26 May 2011
I Compagnacci and Il Re, Teatro Grattacielo
Teatro Grattacielo gives concert performances of Verismo operas that range from the obscure to the unheard-of.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Teatro Grattacielo gives concert performances of Verismo operas that range from the obscure to the unheard-of.
This year they came up with a comic double-bill of works from the 1920s, a symbolic moment for Italian opera—Puccini’s Turandot, premiered in 1926, is generally regarded as the last Italian work to enter the operatic repertory, either local or international, after more than three hundred years of Italian centrality to the creation of opera, an Italian invention. Primo Riccitelli, whose name is obscure even among Verismo composers, was represented by his first opera, I Compagnacci, a work controversial in its day (1922) as, according to which critic was writing, an inventive new voice or far too dependent on Mascagni and Puccini for any novel inspiration. Umberto Giordano, fondly remembered for Andrea Chenier and Fedora, drew an American premiere on this occasion for his last opera, Il Re (1929), which, at its first run, was considered far too reminiscent of … Umberto Giordano. Italian critics in the twenties had a rough time, which they eagerly passed along: They did not wish to seem so nationalistic as to be provincial or old-fashioned, but to be too enamored of new manners of making music might easily lead to admiration for such deplorable foreign trends as impressionism, atonality or even jazz. One is reminded of the Monty Python sketch: No one wanted to admit the bird was dead, but it wouldn’t be flying anywhere.
Ninety years later, both these works can be seen for what they are, not merely as part of a particular fashion—or as not part of a fashion. I Compagnacci, which had a brief career at the Met, demonstrated a talent for orchestration and an ease in vocal writing and did indeed remind listeners of Puccini, in this case Gianni Schicchi. As in the latter opera (premiered in New York only four years earlier, remember), the story is set in historic Florence where matters of money are in conflict with love. But where Puccini and his librettist put their Dante-derived tale in full view of their audience, to savor every outrageous detail of their commedia characters, Riccitelli’s plot hinges, fatally, on offstage events and he has no “O mio babbino caro” up his sleeve to provide us with a memorable personality to care about.
We are in Florence in the time of the friar-dictator Savonarola, celebrated for his “bonfire of the vanities” in the reaction to the cultivated Medici tyranny. Savonarola was eventually burned by his disgusted people (at the command of the cultivated Borgia pope), but some weeks before that event, as the tension reaches its height, two friars, one favoring Savonarola’s holiness, the other denouncing it, offered to walk through a bonfire in proof. God would be on the side of the one unburned. Bernardo, a greedy admirer of the dictator, is trying to force his niece, Anna Maria, into a loveless marriage with his protégé. Her truelove, Baldo, who leads a more luxurious faction, I Compagnacci, offers to sign over the family chateau if the monks actually dare to walk through the flames—as long as he can win Anna Maria if they don’t. (What would happen if one did and the other did not? No one mentions this possibility.) As Baldo guesses, neither friar dares risk the ordeal, and the Florentines rejoice in the triumph of art, vanity and love. The trouble is that we miss the climax—it takes place out the window, in the piazza, by the bonfire—visible from the windows but not visible to us. Another problem is that rich as the orchestration is, the melodic meat of the score shows little personality, and the personalities of the drama have none either. The orchestra makes an impression for skill not for music. It is a drama without substance, comic, dramatic or romantic.
The casting at Teatro Grattacielo is often remarkable, surprisingly so considering the vocal energy required in Verismo scores and the fact that young singers often appear. Gerard Powers and Jessica Klein sang Riccitelli’s generic lovers; their performances were not perfunctory but their musical emotions were, and these operas do not work if we do not care whether the lovers get together or not. Peter Castaldi was far more effective, sonorous and droll, as Anna Maria’s superstitious uncle, Lawrence Long an impressive foil as his confidant, and Joseph Gaines, as the unattractive and rejected suitor, had an amusing delivery of the most memorable tune in the opera.
In sharp contrast, Giordano’s Il Re was clearly a composer’s last opera not his first: All the parts worked, achieving just what they were intended to achieve, the characters musically as interesting as they needed to be for a silly fable (highly character-full performances fleshed them out, but that is what they were written for), and the elegant orchestration had real persons and real tunes to build on. The opera is as busy as Chenier without the emptiness of Fedora. The heroine’s role is a major coloratura vehicle, immensely satisfying because the resources of traditional Italian opera (trills, runs, ornaments) are on display, though in a style more like Richard Strauss than Donizetti, to give us Rosalina’s imaginative feather brain. The other characters are straight out of commedia dell’ arte, suitable to all levels of mugging. The melodies owe a little something to Strauss and Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky but mostly, as the first critics said, to Giordani. The orchestration is something else again, witty and wild and all over the map, full of coloristic touches and humorous pratfalls. When the king is told that the lovely Rosalina has fallen in love with his beauty, he preens through harp to flutes to bassoons to brass—and does it again—and again. (John Maynard, singing the role, though deprived of the proper costume and looking glass of a fully staged performance, played it to the hilt without them.) The chorus sings “chorus stuff,” predictable but archly done, even, at one point, “tum-tum” guitar strums from the men while the women sing a silly serenade. Not one of the characters is as colorless as, well, everyone was in I Compagnacci; each lives up to the clichés suggested by tradition interpreted by Giordano’s knowing modern scoring.
The fable of Il Re concerns a miller’s daughter, Rosalina, who, on the eve of her wedding to a whiny miller boy (with her parents’ encouragement), sees the king pass through the forest and is overcome with love of his magnificence. He is, she is convinced, her destiny. The chickadees concur. Her parents and the faithful Columbello, having consulted a lawyer, a priest and an astrologer, go in desperation (with bribes) to the King. He invites Rosalina to the palace. In his bedroom, he tells her that her passion has touched him—then removes his royal robes, his corsets, his wig, his makeup and so on. (His voice, too, becomes decades more antique with the transformation.) Rosalina, aghast, returns to her boyfriend, and off they go to church.
Joanna Mongiardo, who has a voice of impressive size and warmth, as well as a technique with ornament that should give her Lucia, Philine and Zerbinetta to choose from, also has a putty face, capable of expressing several emotions at once and of making fun of herself while expressing them. Rosalina is a star role in the glorious line and Mongiardo brought the hall to its feet. If she is a good girl and doesn’t sing Norma or the Ernani Elvira too soon, I foresee a great future for her—and for Il Re, if she cares to remember it. (It’s a star vehicle if you’ve got the star.) She was ably, hilariously supported not only by her peerless monarch, Mr. Maynard, but also by Lawrence Long and Eugenie Greenwald as her distraught parents. The one weak performer was James Price, whose thin, watery tenor made Rosalina’s lack of romantic interest perfectly comprehensible.
David Wroe and the Westfield Symphony Orchestra, having made a shimmering hour of I Compagnacci, really sank their teeth into the sly excesses of Il Re, the work of a master determined at the end of his life to show off everything he had learned—and to laugh as he did so. It was a delight to make this score’s acquaintance in such circumstances.