28 Dec 2011
Leoncavallo’s I Medici
Ruggero Leoncavallo’s name is forever tied to that of Pietro Mascagni.
Puccini Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera. What is Manon Lescaut really about? The Abbé Prévost's 1731 narrative was a moral discourse. Unlike many modern novels, it wasn't a potboiler but a philosphical tract in which the protagonists face moral dilemmas
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
Ruggero Leoncavallo’s name is forever tied to that of Pietro Mascagni.
Both composers found early acclaim with one-act operas, and to this day the pairing of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci serves as a popular mainstay of most opera houses. The sad shadow of that imposing success also falls on both composers, as neither ever managed to create another work as loved or esteemed. Leoncavallo, in fact, would have much preferred his name be linked, as unlikely as it may seem, with that of Richard Wagner. Leoncavallo considered himself to be better educated than his Italian contemporaries, including Puccini, who famously refused to acknowledge Leoncavallo’s prior claim to a novel about life among poverty-stricken hipsters in 19th century Paris — with Puccini’s La Bohéme driving Leoncavallo’s work into obscurity.
Leoncavallo would love to have created a multi-part epic along the lines of Wagner’s Ring cycle, and he actually completed the first of a planned triptych set in the Italian Renaissance — I Medici. In 2007 Deutsche Grammophon assembled some first-class artists to record this rare score. The booklet notes of DG’s handsomely produced set don’t attempt to peddle the opera as a long-lost masterpiece, offering the politely conditional, “If his opera ultimately does not work as drama ” while praising the highlights of the composer’s musical efforts. But there is more memorable melodic material in any fifteen minutes of Leoncavallo’s famed one-act work than in all four acts of I Medici.
The libretto complexly fails to provide any meaningful portrayal of the Renaissance or the political and cultural power of the two Medici brothers, Lorenzo and Giuliano. Other than a few lines at the beginning and end, the deeper issues Wagner would have dug into are ignored for a prosaic love triangle, with Giuliano in love with the sickly Simonetta, who would reciprocate if she weren’t so unwell she faints routinely. So Giulaino enjoys himself with her closest friend, Fioretta. Even as a love story, I Medici fails to satisfy, as Simonetta dies in act three almost as soon as she becomes aware of Giuliano’s dalliance with her friend, and before she can warn him of a conspiracy she has overheard to kill him and his brother. Giuliano falls victim to the assassins, while Fioretta mourns him and Lorenzo escapes. Lorenzo stays on the sidelines, making his shout of triumph at the end a bizarre non-sequitur. A menacing figure named Montesecco hangs on the outside of most of the drama yet has nothing pertinent to do in the action. The plot has more dead ends than a corn maze, but less suspense.
As a listening experience, however, I Medici shouldn’t be slighted. From the bray of hunting horns heard in the prelude through the song contest and dance sequence of act two up through the church music heard before the violence of act four, Leoncavallo stretches himself as an orchestrator. Why his lyric gift failed him can only be ascribed to the composer’s acknowledgement of his librettist’s (himself) failure to create any truly worthy inspiration.
The score finds worthy exponents in conductor Alberto Veronesi and its two male leads, Plácido Domingo and Carlos Álvarez. In 2007 Domingo still had a tenor’s silver in his vocal coloring, and he is caught in fine voice. Álvarez lacks the start tenor’s glamour and unique profile, but he has strength and nobility. As the perpetually ailing Simonetta, Daniella Dessi sounds very healthy, except for some harshness at the top. Renata Lamanda can’t make much of the dreary Fioretta, while Eric Owens lends his smoky bass in the negligible role of Montesecco.
For collectors of rare repertoire, this is an obvious “must-buy.” Otherwise, the appeal of this set is probably limited to devoted fans of either male lead.