample presence and prominence, although marked by several (mercifully) brief sections of rhythmic imprecision (if only they had had five more minutes of rehearsal!).

Pier Giorgio Morandi conducted very cleanly with excellent stage balance, though sometimes sacrificing the infectious youthful brashness of the score for tidiness of ensemble. At phrase ends here and there he was not always emoting in sync with his soloists, among whom Marco Berti gets pride of place for his consistently well sung title role. Mr. Berti has a true spinto sound, clearly focused and ringing, and he caressed his phrases with insightful musicality and a pleasing sense of Italianate line. Sustained high notes rang out with secure abandon. He is a large man, and was not always flattered by the schmatte-like tunic-’n’-tights outfit, nor by the long tangle of hair, eerily making him look at times like Mama Cass with a mustache. But, “Dio mio,” did he sing well.

He was almost matched in vocal excitement by the dark-hued mezzo of Rossana Rinaldi as “Tigrana.” She not only served up all the fireworks in the writing, but also encompassed highly affecting legato singing. “Tigrana” is a rather improbable dramatic entity, but Ms. Rinaldi got by with a brazen combination of selective elements of “Carmen” and “Jezibaba,” with a nod to Wicked’s Witch en route to “Baba the Turk.” The extensive tenor-mezzo duet that comprises most of Act II was arguably the high point of the night.

I was especially interested in finally hearing Cristina Gallardo-Domas, who has been singing all over the map, most notably in the Met’s much discussed Madama Butterfly. She is a lovely woman; petite, poised, and appealing, and she maintained a star presence throughout. Her pretty lyric voice was capable of some ravishing piano effects above the staff, every bit as good as the kind that Sills and Scotto used to do so remarkably well.

But while those two divas found a way to manufacture the impression of a bit more heft in their instruments, Ms. Gallardo-Domas seemed to be really stretching to meet “Fidelia’s” demands. Perhaps at the Met, with more grateful acoustics (?) she can fill the place, but in this open air theatre she was pushing her smallish tone to the limit, which at times induced an unwelcome wobble on arching lines that came perilously close to sounding like a musical saw. Pity. I suppose she is now on an irrevocable career path of her (and the major houses’) choosing, but I really hope that her lovely and considerable gifts don’t get burned out by spinto roles that are best left to larger voices. We do need her. But as “Manon.” Not as “Manon Lescaut.”

Strapping Luca Salsi was really all one could wish for as “Frank,” possessed of a ringing, easily-produced baritone of fine presence, that was passionately deployed. His famous aria gave much pleasure. The small role of “Gualtiero” was essayed with dignity and a rolling bass by Rafal Siwek, who looked too young, however to be father to “Frank” and “Fidelia.”

The new production featured an appealing and wholly functional set design by internationally-known artist Roger Dean. A large unit on a turntable is first seen as a quasi half-timbered fairy-tale house. The green-tinged roof that sort of puffs out over the gables is a Gaudi-meets-Grimm affair, a fanciful structure that would not be out of place in Munchkin land. The delightful playing space is further defined by moss- and vine-covered stone stairs stage right and left.

The unit revolved to reveal Act II’s love palace get-away, a playful blue-walled, orange- domed fantasy abode of that lust nest monster “Tigrana.” Turning once again, the Act I house had been removed to reveal Act III’s handsome rocky promontory with caves and stairs. It was visually interesting and afforded good levels for such things as the placement of two banks of trumpets for impressive on-stage fanfares. By adjusting and re-dressing the stairs, Dean came up with a very effective look for “Edgar” and gave the Festival an attractive and practical set that will serve the opera very well for years to come.

An amazingly effective lighting design was achieved with nothing but side lighting (save very sparing use of follow spotlights). It is puzzling why the new theatre did not include a lighting batten or two up front, but as of yet, it offers the challenge of getting an even wash and some appropriate effects with the resources at hand, a challenge that was met quite nicely.

Mr. Dean’s daughter Freyja Dean created the costume design. While the attractive garb for the principals (excepting that previously mentioned tunic), the colorful peasant dress, and the appropriate military outfits looked just fine, they seemed a little anonymous, as though they had been picked off the rack at a good rental house. One unfortunately funny costume moment occurred when our tenor tore open his monk’s robe disguise to reveal himself as the very-much-alive “Edgar,” unintentionally framing his generous belly unflatteringly just as “Fidelia” must scream a high note in shock. (Aw c’mon girlfriend, it’s not that big. . .)

Vivien A. Hewitt’s direction told the story clearly, if mostly uninventively. The movement and character interaction wanted specificity, and all soloists seemed to be left to wandering improvisation at times. “Tigrana” in particular had little to do but pace and act endlessly “trapped” when she was apprehended by the mob in Act III. The dumb-show of “Frank” and “Edgar” jousting on stylized rolling horse sculptures in the same act did not so much suggest “Edgar’s” (false) death, as it served to confuse us in an already squishy dramatic through line. The dagger play both on- and off-horseback was some of the least effective and most tentative I have ever encountered this side of a children’s playground. Still, the massive cast was impressively moved on and off with well-considered precision, and the stage pictures were appealing and dramatically informative.

And just how often does one get a chance to see the minor Edgar given such a major treatment with such an honest effort from a talented production team, a first-rate set of principles, and a well-led professional orchestra? Also deserving mention was the full-throated, precise singing from the Festival Chorus under the direction of Stefano Visconti.

The Puccini Festival offered up a very satisfying rendition of the master’s piece, and the partisan audience was still cheering it long after I made my way to the hotel shuttle van. They may be cheering it still.

James Sohre

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