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Opera Travels III: Adriatic Rossini
August 19, 2015
Almost every year we come to Pesaro, the nice, little seaside town on the Adriatic where Gioachino Rossini was born on February 29, 1792. (A leap year baby, he would officially be about 56 years old this year by my calculations.) Coming to Pesaro from the National Park of the Maiella in the Abruzzo region of Italy, where we had been for a few days, means descending from the mountains to sea level; from relatively cool temperatures to the heat and humidity of the coast; from lots of meat grilled over a wood fire to fish grilled in the manner of the Marche region; and from hearty red wine to light whites, especially the local Bianchello del Metauro, a lovely straw-colored wine which pairs very well with fish. And to the 36th edition of the Rossini Opera Festival, performing this year the comedy La gazzetta (The Gazette), the one act farsa L'inganno felice (The Happy Deception) and the semi-serious melodrama La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie). There is also a performance of the wonderful Il viaggio a Reims (The Trip to Rheims) with students from the Rossini Academy here, and a concert with Rossini's Naples Messa di Gloria and two extended vocal scenes with two of the lions of contemporary opera, Juan Diego Florez and Jessica Pratt.
The Festival is suffering financial woes like so many European cultural institutions, with government subsidies slashed and corporate sponsors having seriously cut back their contributions, so this year there is only one new production--La gazzetta. The Gazza ladra production was first seen here in 2007 and the L'inganno felice in 1994.
La gazzetta dates from 1816, a year in Rossini's life which started with the premiere of The Barber of Seville in Rome and ended with Otello in Naples. The amusing libretto by Giuseppe Palomba was based on a comedy by Goldoni called Il matrimonio per concorso (The Marriage Contest) in which a buffoonish father, newly arrived in Paris, advertises for a husband for his daughter in the newspaper (the Gazette). Palomba turned Goldoni's foolish Venetian father into Don Pomponio Storione, a rich merchant from Naples who speaks and sings in the Neapolitan dialect; he is of course the buffo. (A 2015 production in America might have this buffoon speak Newyorkese and name him Donaldo Trumpo.) Of course Don Pomponio's daughter, Lisetta, is having nothing of this 'marriage competition' and is already in love with the innkeeper of the Parisian hotel where they are staying, one Filippo. Meanwhile, there is another father in search of a husband for his daughter, Doralice; a couple of other guests at the inn complete the ensemble--Alberto, a well-bred young man in search of a wife and Madama La Rose. All sorts of complications, disguises and mistaken identities ensue as the young people try to outwit the fathers so that they can marry for love. In the end, the clever, sexy Lisetta ends up with her Filippo and Doralice gets Alberto. The Act I finale includes Filippo and the chorus disguised as Quakers, and in Act II there is a masquerade party where everyone dresses up as Turks to confuse the old men.
It is all pretty silly, but amusing nonetheless if done with style and sufficient brio as was the case here. Rossini premiered the opera at the Teatro de' Fiorentini in Naples on 26 September, 1816. The Fiorentini specialized in dialect comedies, and the Don Pomponio was a storied buffo named Carlo Casaccia, who generally performed in Neapolitan. A good chunk of the score is newly composed, but much of it came from other Rossini operas including, principally, Il turco in Italia and La pietra del paragone, but also Torvaldo e Dorliska, L'equivico stravagante and La cambiale di matrimonio. The overture, which was new, would become famous in a new guise the following year as the overture to La cenerentola. In spite of all the self-borrowings (and giving the task of writing the recitatives and two of the minor arias to other, unknown, helpers), Rossini wrote out all the music anew, even the borrowed passages. It was apparently a success in Naples and was reprised in 1822, and it was given a new production in Palermo in 1828. After that, silence. As part of the scholarly work of the Rossini Foundation, in due course it was issued in a critical edition by Philip Gossett and Fabrizio Scipioni, and it began to be performed here and there (I saw it first in Como, Italy, in the 1990's) including a production at the Rossini Opera Festival by Dario Fo in 2001, reprised in 2005.
But whenever the opera has been performed in modern times, there was a serious problem: the music was missing from a Quintet for all the main characters which fell in the middle of the first act, and though it was a Quintet of confusion typical of Rossini opera buffa, it was crucial to the furtherance of the plot. There was a lot of speculation: did Rossini never compose the music for the words, which were in the surviving libretto ("Già nel capo un giramento"--'My head is already spinning')? Did he borrow the music from somewhere else? If he did write the music, what happened to it? For the critical edition Philip Gossett composed some new music for recitative (but not the Quintet) so that the action would make sense. Dario Fo had the singers speak the text rhythmically while the fortepiano played a Rossini tarantella called La danza in the background.
In 2011 the problem was solved when Dario Lo Cicero, librarian of the Palermo (Sicily) Conservatory, found the autograph manuscript of the Quintet in their collection, bound with music by other composers. Professor Gossett authenticated the manuscript and made it a part of the Critical Edition. The new music, first performed at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, last year, now makes a 'complete' performance of La gazzetta possible. Like the opera as a whole, some of the Quintet music is new, some comes from La scala di seta and some from the Act I finale of the same year's Barbiere. All of it is put together with great skill to make a new piece which is very satisfying musically and dramatically.
Pesaro's new production by Marco Carniti uses a lot of fabric hanging from the back of the stage, as a curtain in the front, and fabric gathered up to mask pieces of furniture (a table, a hotel desk, a Paris fashion runway) and even to make clouds. (The abstract set by Manuela Gasperoni was nothing special, but it was functional). Banners drop from above with the "Gazette" and its ads printed on them, and large letters come down from above spelling Hotel Aquila and other words. This keeps the stage in constant motion, matching the frenetic comic pace of the production. Carniti also turns the minor, mute character of Don Pomponio's servant Tommasino (an incredibly energetic Ernesto Lama) into a major role. He is an acrobatic and slapstick character, and in constant movement, never letting the action flag. (On the other hand, it was very nice to hear the overture without stage action, as God and Rossini intended.)
The action is updated (it would be astonishing to see a production set in Goldoni's eighteenth century or Rossini's early nineteenth) to that now clichéd decade of comic opera updates, the 1950's. This allowed Costume Designer Maria Filippi to have lots of flaring skirts, tight bodices, and slouchy black suits and fedoras for the men. Act I was almost all in black and white (reflecting a newspaper?), but Act II had costumes and lighting (by Fabio Rossi) in brilliant colors. Don Pomponio had his own particular costume, an outrageous, broadly striped suit in black and white and grey, somewhere between a silent movie comic's outfit and a tuxedo.
I liked the production, which matched the silliness of the libretto with movement and slapstick and shtick. I must admit I was baffled by the "Quakers" who end Act I and who were dressed like stereotyped Chinese coolies. The libretto calls for Filippo to enter disguised under a heavy wig "which descends to his shoulders and covers his eyes" as a Quaker (pronounced Quacker in Italian), "followed by other Quakers." Palumbo, the librettist, creates a fake language for them to speak which is set against the Neapolitan of Don Pomponio, which few in the audience could understand either. (Rossini confessed to his mother that he had to compose to a Neapolitan text, and he didn't understand it.) Linguistically, it is the blind leading the blind--a nice parallel to the confusion of roles in the story. So why Chinese? A sale on Chinese costumes at the Pesaro Thrift Shoppe? On the other hand, why not?
The great buffo baritone Nicola Alaimo took the main role, singing in Neapolitan. He is a huge man, which is part of the joke, but he uses his girth nimbly on stage, dancing around with the best of them, prancing and playing against his weight. He sang very well and always knowingly in his cavatina "Co sta grazia" and in the many ensembles. He was particularly funny in the duel trio imported from La pietra del paragone ("Prima nfra voi coll'armi"). In fact, he was a delight throughout. Maxim Mironov, the tenor, has all the flexibility he needs (and high notes too), and the handsome good looks for the love interest (Alberto). He is about as close as we have these days to a Rossinian tenore di grazia. Vito Priante was also more than adequate as Filippo. Of the ladies, José Maria Lo Monaco was all smiles as Madama La Rose, and with a nice voice for her aria di sorbetto "Sempre in amore son io così,"which is not by Rossini, while Raffaella Lupinacci was perfectly pouty in the seconda donna role of Doralice, and she sang her aria di sorbetto "Ah, se spiegar potessi" very nicely indeed. The leading lady, Lisetta, was Hasmik Torosyan, an Armenian soprano who graduated from last year's Accademia Rossiniana production of Il viaggio to prima donna status. I found her voice a bit sharp and at times grating for a light soprano, but she had all the coloratura flourishes and turns that Rossini demands, and she certainly acted well and followed all the complicated farcical staging directions that Signor Carniti demanded. The Teatro Communale di Bologna Orchestra and Chorus, regulars in Pesaro since 1987, were directed energetically by Enrique Mazzola. He brought out all the deft orchestration that Rossini wove into the score.
The entire cast was so well rehearsed in the complex and constant action that farce demands, and everyone acted so well that the audience had a tremendous good time, even better in the second performance that we saw. I laughed aloud a lot and I was not alone.
Now that the missing Quintet has been found and restored, we have every reason to hope that this two-act opera buffa will find its way into the repertory more and more often. It is great fun for everyone and will give dedicated Rossinians a chance to test their skill at determining which music comes from which opera, and even how the music has been altered to fit its new context. We have learned that Rossini, like a good tailor, often reused music in new operas, not because he was lazy (in 1816 he composed three full-length operas and a a major cantata, hardly the work of a lazy man), but because he was acting in the same tradition that Handel and many others employed of reusing old music to create a new work. On August 11 and 14, 2015, almost two hundred years from the opening night, the audience still found this old work made new a continuous delight.
L'inganno felice was one of the five one-act works officially designated as farsas with which Rossini began his operatic career in Venice. It was first performed at the Teatro San Moisè there on 8 January, 1812, when Rossini was 19. In the nineteenth century it was the most popular of the five 90-minute one-acters, and the first of Rossini's operas to cross the Alps to be heard outside of Italy. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it has been the least frequently performed of these works, however, probably because of its libretto in which a husband (the Duke) believes his innocent wife to be unfaithful and orders her killed. She survives and is rescued, however, only to be united with her loving (?) husband when he learns the truth. She loves him in spite of his cruelty. For centuries this was a popular format for literary tales (like Chaucer and Boccaccio's story of the patient Griselda) and operas (like Rossini's own early Sigismondo). In 2015, the story of an abusive husband who orders his wife put to death and a wife who loves him nonetheless is hard to put across.
Still, L'inganno felice is a fascinating opera for Rossini's development as a composer, a sort of a dress rehearsal for the great opera semiseria La gazza ladra, also on tap at this year's ROF. Even though L'inganno felice is called a farsa, and even though it has buffo elements, it tells a serious, non-farcical story of heroism and love restored--not quite an opera seria, but not an opera buffa either. The director who takes it on has to walk a fine line between tragedy and farce, especially in our era: the heroine of the work, Isabella, cannot be seen as an abused wife and gain our sympathy when she is reunited with her husband.
Before this year, I had only seen this opera once (in Florence in the 1990's), but this summer I have seen two different productions--at Bad Wildbad, Germany's Rossini Festival [see "Black Forest Bel Canto"] and this one in Pesaro by Graham Vick, which dates from 1994. The Vick production shows that not too long ago--21 years to be exact--stage directors and designers (scenery and costumes by Richard Hudson) were still using the libretto as a guide to what the production should look like and when it should be set. Vick and Hudson's setting is not literal--the libretto calls for a valley with a chain of mountains in the background, with openings in the rocks which form entrances to a mine, and they show a rocky seacoast with a cyclorama of clouds and ocean (there is even a little ship model which "floats" by in the distance), but there is a mine, and it is close enough. Even before the opera starts, when the audience enters, we see the miners on stage, carrying ore out of the mine and taking it away in a wheelbarrow. The military costumes for the Duke and his men define the era as Napoleonic, which is suitable for an opera composed in 1812. It is hard to imagine that Vick, who has recently directed modernized, updated and transmogrified versions of Rossini's Mosé in Egitto and Guillaume Tell in Pesaro, would do something these days as daring as setting the opera as called for in the libretto, and not updating it. But it is a lovely set and the costumes are very nice, both full of nostalgia for an era of operatic production long gone in Europe when the librettist and composer's intentions were taken seriously.
Vick and his singers tended to draw the line between farce and serious melodrama more on the serious side, while the Wildbad production emphasized the comic elements. Thus Pesaro gave us an Isabella who is weaker and more inclined to play the passive female role, while Wildbad gave us a strong willed woman. Batone, the henchman of Ormondo, the baddie, was less buffo in Pesaro too, and the funny duet between Batone and Tarabotto ("Va taluno mormorando") was darker. Making Batone more serious, less silly, may make it harder to understand the pardon he receives in the end, but Vick's approach is certainly a valid one.
In Pesaro, the singers varied. Clearly the best was Carlo Lepore as the father-figure-buffo-manipulator who manages to bring about the happy ending. His is a deep, resonant bass, and he is a fine actor as well. Whenever he was on stage, we were in good hands. Davide Luciano was a worthy Batone, but not in the same class as Lepore. Our heroine, Isabella, was young soprano Mariangela Sicilia, a graduate of the Accademia Rossiniana here. In 2012 she was Corinna in the annual production of Il viaggio a Reims, and in 2013 she played minor roles in Italiana and La donna del lago. Now she has graduated to a leading role. She is an attractive singer, acts well, and sang quite adequately, but not quite with the same aplomb as Silvia Della Benetta, the Isabella in the Wildbad production. Tenor Vassilis Kavayas was the real weak link of the production among the singers, missing notes, acting woodenly, and without the style and technique for Duke Bertrando. He too is a graduate of the Accademia Rossiniana, has sung in the student Il viaggio, and he has sung at Wildbad too, in two operas. But on this occasion he was sometimes hard to listen to.
The Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini (a local group based in Pesaro and Fano) was not much better than the tenor on this occasion. Led by the young Denis Vlasenko, they missed notes, muffed the flute obbligato that accompanies the tenor aria, and generally played with slow tempi and foursquare conducting that too often robbed the score of its brio and drive. The Wildbad forces were much better. Still, I enjoyed the 90 minute production and much of the singing. The opening night performance we saw was streamed over Euroradio, as was the August 11 performance (which we saw) of La gazzetta.
La gazza ladra
The story of La gazza ladra is simple, and based on a real incident which occurred in France in the eighteenth century. A servant girl (Ninetta) is accused, on the eve of her marriage to Gianetto, of the theft of a silver spoon and fork. This is complicated in the opera with the attempt of the cruel town mayor (the Podestà, Gottardo) to have her for himself, and with the escape of her father (Fernando) from the army, where he has been imprisoned for assaulting an officer. Ninetta is innocent, of course, the silverware in question having been "stolen" by the thieving magpie of the title. In the course of the opera, Ninetta is tried and convicted and sentenced to death, but she is exonerated just in time when the "gazza maladetta"'s actions are discovered.
Alberto Zedda, long time music director of the Festival and Rossini scholar and conductor, defined the problem of this opera: the story may be simple and the characters may be simple villagers, but Rossini places them in a cathedral. La gazza ladra is a "big" opera, long and magisterial. The chorus of judges which condemns Ninetta, the simple village serving girl, and the funeral march as she is led to her execution are suitable for an opera seria about the death of a monarch or a great hero. In other words, the elements of the opera--its characters and its story about a bird that steals silver--may be the stuff of comedy, but Rossini treats it as the subject for tragedy. Making that work is the director's task, and it is not an easy one, though I have long felt that musically La gazza ladra is one of Rossini's greatest works, even one of the best works of the nineteenth century.
Director Damiano Michieletto starts out by treating the story as the dream of a young woman who becomes the "gazza" of the title. In the beginning, a bed is on the empty stage and the girl/woman is trying to get to sleep; the opera ends with that bed too--so the whole four hour extravaganza is her dream. In the dream, she becomes the magpie, swinging high above the stage on fabric ropes, or dancing in and out of the action, unseen or ignored by the characters most of the time. In itself it is not a bad idea: instead of a mechanical bird on a wire, we have an athletic dancer/acrobat who personifies the bird. It works, and sometimes it works very well.
After that, the production goes to hell. Giant white cylinders (pipes, cigarettes, manicotti pasta?) are lowered from above--fifteen of them by my count--and for most of Act I they hang there like a huge carillon or wind chimes. (Scenery was by Paolo Fantin, costumes by Carla Teti.) The cylinders become the visual focal point of the opera. Of course they have nothing to do with the story or the music. Instead they are a massive distraction that the characters must play around. Maybe they were inspired by The Matrix or some other science fiction fantasy, but they certainly were not inspired by Rossini or his librettist, Gaetano Rossi. At the end of the act, they reform as firing guns or lighted cigarettes or something else, pointed at us, the audience. It makes for a startling stage picture, but it has nothing to do with the opera.
In Act II, Michieletto adds water to the cylinders, which are now lying on their sides like so many sewer pipes. As the act opens, water is raining down from all sides. It collects on the stage, and throughout the act the singers are sloshing around in water; one even gets down on his knees and plays in the water. What does it all mean? Does anyone care? Michieletto was born in Venice; maybe he conceived the production during a period of high water in that city. This production won an Italian prize for the best production of the year when it was first seen in 2007, which only goes to show that the judges have as much sense as the judges in the opera who condemn Ninetta to death for stealing two pieces of flatware.
Michieletto is the director, much in demand in Europe, who recently brought Covent Garden to its knees with his disastrous production of Guillaume Tell, a production which caused world wide headlines (including on the front page of the New York Times) especially for its use of a graphic gang-bang scene to Rossini's ballet music (there was no dance, just rape). The wealthy London aristocrats who had provided financial support for the production asked to have their names removed from publicity.
What I find wrong with Michieletto's concept for La gazza ladra is that his production distances the audience from the characters. It becomes a water-works in a pumping station, and the empathy that one might feel for Ninetta, the contempt for the Podestà, the anger at a miscarriage of justice, are all lost in a plethora of pipes. There is plenty of emotion in the music and interesting ideas about the worth of the common man (and woman) and the way that the judicial system is weighted against the poor, ideas in the libretto well worth exploring, but Michieletto's production pushes us away from what we come to the opera for. At least, what I come for. Often, the singers, lost in the concept, just stand around and warble. Actual direction of them is minimal. In the end, it is just boring, and on August 13, La gazza ladra, a truly wonderful score, just seemed longer and longer, and I was glad when it all came to an end just before midnight.
The singers in the Adriatic Arena were generally of high quality. Nino Machaidze, from Tbilisi, Georgia, has a big voice and she is lovely on stage. I have seen her several times, mostly in Los Angeles, including in Rossini's Turco in Italia. She is generally secure in her coloratura, although it seemed to me that she was off occasionally in her entrance aria, "Di piacer mi balza il cor." Her voice has a metallic edge, not unusual for singers from her part of the world. It is not to everyone's taste, but she certainly fills the hall. Her fiancé Giannetto was American tenor René Barbera, also possessed of a large voice and high notes. He seemed a little tentative on stage to me, but then he had to work with all those cylinders. Maybe best of all was Alex Esposito as Ninetta's father Fernando. He is quite at home in Rossini, and has a wonderfully flexible bass voice with all the requisite deep notes. Less successful was Marko Mimica, a graduate of the Rossini Academy here, as the villain Gottardo (the Podestà). His low notes sometimes got lost in his second act aria. Alas! I remember the great Samuel Ramey in this role. Everyone else was fine vocally, especially Lina Belkina as Pippo and Siimone Alberghini as the kindly Fabrizio.
The Chorus of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna thundered appropriately (were those raincoats they were wearing as the bewigged judges?) and stood around statically in their color-coordinated great coats. The Orchestra, under Donato Renzetti, gave an especially powerful reading of the famous overture with its echoing snare drums, placed in different spots as Rossini had intended. As far as I could tell, the score was delivered note-complete with even Lucia's little aria di sorbetto just before the finale, unneeded as it is.
I hated the production in 2007 as much as I loved the music. Eight years later, for me, nothing has changed. I recently read a review of Hans Neunfel's Lohengrin at Bayreuth. The reviewer had come to love the white rats that populate that production, and stated that he would miss them when the production was retired. I suppose that even the most irresponsible productions have their defenders. Chacun à son rat.
Naples Mass and Concert
ROF brought out the top international stars this year only for a concert with orchestra and chorus which featured the Messa da Gloria that Rossini wrote for Naples in 1820, at the height of his operatic career, and a couple of scenas--one for soprano and one for tenor--that he wrote as a young man before really starting his career. The Mass was written for the Church of San Ferdinando which is almost across from the royal palace in Naples--then as now. In fact, what stands between the church and the Palace is the Teatro San Carlo where so many of Rossini's Naples operas premiered. The architectural placement is significant and symbolic because the Mass was composed for members of the royal court in Naples, and it is very theatrical; this sacred music for the aristocrats of the palace runs straight through the theater to the Church. Historically, this Mass has been criticized as being too theatrical, too operatic.
If you want what the "right people" consider ideal sacred music, go to Leipzig and listen to Bach. But this is Italy. This is Naples. This is the Catholic Church, itself a grand stage for a theatrical show, sacred though it may be. And Rossini was an opera composer. So it should not be surprising that the Mass is full of themes from operas already composed and adumbrations of operatic music yet to come. It is sort of an operatic scena to the classic texts of the Kyrie Eleison and the Gloria. And Pesaro this year had five opera singers to perform it, along with the orchestra and chorus of a theater--the Bologna opera house. This is sacred music composed like an opera.
Chief among the singers was Juan Diego Florez, and the tenor role is the dominant one in the Mass. Florez was superb, with all the spectacular high notes expected of an operatic--I mean sacred--singer. Partnering him was Jessica Pratt in the soprano role originally sung by a Tarquinio, a castrato soprano. The British soprano, who has also taken the operatic world by storm, especially in the bel canto repertory, was every bit as worthy as Mr. Florez. Also on stage were Viktoria Yarovaya (mezzo-soprano), Mirco Palazzi (bass) and Dempsey Rivera (second tenor). We did not know exactly who sang what in the first performance on 24 March, 1820, until the diary of Scotsman John Waldie turned up at UCLA. Waldie spent a rich life traveling all over Europe attending operas and plays, and he was in that first audience. He gives a very enthusiastic account of the music, and tells us who the singers were.
The concert also included a scena for tenor, chorus and orchestra that Rossini was required to write in 1808 as a graduation exercise from the Bologna Conservatory called Il pianto d'Armonia sulla morte d'Orfeo (The Tears of Harmony on the Death of Orpheus). It is a rather academic piece by the sixteen year old student consisting of an overture and two arias joined by accompanied recitative. The overture is the best part, but Mr. Florez sang the arias with his accustomed bravura. The other scena was called La morte di Didone (The Death of Dido). Rossini wrote it two years after the Orfeo as a thank you for the soprano Esther Mombelli, though Mombelli did not perform it until 1818. Madame Mombelli was a member of the theatrical family that produced Rossini's first opera, Demitrio e Polibio (her mother wrote the libretto), and she had quite a career, performing many of Rossini's operas right up to Il viaggio a Reims, where she premiered the role of Mme. Cortese. The Dido piece is more accomplished that the student Orfeo, though it uses the same overture. Ms. Pratt brought every nuance out, and was even moving in the youthful Rossini's music about the scorn of Dido for Aeneas, who has abandoned her. Florez is, of course, a favorite here, and he brought down the house with bravos and foot-stamping, but Pratt deserved as much.
So that, along with the annual student production of Il viaggio a Reims at popular prices (10 euro for seniors for any seat in the house) was the week that was in Pesaro, where it was hot and humid this year and where the seafood and white wine were as good as ever, and the music was always a pleasure even if the Gazza ladra production was not. Rumor has it that Mr. Michieletto will be back next year with a new production of La donna del lago. But without me.
Opera Along the Trulli
Opera Travels I:
Black Forest Bel Canto
and Cato in Utica
Opera Going in
Of Divas, Castratos
Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci Met HD
University Bounty 3:
Carmen at UNC
University Bounty 2:
Monteverdi's Poppea in Boulder
University Bounty 1:
The Merry Wives of Windsor at Lamont School of Music
Sprezzatura, or Rossini's La Donna del lago in HD
Colorado in February
Kismet: Tthe Opera that Became a Musical
Auld Lang Syne
Two Puccini One-Acters at Colorado State
Cheap Cunning Peasant best costly Verdi Doges
Bergamo Music Festival: Torquato Tasso and Betly
Donizetti's les Martyrs in Concert
Wexford Festival Opera
Hamlet Comes Back to Life in Albuquerque
Follies in Fort Collins