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Scene from Senso [Photo by Franco Tutino]
12 Aug 2011

Risorgimento 150 years after

How the saga of Italian unification in 1861 is being (half-heartedly) celebrated by opera composers.

Risorgimento 150 years after: How the saga of Italian unification in 1861 is

By Carlo Vitali [© Friedrich Berlin Verlag (by kind permission) (condensed from issues 3 and 7/ 2011 of Opernwelt (Berlin, Germany))]

Above: Scene from Senso [Photo by Franco Tutino]


Since its inception in the early 17th century, opera is a divisive artform in Italy. Over the centuries it had to be apologized for — in front of highbrow intellectuals, who rather advocated the revival of “true” Greek drama, as well as in front of the Church and of the State, no matter whether a petty local lord or an occupant foreign power. Hence, from Monteverdi to Verdi and later, originated all possible combinations of patronage and censorship, celebration and criticism of the powers-that-be. Today, opera has to be marketed as relevant to contemporary issues (which sometimes may apply, and sometimes not) or construed in the specialized media as the battlefield between preservationists and innovators, Werktreu and Regietheater, senior and younger patrons, or whatever.

Good news is that the younger generation is back again in the opera houses. Past are the days when middle-class preppies and undergraduates flocked to jazz, rock, symphony, chamber or avant-garde concerts — nay, even to early music, Gregorian chant and every sort of ethnic, folk and fusion events. In a word: to everything but to opera, largely perceived as the preserve of their reactionary parents and decadent grandparents. The throwing foul eggs at people entering to a season premiere was the favourite sport for many self-styled revolutionaries in their late twenties to early thirties, who had been taught that Verdi, Puccini and Mascagni had ruined Italy, severing it from the live streams of modern culture. Performing such stuff over and over for the sole benefit of the selfish bourgeoisie was a huge waste of money, they maintained. Leaving statistics aside — of which SIAE (the Italian Authors’ Association), Federculture, and sundry agencies provide quite enough -, any casual observer can testify that the panorama has widely changed during the latest decade. Youngsters find that opera is “cool”, discuss it on their blogs or social groups over the Internet, and can be seen queing for it in larger numbers than ever during my operagoers’ experience, which started back in the mid-1960s.

And now to the bad news. It is no secret that Berlusconi’s regime, whose consensus was shaped by — and survives on — telecracy, hates most forms of live show such as drama, ballet, and opera. Particularly opera. Countless times the mercurial Prime Minister and his loudspeakers exposed opera houses as dens of “Communists”, “privileged lazybones”, “unproductive beggars” etc, who do not deserve public support and should apply to the market in order to survive. Since 1985, nearly one half of the State funding for the whole sector of live show, mainly channeled through FUS (Fondo Unico per lo Spettacolo), was divided among the Big 13, now 14, largest opera houses nationwide. At nominal value, the amount of FUS sank from Euro 464.49 million in 2005 to a projected 258.61 for 2011 (-44 per cent). Even worse, during the same period, its percentage on the gross national product decreased from 0.032 to 0.016, a round minus 50 per cent. Worser and worser, further heavy cuts were announced, then promised to be withdrawn, then restated, and finally cancelled under a surge of bipartisan protest leading to the resignation of Culture Minister Sandro Bondi on March 23. Such erratic policies caused opera managers to live day-by-day without being able to effectively plan their seasons, prevented private money from joining in, raised havoc among both the workers and the goers, encouraged the less responsible unions. If the government’s aim was to disrupt the national opera system, it was a brilliant strike.

However, signs of resilience are showing up. Fundraising campaigns are reportedly proving successful — as in Florence, Venice, Naples. Economies on salaries and disproportionate fringe benefits are being implemented through in-house negotiations — as in Bologna, Palermo, and elsewhere. Innovative, if sometimes controversial, means of accruing earned income through rental of the premises for publicity and social events are avidly sought after. Coproductions, both on national and international scale, are in full bloom. The celebrations for the 150enary of Italian unification even brought forth the commission of new operas, whose subject matter was expected to be more or less closely related to the occasion. The appointed composers reacted to the brief with widely different approaches: from critical adherence, through subversion, to open disregard — but none of them (predictably and perhaps fortunately) fell into the trap of patriot rhetorics. Neither the current state of the country, nor the above-mentioned confrontation opposing the political establishment to the world of opera and of high culture at large, would have justified such a surrender. Thus the post of musician laureate, left vacant by serious professionals, was occupied by Giovanni Allevi, the self-styled “new Mozart” and pop icon of the piano, with an equally self-styled “arrangement” of the national anthem Fratelli d’Italia, which is being broadcast over and over on all TV channels, both public and commercial.

* * *

In January, Palermo’s Teatro Massimo started the row of Risorgimento operas with Senso by Marco Tutino. With its scarce two hours of music, Senso mimics a romance film rather than the celebrative grand opera one would expect for a national festival. Epic it is not, as the storyline relies on Camillo Boito’s short novel of the same title (1883), not dealing with the glorious days of 1861, but with the catastrophe of 1866, when Italy’s newborn regular army tested its inefficiency against the rusty military apparate of the Austro-Hungarian empire, so that rescue came from both the Prussian ally and Garibaldi’s volunteers. Movie-oriented it is indeed, inasmuch composer Tutino and librettist Di Leva could not dispense with Luchino Visconti’s masterly film treatment of 1954. In fact, they conflated novel and film into a palimpsest of sorts, where patriotic feelings are the preserve of Italian tavern maids and of Roberto Donà, a naive young nobleman, while old count Serpieri voices high-class opportunism and yields to the change he cannot avoid.

So much for the historic background. Away from Visconti’s high dramaticism about conflicting loyalties (the core of most opera seria plots), and back to Boito’s cynical approach, the focus lies here in the sexual crave of countess Livia Serpieri, pushing her to utter degradation as she gets financially exploited, deceived and abused by the Austrian lieutenant Hans Büchner, a magnificent lover but a pathological coward. After causing him to be court-martialled in revenge, Livia returns to her usual lifestyle of luxury and futile flirting.

Oui, c’est de la décadence. At any rate, one must concede that verse, music and staging are well attuned to it. Tutino’s strongpoint as an operatic composer is to produce music always fitting the given subject, if somewhat impersonal in style. Early in the 1980s, while still a fresh graduate from the Conservatory of his native Milan, he was among the founders of the “neo-romantic” school, campaigning against avantgarde and claiming the right to write entertaining music. What’s more, he actually succeeded in writing some. Such titles as Pinocchio (1985), La lupa (1990), Federico II (1992), Il gatto con gli stivali (1994), Le Bel indifférent (2004), made him probably the most performed among Italian living composers worldwide.

The score’s popular highlights are quotations, more or less harmonically skewed, from the Vienna waltz, Verdi’s Trovatore, a Venetian boat song, a folk serenade from the Trento area and, most notably, the above-quoted national anthem Fratelli d’Italia (an actual battle hymn from the late 1840s), here turned with eerie effect into the minor key — the same procedure Mahler applied in his First Symphony, 3.rd movement. Most outright lyric passages are found in the Puccini-esque Act II (of two, framed by perfunctory short sections called “Prologue” and “Epilogue”). Here, Livia’s complaint aria “Da quante notti non dormo”, Roberto’s disdainful “Non voglio capire”, plus a row of finely-wrought ensembles and choral scenes, add some pepper to the seamless stream of declamato, which makes the main fabric of Tutino’s discourse, albeit sustained by clever orchestral textures. To all that, Hugo de Ana’s pictorial taste provided a backdrop of unparalleled splendour, featuring acrobatic copulations between both principals among sets of mirrors, Baroque architectures, gilded furniture and costumes inspired to such period painters as Silvestro Lega and Giovanni Fattori. The whole company was up to the task, with soprano Nicola Beller Carbone as a sexy and vocally wanton Countess, (anti)-Heldentenor Brandon Jovanovich duly beefy both in his utterances and nude looks, and second soprano Zuzana Marková as the passionate chambermaid Giustina. Conductor Pinchas Steinberg bravely steered the home ensembles clear of the problems which any new score must set, particularly when confrontation runs high between personnel and management (a speech delivered before the curtain by a quartet of union representatives witnessed to that).

* * *

Risorgimento_2_ph-Rolando-G.gifScene from Risorgimento! [Photo by Rolando Guerzoni]

Then, in March-April, Modena’s Teatro Pavarotti and Bologna’s Comunale joined forces for a diptych including Lorenzo Ferrero’s new one-acter Risorgimento! and Dallapiccola’s Il prigioniero (1949). The extramusical ground for the association was the theme of struggle against oppression, as Italians use to label the anti-Nazi movement “Resistenza” as “Second Risorgimento”. Subject for Risorgimento! is the time-honoured gimmick of an opera rehearsal, in this case of Verdi’s Nabucco at La Scala in February 1842. The characters are partly taken from history: the impresario Bartolomeo Merelli, primadonnas Giovannina Bellinzaghi and Giuseppina Strepponi (later Verdi’s wife). Verdi himself, who is shown in multiple sosias and in various ages, does not sing but delivers a final speech about how the hopes of his revolutionary youth were disappointed. Despite a clumsy libretto, Ferrero succeeded to write entertaining music, navigating between quotations from authentic period material, ironical neo-romantic numbers vaguely resembling arias, cabalettas and ensembles, dances, large orchestral outbursts accompanied by epic projections and thundering battle noise. The up-and-coming soprano Valentina Corradetti got the best of the double bill, first as a passionate Strepponi in the new score and later as The Mother in Dallapiccola’s austere 12-tone masterpiece. At Modena and Bologna, two neighbouring affluent towns in the opera-avid Po Valley, full houses granted an equally warm acclaim both to the modern and the post-modern composer. During the same weeks, a comparable success was harvested in Ravenna, Ferrara and — again — Modena by a production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare featuring Ottavio Dantone and his period band Accademia Bizantina, lots of countertenors and a flamboyant Regietheater staging. There is definitely neither dearth nor scarce diversity of offer in this area, where opera-going is a traditional part of lifestyle, exactly like fine food and progressive political leanings.

* * *

From light-hearted deconstruction to outright off-topic, La Scala mounted Luca Francesconi’s Quartett as a grand peep-show signed by Àlex Ollé, co-director of La Fura dels Baus. A 3-ton parallelepiped hovered above the stage, disquieting projections showed cosmic forces at work and destitute human masses, yet the audience’s eyes were mesmerized on the gruesome action taking place within a dark room or prison of sorts. Heiner Müller’s duodrama, telling the mutual destruction of the selfish characters loosely taken from De Laclos’ Liaisons dangereures, was rounded up by Francesconi with an even bloodier finale borrowed from the same Müller’s Hamletmaschine. However, his own libretto arrangement in English missed most of the original verbal violence, rather sounding as a carnival of Oscar-Wilde-style paradox: “Love is the domain of the servants”... “Fear makes philosophers”... “Virtue is an infectious disease”... Each language has its Geist; how would that sound like in Italian, one wonders. Happier notes came from the music itself. Above the prevailing discourse in atonal conversation-style on gigantic intervals, the solo voices soared in concise florid passages, hints at artificial Baroque belcanto, fragmentary arias and duos. An astounding multimedia experience was provided by the electronic equipment from the Paris IRCAM, which mixed and projected all around various sources: the soloists onstage, a small ensemble in the pit, a large orchestra plus choir secluded within the house’s sixth storey. Terrific singing and red-hot acting by Allison Cook as the Marquise and Robin Adams as the Vicomte. After a cold reception on the premiere, the 6-night run ended in success — not necessarily de scandale.

* * *

_NEU_Konkurrenten.gifScene from L’Italia del destino [Photo by Gianluca Moggi]

Regrettably, no more than two nights were scheduled at Florence’s Maggio Musicale for the last of commissioned operas: L’Italia del destino, Real-Italy in un atto by Luca Mosca. The original plans were, once more, about the background of an opera rehearsal; this time Verdi’s La forza del destino. Then, as Mosca’s favourite librettist Gianluigi Melega was joined by further collaborators, it came to both an actualization of the subject matter and a downsizing of the production. It is doubtful whether the culturati and glitterati flocking in for the premiere at the cosy Teatro Goldoni, an auxiliary venue of the Maggio in downtown Florence, ever experienced first-hand contact with such trashy formats as Il Grande Fratello (The Big Brother) or L’Isola dei Famosi, the tremendously successful reality shows flooding the Italian TV channels 4-5 hours a week. More likely, they would read the scornful reviews that quality newspapers devote to the issue: paper arrows hardly able to compete with the barrage fire deployed by millions of remote controls. Thus the operatic reenactment of one such show — a parade of crass ignorance, exposed flesh, talentless wannabes craving for celebrity and fast money — is turned into a modern version of Commedia dell’Arte, with stock characters, long tirades and very little action. Some dramatic excitement is provided only in the finale, where the Presenter (a cross-dressed summary of the mad scientist Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show plus the Master of Ceremonies in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret) is morphed into Lord Darth Vader from Star Wars, literally slaughtering all the contenders with his laser sword. In his own closing words: “Perdiamo tutti” (We all loose). A good point, but otherwise the libretto, rich in metaphors, quotations, clever rhetoric devices, is exceedingly verbose and does not hurt as an effective satire should. With a drastical pruning, it could work better. Mosca’s music sticks to the subject with nearly 100 minutes of astringent sound, hectic rhythm and tempo changes, trivial jingles and sudden projections to the foreground from individual instruments, particularly woodwinds, like in a madcap sinfonia concertante. Accuracy and relentless attention was shown by the 17 choice instrumentalists from the Maggio house orchestra, led with firm pulse by specialist Marco Angius. Lacking memorable solo numbers, Mosca’s usual leaning toward displays of agility provided opportunities for Roberto Abbondanza, Alda Caiello, Sara Mingardo and Daniela Bruera to show their well-known versatily in the most diverse singing styles. Inventive scenery (by Davide Livermore) featuring tributes to the op-art and Escher’s impossible perspectives, while Gianluca Falaschi’s garish costumes amounted to a ghastly apotheosis of Kitsch.

Carlo Vitali

© Friedrich Berlin Verlag (by kind permission) (condensed from issues 3 and 7/ 2011 of Opernwelt (Berlin, Germany))

Marco Tutino: Senso

Conductor: Pinchas Steinberg; Direction, Stage, Costumes: Hugo de Ana. Cast: Nicola Beller Carbone (Countess Livia Serpieri), Brandon Jovanovich (Lieutenant Hans Büchner, Giorgio Surian (Count Serpieri), Dalibor Jenis (Marquis Roberto Donà).

Palermo, Teatro Massimo, 28 February 2011.

Lorenzo Ferrero: Risorgimento! (with Luigi Dallapiccola: Il Prigioniero)

Conductor: Michele Mariotti; Direction: Giorgio Gallione; Stage: Tiziano Santi; Costumes: Claudia Pernigotti.

Cast for Risorgimento!: Alessandro Spina (The Piano Coach), Annunziata Vestri (Giovannina Bellinzaghi), Alessandro Luongo (Bartolomeo Merelli), Valentina Corradetti (Giuseppina Strepponi), Leonardo Cortellazzi (Luigi Barbiano di Belgiojoso), Umberto Bortolani (Giuseppe Verdi, spoken role).

Cast for Il Prigioniero: Solisten: Chad Armstrong (The Prisoner), Valentina Corradetti (The Mother), Armaz Darashvili (The Gaoler, The Grand Inquisitor), Dario Di Vietri, Mattia Olivieri (Two Priests).

Modena, Teatro Pavarotti, 27 March 2011.

Luca Francesconi: Quartett

Conductor: Susanna Mälkki and Jean-Michaël Lavoie; Direction: Àlex Ollé; Stage: Alfons Flores; Costumes: Lluc Castells; Computer Sound Design: Serge Lemouton. Cast: Allison Cook (Marquise de Merteuil), Robin Adams (Vicomte de Valmont).

Milan, La Scala, 28 April 2011.

Luca Mosca: L’Italia del destino

Conductor: Marco Angius; Direction and Stage: Davide Livermore; Costumes: Gianluca Falaschi. Cast: Daniela Bruera (La Cameriera/ The Chambermaid), Alda Caiello (La Stilista/ The Stylist), Cristina Zavalloni (Sexilia), Sara Mingardo (La Diva/ The Diva), Davide Livermore (Il Cantante/ The Pop Singer), Chris Ziegler (Il Palestrato/ The Bodybuilding-Freak), Roberto Abbondanza (Il Creativo/ The Creative), Sax Nicosia (Il Moderatore/ The Presenter, spoken role).

Florence, Teatro Goldoni, 15 May 2011.

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