04 Jul 2009
The Ravenna Festival: La scuola napoletana
Ravenna once served as the capital of the Roman Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries C.E.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
Ravenna once served as the capital of the Roman Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries C.E.
Now it is a lovely Adriatic seaside spot filled with remnants of the Roman and Byzantine Empires, along with fine museums, gold mosaics and many 17th century palaces. There is an elegant 19th century theatre as well as several other locations suited to musical and theatrical performances. For the last 20 years, Ravenna has had an important multi-disciplinary festival. This summer’s program (June 14-July18), includes 80 different events for an expected audience of 70,000 (approximately 25% of which are non-Italians). Its € 6 million budget is financed by a consortium of Italian central and local authorities and of private sponsors, along with box office receipts.
Riccardo Muti and his wife, Cristina, tirelessly promote the festival in part through international partnerships. In previous years, Ravenna has brought to the attention of Western European theatres jewels like the Moscow Helikon Opera and the Lithuanian National Opera. This year the main events are co-produced with the Salzburg Festival and the Paris Opéra. Other events will include the Maggio Musical Fiorentino. Internationally renowned Christoph von Dohànyi and Pierre Boulez are scheduled to conduct in addition to Muti.
This summer Maestro Muti continues to concentrate on his long-standing project concerning the “renaissance” of the La scuola napoletana (the “Neapolitan School”). In the 17th Century, Naples was not only the most populous capital in Europe but also the principal European music centre. There were important conservatories, each with a strict and disciplined course of studies. Music was on the top of the political agenda, with highly subsidized major theatres such as the San Carlo within the Royal Palace complex. Musicians (especially composers and castrati singers) were exported to all the Royal Courts of the continent with London and St. Petersburg being the most prodigious consumers. The Neapolitan Pietro Metastasio, official poet of the Vienna Court, became the most influential librettist of the age; and, through his librettos, Italian became the language spoken by the aristocracy in many a Court. [Editor’s Note: Click here for the full texts of Metastasio’s drammi per musica.]
The “Neapolitan School”, therefore, was fundamental in the development of musical theatre in general and of opera in particular. It faded away for several reasons: a) changes in tastes by a wider and no longer only aristocratic audience; b) the disappearance of the castrati (whose roles are often sung by mezzos or altos and, in certain cases, transposed for baritones); c) the high cost of stage sets and machinery.
Maestro Muti’s efforts to bring back the “Neapolitan School” have thus far succeeded. The Salzburg Whitsun Festival has been dedicated to this “School” for several years. This year he focuses his attention two composers: Giovanni Paisiello (actually born in Taranto but a leader of the School and a favorite of Russian Empress Katherine the Great) and Niccolò Jommelli (known in modern times mostly, if not solely, for his sacred music).
Jommelli’s Demofoonte had its revival in Salzburg in May of this year. It was then staged in Paris at the Opéra Garnier in mid-June. In Ravenna, it will be staged at the 800-seat Teatro Dante Alighieri on July 3-7. A European tour is planned for the fall. Demofoonte is one of Metastasio’s most popular libretti. It was set to music by 73 different composers, with Jommelli himself having composed four different versions (Muti is staging the last one). It is a “clemency tale” (e.g. like Mozart’s Titus) where the main plot simply consists of the king forgiving all his foes, albeit complicated by some five parallel sub-plots. The message is that royalty must be authoritarian because it is tolerant and forward-looking. In short, a benevolent despot is what we all need. Metastasio and Jommelli steered far away from any Revolutionary notions, lest they offend their aristocratic patrons.
Demofoonte follows all the rules and standards of the typical opera seria: vocally demanding arias, many of which are in the da capo form, along with the occasional duet and ensemble. And of course a happy ending after a series of adversities for all concerned. Cesare Lievi (stage direction), Margerita Palli (stage sets), Marina Luxardo (costumes) and, of course, Riccardo Muti conducting the Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini do their very best to attract a modern audience’s interest in this 3½-hour “clemency tale”. The cast is immaculate. Dmitri Korchack and Maria Grazia Schiavo are particularly commendable. It is easy to foresee that they have a brilliant future ahead. As for Jommelli’s Demofoonte, music schools should consider it insofar as it offers excellent training for young singers. Ultimately, it may reach some innovative opera house.
Paisiello’s Missa Defunctorum is also a rarity. Salzburg’s and Ravenna’s performances are practically the first performances in modern times (although some musicologists say that there is evidence of a performance in Florence in 1940 among the celebrations for the second centenary of the composer’s death). Paisiello is generally known as an opera buffa composer at the Courts of the Naples Kings , the Russian Empress and even Napoleon . The Missa Defunctorum was initially composed in 1789 when two children of the King of Naples died during a small pox epidemic. It was revised ten years later as a Requiem for Pius VI.
In the fall , the Missa Defunctorum will be toured by Muti and the Cherubini Orchestra in several Italian Churches and concert halls. In Ravenna, the performance took place in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classes— a site well known to Byzantine specialists for its gold and green mosaics.
Although a sacred musical work, Paisiello’s Missa Defunctorum has a strong operatic temperament. This requiem mass is quite different from those of Mozart, Verdi and others. It is a two-hour, one act opera where sorrow is mixed with hope. It is highly lyrical rather than dramatic. It is gentle, almost tender — like a late 18th century opéra larmoyant . The real drama is mostly at the end: the impressive chorale ‘Libera me’. The audience was enchanted; a good sign that Paisiello’s Missa Defunctorum may enter the repertory and may possibly be heard in Chicago where Muti is Music Director of the CSO.