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.
It is twenty-three years since Rossini’s opera of cultural oppression, inspiring heroism and tender pathos was last seen on the Covent Garden stage, but this eagerly awaited new production of Guillaume Tell by Italian director Damiano Micheletto will be remembered more for the audience outrage and vociferous mid-performance booing that it provoked — the most persistent and strident that I have heard in this house — than for its dramatic, visual or musical impact.
With its outrageous staging demands, you sometimes wonder why opera companies want to produce Verdi’s Aida. But the piece is about far more than pharaohs, pyramids and camels.
Given the enduring resonance and impact of the magnificent visual aesthetic of Visconti’s 1971 film of Thomas Mann’s novella, opera directors might be forgiven for concluding that Britten’s Death in Venice does not warrant experimentation with period and design, and for playing safe with Edwardian elegance, sweeping Venetian vistas and stylised seascapes.
If La Rondine (The Swallow) is a less-admired work than rest of the mature Puccini canon, you wouldn’t have known it by the lavish production now lovingly staged by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
Few companies have championed new or neglected works quite as fervently and consistently as the industrious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
For Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, “everything old is new again.”
Why would an American opera company devote its resources to the premiere of an opera by an Italian composer? Furthermore a parochially Italian story?
Berlioz’ Les Troyens is in two massive parts — La prise de Troy and Troyens à Carthage.
On Saturday evening June 13, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Dog Days, a new opera with music by David T. Little and a text by Royce Vavrek. In the opera adopted from a story of the same name by Judy Budnitz, thirteen-year-old Lisa tells of her family’s mental and physical disintegration resulting from the ravages of a horrendous war.
Audiences at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan first saw Madama Butterfly on February 17, 1904. It was not the success it is these days, and Puccini revised it before its scheduled performances in Brescia.
Opera Philadelphia is a very well-managed opera company with a great vision. Every year it presents a number of well-known “warhorse” operas, usually in the venerable Academy of Music, and a few more adventurous productions, usually in a chamber opera format suited to the smaller Pearlman Theater.
Written in 1783, Giovanni Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia reigned for three decades as one of Europe’s most popular operas, before being overshadowed forever by Rossini’s classic work.
The Princeton Festival has established a reputation for high-quality summer opera. In recent years works by Handel, Britten, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Wagner and Gershwin have been performed at Matthews Theater on Princeton University campus: a 1100-seat auditorium with good sight-lines though a somewhat dry and uneven acoustic.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail was Mozart’s ﬁrst great public success in Vienna, and it became the composer’s most oft performed opera during his lifetime.
The Ensemble for the Romantic Century offered a thoughtful and well-curated evening in their production of The Sorrows of Young Werther, which is part theatrical performance and part art song concert.
This was an adventurous double bill of two ‘quasi-operas’ by Hans Werner Henze, performed by young singers who are studying on the postgraduate Opera Course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
High brick walls, a cavernous space, entered via a narrow passage just off a London thoroughfare: Village Underground in Shoreditch is probably not that far removed from the venue in which Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was first performed — whether that was Josiah Priest’s girl’s school in Chelsea or the court of Charles II or James II.
Hats off to Garsington for championing once again some criminally neglected Strauss. I overheard someone there opine, ‘Of course, you can understand why it isn’t done very often.’
Mozart and Da Ponte’s Cosi fan tutte provides little in the way of background or back story for the plot, thus allowing directors to set the piece in a variety settings.
Based on a play, Chrysomania (The Passion for Money), by the Russian playwright Prince Alexander Shokhovskoy, Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades is, in the words of one literary critic, ‘a sardonic commentary on the human condition’.
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.