Sunday, September 17, 2017

A Patriotic Donizetti and the Siege of Aleppo

Donizetti’s L’assedio di Calais (American Primiere)
Glimmerglass Opera Festival
Cooperstown, NY
July 22, 2017

A Neo-Realist take for our time on a bel canto classic
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Lei: Director Francesca Zambello’s production of Donizetti’s L’assedio di Calais should be a case study on how to modernize an opera, respect the original, and make it relevant to contemporary audiences. The very simple decision of moving the action from the siege of Calais in 1346-1347 to the 2017 siege of Aleppo brought the point home of just how universal a story this is.

The sets reminiscent of the contemporary horrors of all-too-familiar refugee crises
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Lui: The rotating sets designed by James Noone were mostly comprised of bombed out concrete buildings with bent rebar poking out all over, an image that is (sadly) immediately recognizable from headline news in Syria (though they could easily represent any other war zone in recent memory, from Gaza to Baghdad). Along with Jessica John’s attention to detail in the tatters and rags that adorned one side of the fight and modern military garb on the other was sufficient for instantly increasing the emotional charge and relevance of the piece.

Lei: There was no need to translate the libretto into English, change the plot, or take any other Regie poetic license. The directorial choice to modernize the sets and costumes gave this nineteenth-century work a contemporary and universal depth that packed a more immediate punch than if its characters donned medieval armor and carried swords. War is war and the tragedy of defending’s ones home under siege by a despotic force remains the same fact of life whether in 1340s France or in 2017 Syria.

Confronting great adversity is a story for all times
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Lui: L’assedio di Calais is one of those underappreciated gems that fell into oblivion for a number of at times inexplicable reasons but deserves to be brought back to life. Not only is the score bursting with wonderful musical moments, but more importantly the plot and the exploration of its various dramatic tensions are uniquely compelling.

The town of Calais in the north of France is under siege by an invading English army. The young French hero, Aurelio, is first glimpsed furtively pilfering supplies from across enemy lines to feed his starved people. His father Eustachio, the mayor of the besieged city, and his wife Eleonora open the opera on pins and needles, eagerly awaiting news of their son and husband, who has skipped town, temporarily.

Aurelio reunites with his father after a scout mission
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Structurally, the action of the plot revolves around a series of foreboding situations in which danger and devastation for the folks under siege is somehow closely averted. These dramatic catalysts are accompanied by corresponding waves of emotions that run the gamut from despair and sorrow to the sudden return of hope and joy, only to repeat the cycle again.

The initial preoccupations of father and wife over the fate of our young hero which resolves in his sudden soothing return is the first event in the series. The cycle repeats itself with Aurelio’s dream of his son’s abduction and again with the infiltration of a mole sent by the invading army into the besieged town.

All rejoice for the safety of the young
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
The drama then heightens with the arrival of a message from the English King Edoardo. The city will be freed on the condition that six of its finest citizens consent to sacrificing and publicly humiliating themselves. The young hero, his illustrious father and four other brave men all enlist to die to save their city and loved ones. After many tribulations, and a regina ex machina who intervenes to save the day, a lesson in compassion is taught to one and all. The siege is lifted and everyone rejoices together (except maybe King Edoardo who is forced by his wife to play the enlightened monarch).

Lei: Assedio feels like a very unusual departure for Donizetti. It is rife with patriotic themes in ways that his other operas are not. The plot revolves around the tribulations of a family broken by war and of the larger tragedy of a population fighting for survival against an invading power. In a way, this opera feels like a bridge to Verdi, with its big choruses that advance the plot and its focus on patria oppressa patriotic themes.

Also, unlike most Donizetti dramatic operas, there is no prima donna per se to trigger the high drama. However, the absence of a more traditional tragedy of amorous triangles or unrequited love or doomed couples does not mean that the opera is less moving or emotionally compelling. Quite the contrary, Assedio evokes a range of emotions by means of its ensemble cast and in a way it felt truer than his other work (particularly considering Zambello’s provocative production).

Eustachio weighs his convictions at rock bottom
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Lui: The emotions explored in this opera were incredibly complex and rich and the excellent Glimmerglass cast was up to the task. Baritone Adrian Timpau, as Eustachio, embodied both his public role as the leader of men responsible for the welfare the town’s citizens, but also the very private one as father worrying over the life of his heroic son and consoling his daughter-in-law and grandson. Timpau displayed excellent Italian and a well-rounded, agile instrument that managed, together with his effective acting, to poignantly express the ample spectrum of emotions of his character.

Timpau’s portrayal of Eustachio was veined by a tragic desperation that was utterly moving, in particular when he faces the moral dilemma of whether to sacrifice his life to save his people from suffering further. This terrific singer appeared as a member of the Glimmerglass Young Artist Program, but his skill and artistic maturity seemed those of a far more established artist and in fact, his young age notwithstanding, he was a very convincing town elder, father and leader figure. I suspect that we’ll be hearing from him again very soon.

Aurelio and his wife and son
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Mezzo Aleks Romano in the pants role of the young hero Aurelio, together with soprano Leah Crocetto as his wife, vividly represented the love of a couple whose burgeoning family is threatened by war in their many husband-wife duets, gripped by joy and by fear but united in their concern for the future of their son (here played by a heart-wrenching little boy who at one point is seen kicking his half deflated soccer ball amidst the ruins from the bombarding).

Publicly, the Aurelio character also embodies an impetuous brave young man who is driven by principle and eager to fight the oppressor. Vocally, this role has perhaps the most show-stopping flashy coloratura-filled arias to sing and Romano embodied them with a seemingly effortless conviction and passion. Crocetto was an equally impressive singer with a big, luscious voice and easy high notes that carried duets and ensembles alike.

Lei: But perhaps one of the most powerful recurring themes of the evening is that of the love of country and the fierce spirit of resistance required to fight against an unjust invading power. This was most vividly expressed by an impressive chorus, and perhaps most memorably in the fierce Act I finale Come tigri di strage anelanti that was delivered with an electrifying force reminiscent of the Guerra, guerra chorus in Norma.

Sarà di guerra unanime
grido: la patria, il re.
(con tutto l'impeto d’una estrema disperazione)
Come tigri di strage anelanti
piomberem sul nemico spietato,
negli sguardi, nel volto spiranti
ira estrema, furor disperato...
Scorreranno torrenti di sangue,
tutto il campo una tomba sarà.

Let it be a unanimous war cry:
Our homeland, our king.
(with all the impetus of an extreme desperation)
Like tigers hungry for slaughter
We will assail the merciless enemy
In our gait, in our dying faces
Extreme ire, desperate fury…
Streams of blood will flow
The whole battlefield will be a tomb.

The men gird themselves for the good of the community
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Lui: Patriotic feelings were also in full display in the moving Act II finale, with a unique all male sextet of Calais patriots ready to make the ultimate sacrifice to save their loved ones. This moment was particularly moving as all six singers were delivering the same lines in solemn prayer-like fashion, effectively conveying martyrdom.

Patria oppressa, hear my cry!
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Lei: The emotional charge of this opera, surely enhanced by the modern day framing, was so powerful that I found myself on the verge of tears pretty much from the opening chorus, silently sobbing at many junctions throughout the opera, and really weeping inconsolably in the Act III finale. By curtain call, I was an emotional wreck, yes, but also exhilarated by such a cathartic and universal piece of art.

Lui: In our three years of Glimmerglass experience this was the most satisfying performance of all – an electrifying discovery with a top-notch cast, a thought-provoking production, all in all perfectly executed. This production made a very compelling case for bringing Assedio back into opera houses regular rotations, particularly with Zambello’s modern take through the Syrian conflict lenses.

The six self-chosen for sacrifice
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Lei: One can only wish that all modern productions were as successful as this one. The trick was to find the right analogue in which to set an otherwise universal story. The Syrian crisis fits the bill, not least of all because it so powerfully evokes a slew of emotions that struggle to find the proper cathartic release in the context of current political discourse as well as in the mainstream media.

Lui: This is what the arts are for. They provide a forum for exploring collective sentiments that have a hard time finding a venue in other areas of life but that we are desperate to confront together as a culture. Seated collectively in a dark theater, alone together with our thoughts and our solipsistic emotions, mulling over what it means to be human now and always in the company of each other – this is the perfect occasion for an intense and draining exercise in human empathy. It is a beautiful thing what Zambello achieved here in large part thanks to Donizetti and his librettist. A forgotten opera found its relevance again and for this we all can be grateful.

– Lei & Lui

Rodin's take on the burghers of selfsame crisis in Calais

The venue for our collective exercise in human empathy
Photo credit: Glimmerglass

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Two-Faced Puccini

Puccini’s Suor Angelica & Gianni Schicchi
Martina Arroyo Foundation’s Prelude to Performance
The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College
July 7, 2017

Gianni Schicchi is Puccini at his deftest and best
Photo credit: Jen Joyce Davis
The Martina Arroyo Foundation this year brought us a pair of one-act operas from Puccini’s Trittico. Rather than opt for the more common pairing of Il Tabarro (the first in the trilogy) and Gianni Schicchi (the last of the three), the program included Suor Angelica, which is the one that is most frequently cut – a tradition dating back to its earliest revivals a century ago.

Angelica and her evil aunt
Photo credit: Jen Joyce Davis
It turns out that this tradition is not without reason, since we found Suor Angelica to be a real snore. It is the story of a mother whose extreme reaction to the news of the death of her child leads to suicide and finally the suggestion of religious redemption.

At its best it delivered a couple of moments of extreme beauty in which Puccini is at his most saccharine finest. At its worst it had a lot of pretty much useless fluff about nuns’ mundane activities in a convent courtyard. Not to mention the complete absence of a male voice to ground the whole work and mix things up a bit.

Soprano Michelle Johnson in the title role was competent but not outstanding. Too often it seemed like she was working too hard just to hit the notes. Too often she was simply drowned out by the orchestra. One of the few moments of real dramatic tension occurs during Angelica’s showdown with evil aunt, here depicted as a Goth princess by the uncompromising and stern Leah Marie de Gruyl.

Suor Angelica searches for her salvation
Photo credit: Jen Joyce Davis

How soon the dead are forgotten! The reading of the will
Photo credit: Jen Joyce Davis
When it came to Gianni Schicchi, however, we discovered a whole other side of the composer. Who knew Puccini could be so funny?

Despite famous arias like the immortal O mio babbino caro, this opera is essentially an ensemble piece. Based on a episode hinted at briefly in Dante’s Divine Comedy (Inferno, Canto XXX), Puccini’s fleshing out of the story comes across as something straight out of Boccaccio’s Decameron.

It's dog eat dog once the august patriarch has passed away
Photo credit: Jen Joyce Davis
Buoso Donati, of a noteworthy Florentine line, lies on his deathbed when the curtain rises. As long as the details of his last will and testament remains suspended, his nearest and dearest are short on grief and long on greed. A good deal of hand wringing ensues until they strike on a solution. Everybody wants the same piece of their ancestor’s pie: something to do with a prime plot of land and prized mule. In a move that is more Boccaccescan levity than Dantean solemnity, the outcome is laugh out-loud hilarious.

There were several stand-out performances in what was truly a group effort. And virtually every singer on stage had excellent Italian (essential to convey the hilarious lines of the libretto) and perfect comic timing. Steven Mo Hanan as Simone Donati, the next in line for the role of patriarch in the Donati clan, set the comic tone of the piece with his slightly clueless take on the character that never went completely over the top.

Anna Adrian Whiteway as Lauretta sang a naively ingenuous O mio babbino caro that virtually came out of nowhere. Amidst the rest of the comic mugging and other humorous shenanigans of the story, all of a sudden this incredibly recognizable and heartbreakingly beautiful tune catches you off guard.

Rinuccio has an idea and an agenda of his own
Photo credit: Jen Joyce Davis
Spencer Hamlin sang the role of Rinuccio, her beloved. He was youthfully boyish and bright in his affection for Lauretta as well as in his guileless introduction of the otherwise unwanted intervention of newcomer Gianni Schicchi, notorious trickster, into the family crisis.

And then there was the eponymous hero of the opera. Joshua DeVane leant his Gianni Schicchi a provincial air of an up-and-comer. The indictment of the nouveau riche in this respect falls right in line with both Boccaccio and Dante’s value system. The ways in which he is able to pull the wool over the eyes of everybody involved, from the notaio to Buoso’s heirs, when done right, as it was tonight, is a hysterical piece of comic theater. DeVane and company did it justice. Neither of us could suppress our laughter.

With Gianni Schicchi as their only hope!
Photo credit: Jen Joyce Davis
The comic timing is embedded in the score and fast paced story. Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi is funnier than anything I have ever experienced in the operatic canon. I haven’t had this much fun at the opera in a very long time, if ever. Just hope next time we see this gem of a Puccini it will be paired with Il Tabarro instead!

– Lui & Lei
All gather round to hear the moral of the tale
Photo credit: Jen Joyce Davis

Dressing up Meyerbeer for Fashion Week: A Case for Regietheater

Meyerbeer’s Margherita d’Anjou
Festival della Valle d’Itria
Palazzo Ducale di Martina Franca
August 2, 2017

Meyerbeer gets a Fashion Week make-over with a 17th Century themed collection
Photo credit: Festival della Valle d'Itria 
Lei: Among the myriad opera festivals available in Europe this summer, we ended up picking the Festival della Valle d’Itria, intrigued by their rediscovery of a rare Meyerbeer bel canto work and of course by the sheer beauty and abundant culinary pleasures offered by Puglia, one of Italy’s finest regions. Meyerbeer was not at all on our operatic map, but we decided to give him a try, confident that if worse came to worse at least we would be in the birthplace of burrata, stracciatella and bombette pugliesi.

The ducal palace in Martina Franca
Photo credit: Festival della Valle d'Itria 
Lui: The promise of a whole lot of beautiful music from 1820, which places the opera squarely in the height of the bel canto period in Italy, was enough to get us excited. As for the production, to be staged al fresco in the courtyard of the baroque ducal palace in Martina Franca, we did not know what to expect. For all we knew we were gearing up for a traditional evening of tights and late medieval cuirasses, given that the plot was set in 1300s England and the performance venue was pretty old school.

Lei: However, as soon as maestro Fabio Luisi launched into a full bodied but nuanced rendition of the magnificent military overture, we suddenly found ourselves behind the scenes at a contemporary fashion show, with naked models getting dressed and eccentric fashion types excitedly fussing around, all while the chorus members (as the “audience” of fashionistas) took their places along the catwalk. At that point the 1300s tights and armor were out of the question and we happily braced ourselves for a wild Regietheater ride.

Bel canto breakdancing meets mimed sword fighting
Photo credit: Festival della Valle d'Itria 
Lui: Director Alessandro Talevi took the ridiculously overwrought melodramma semiserio plot about intersecting love triangles and international power play as an opportunity to tell a quirky and imaginative story that transposed all of its familiar elements and kept the audience on its toes. From the moment a bunch of models began strutting across the stage on a cat walk before transitioning into a routine of breakdance sword fighting and mime armed warfare to early nineteenth-century bel canto melodies, the show had me perched on the edge of my seat in anticipation of what they would come up with next.

Lei: The original plot is kind of a mess, with several centers of dramatic tension and comic relief thrown in. We’re in the midst of the War of the Two Roses and its many battles and court intrigues. In one corner is the regal character of the powerful queen Margherita and her loyal posse. On the other, we have her rival the evil Glocester and his cruel posse, as well as her former general Carlo (also with his renegade posse) who fell out of her graces and is now a spy for Glocester. As for the love interests, enter the dashing tenor Lavarenne who is torn between the powerful Margherita (who benefits from his help in the war) and his own lovely wife Isaura (who suffers from his estrangement). Finally, for comic relief, there is Michele, a know-it-all doctor who is a cross between Donizetti’s Dulcamara, Rossini’s Figaro and Mozart’s Don Alfonso and is on a mission to help Isaura win back Lavarenne. After several dramatic and comic twists and turns, Lavarenne and Isaura get back together and Carlo turns his military loyalty back to Margherita, who ends up defeating Glocester.

The Queen is MDA, a fashion designer
Photo credit: Paolo Conserva
Lui: In a stroke of genius bordering folly, Talevi turned Margherita D’Anjou into a superstar English fashion designer (“MDA”), Glocester into her conservative media tycoon ex-husband (on a mission to discredit her and get custody of their son), Carlo into her ex-lead designer turned rogue (and punk), Lavarenne into a pop-star helping Margherita with her PR issues and Michele into a flamboyant reality TV personality specialized in reconciling estranged couples.

Lavarenne is now a pop star willing to lend his fame to redeem her name
Photo credit: Paolo Conserva
Lei: As absurd as this all sounds, on the whole this modern take kind of worked. Without getting too caught up in all the minute details, I would say that most of the lines and plot points actually translated well into the new context. At the end of the day, the themes of the original plot revolve around pretty universal power plays and love triangles (with a heavy dusting of comic relief) and were all perfectly conveyed by the bold and highly imaginative setting created by Talevi.

The quack doctor Michele (far left) is now a reality TV star and narcissist
Photo credit: Festival della Valle d'Itria 
Lui: After all, this opera is really just an excuse for a whole lot of beautiful music from 1820 at the height of bel canto in Italy. And when the plot is as absurd as it already is, the Regietheater approach adds an extra layer to the experience of the engaged audience member. When it’s an opera that is as unknown and unfamiliar to most as this one, it kind of makes it a whole other game for everyone involved too (and is less dangerous than modernizing Traviata for that matter). Also, this is what festivals should do: unearth forgotten gems and go crazy!  

All hail MDA!
Photo credit: Paolo Conserva
Lei: I am a Regie convert! Who knew?!? It kind of adds a whole new level of complexity and freshness and, when done right, keeps the work relevant and contemporary in exciting avant-garde ways. Frankly who cares about an absurd plot set in the War of the Two Roses? Now, who can get into an eye candy show set in London’s fashion week? As long as the original libretto and music remain untouched, the emotional core is conveyed, the ideas are thought provoking and the execution is top notch, I say bring it on! We don’t get enough of this kind of bold and daring productions in the scene in New York. This whole Regie revelation is enticing me to some opera travel in Berlin (though don’t think I’m ready yet for a cast of giant rats playing the Ring Cycle).

Lui: It also helps to have an excellent cast of singing actors. Soprano Giulia De Blasis as Margherita d’Anjou, the widow of Henry VI of England, had a strong bright sound. In the ensembles her soprano soared effortlessly out over the rest, shimmering with hope and despair. A commanding confident presence, she was an exciting singer to watch.

Lavarenne comes out singing (and swinging)
Photo credit: Mario Ricci
Lavarenne, sung by tenor Anton Rositskiy had some of the most challenging Juan Diego Flores-style tenor arias. While Rositskiy is no JDF, he did give it an honest try with his bright youthful sound that was most successful in its mid-range. His Italian was top notch and his characterization as a superstar pop singer torn between two love interests was convincing.

The Queen goes punk in a fight for survival
Photo credit: Mario Ricci
Vocally, it was really mezzo-soprano Gaia Petrone’s night. She leant her buttery mezzo to the partial trouser role of Isaura, the estranged wife of Lavarenne. Her warm sound and crystal clear articulation of every syllable of her bel canto fireworks made for thrilling listening and fiery emotions.

Isaura reveals the partial nature of her "pants" role
Photo credit: Festival della Valle d'Itria 
Lei: One of the things this opera is known for is its unique bass trio, showcasing three different degrees of manliness intertwined with each other, here all perfectly cast. Carlo Belmonte, the general banished by the queen and currently employed by her archrival Glocester, was sung by bass Laurence Meikle. He was cast as a Scottish street punk with an extreme neon orange mohawk that seemed to glow in the dark. He wore a plaid kilt and carried himself with the swagger of someone who just didn’t care. His performance was a real hoot. And he had the vocal goods to back it up too, boasting a bold midrange bass tinted with youthful baritonal colors. He’s not one of those guttural basses who makes the ground shake but one that exudes an edgy street smart manliness.

The story remains a tug-of-war over custody of their son
Photo credit: Festival della Valle d'Itria 
Bass Bastian Thomas Kohl sang the role of Riccardo, the Duke of Glocester, a hunk of a blond hulk with the sound of a giant. His lower register grounded the remarkable terzetto of basses that punctuates the second half of Act II. Kohl’s portrayal of a golf-playing, right wing overbearing bully was crucial in conveying Talevi’s vision, making the conflict between him and Margherita a credible one.

Michele Gamautte holds court with pizzazz and spunk
Photo credit: Festival della Valle d'Itria 
Lui: To the basso buffo role of the freewheeling French physician Michele Gamautte, Marco Filippo Romano brought his sense of comic timing and flaming flair. It is an understatement to say that he stole the show every time he was on stage. Decked out in patent white platform boots and an array of flamboyant suits and kilts, not to mention his bouffant wave of neon green hair (matching his beard), he was quite a sight.

For a mid- to low-range bass Romano was remarkably agile in his melismatic bel canto acrobatics. His stage presence was consistently hilarious, as he portrayed Michele as an egocentric, resourceful, selfie-taking type, tooting his own horn for his personal cameraman and always rooting and scheming for a happy ending. He brought levity and ease to this rare breed of character, one that appears but infrequently in operas of the period with such a dynamic array of both musical and narrative characteristics.

The cast and chorus came out in bathrobes during the scene of bucolic retreat
Photo credit: Festival della Valle d'Itria 
Lei: The massive chorus of the Teatro Municipale di Piacenza led by Corrado Casati was also beyond impressive both vocally and acting-wise. They had to (literally) wear many hats throughout the opera: the crowd of fashionistas and reporters, Margherita’s fashionable loyalists, the mohawk-sporting punk followers of Carlo, the thuggish posse of Gloucester and, last but not least, a mountain-spa crowd (don’t ask) in white bathrobes and slippers. Scenes and costumes by Madeleine Boyd were all around bold and carefully crafted to the last detail (including Margherita’s staff wearing “MDA” t-shirts).

Lui: Talevi also had many brilliant staging ideas, as when the lead tenor or soprano have arias where they’re supposedly alone on stage pouring their tormented hearts out, in this production the singer delivers his or her aria on a couch, to a silent shrink who just nods and takes fervent notes. The suggestion that certain opera characters would benefit from an analyst is just hilarious and added to the sheer entertainment of Talevi’s take.

Everybody goes rogue punk
Photo credit: Festival della Valle d'Itria 
This only goes to show the scrupulous attention to detail and level of commitment of the cast and production team. I do hope that they filmed this show and that they’re shopping this production around, since it’s just too good to be performed for only four nights in Martina Franca. Also because I want to see it again! I have a feeling we’ll be back for more Festival della Valle d’Itria opera in the future.

The charms of Martina Franca
Photo credit: Festival della Valle d'Itria 
Lei: Hell yes! I was very sad to leave Martina Franca having experienced only one of this festival’s many offerings. We missed Verdi’s Un giorno di regno, Vivaldi’s Orlando furioso, Piccinni’s Le donne vendicate and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, not to mention concerts and recitals in other baroque churches and courtyards. If, as I suspect, the level of the rest of the festival was as top notch as this Meyerbeer, next summer we’re moving here for two weeks.

– Lei & Lui

The models gear up for the catwalk during the overture
Photo credit: Festival della Valle d'Itria 
The show was full of juicy details: the punk party out in the highlands
Photo credit: Festival della Valle d'Itria