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.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
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.