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Love Won - Love Lost - an Operatic Double Bill [[Image courtesy of Teatro Grattacielo]
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.

Primo Riccitelli: I Compagnacci; Umberto Giordano: Il Re

I Compagnacci: Bernardo: Peter Castaldi; Anna Maria: Jessica Klein; Baldo: Gerard Powers; Venanzio: Lawrence Long; Noferi: Joseph Gaines.

Il Re: Il Re: John Maynard; Rosalina: Joanna Mongiardo; Colombello: James Price; Mugnaio: Lawrence Long; Moglie del Mugnaio: Eugenie Grunewald.

Westfield Symphony Orchestra and Cantori New York Chorus, conducted by David Wroe. Teatro Grattacielo at the Frederick Rose Theater, May 24.

Above: Love Won - Love Lost - an Operatic Double Bill [[Image courtesy of Teatro Grattacielo]


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.

John Yohalem

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