Sunday, June 19, 2016

Of Love, Madness and Massacres

Giovanni Pacini’s Malvina di Scozia
Vertical Player Repertory
Church of St. James
May 13, 2016

"The Death of Inês de Castro" (1834)
Karl Briullov
Unearthing forgotten operas from dusty libraries can be a hit-or-miss affair, since oftentimes certain works have been forgotten for good reason. But, every now and then, a true diamond comes to light and when that happens, it’s a most exciting thing. Vertical Player Repertory’s (VPR) unearthing of Giovanni Pacini’s 1851 Malvina di Scozia was one of those diamonds, and a particularly sparkling and awe-inspiring one.

Giovanni Pacini (1796-1867)
First things first, here’s a recap of the complicated plot: there’s a king (Malcom) who has a handsome and brave son (Arturo, our romantic hero) who wins wars left and right. The king wants to reward his son by arranging his marriage to an Irish princess (Morna), but the prince is really not interested as he has a secret lover (Malvina, our heroine) with whom he even already has kids (very Norma-esque of them). Our romantic hero decides to make his lover an honest woman and they get married. Enter the baddie of the opera (Wortimer, an advisor to the king) who holds a grudge against Malvina and won’t stop until he makes her life utterly miserable. He starts by kidnapping her kids when she’s not looking. As a result, she runs to the king’s castle to plead mercy and recover her children. Upon her arrival, however, havoc breaks loose because in the meantime the Irish princess has also arrived and is all excited about the prospect of marrying the prince. There’s clearly a diplomatic issue here that risks unleashing civil war between Scotland and Ireland, so our noble Malvina delivers herself to prison to quiet things down a bit. Our heroine faces either death or exile but she sings so beautifully about being a loving mother that everybody tears up and she’s freed from prison, reunited with her kids and welcomed into the royal family. In the middle of all that emotion, however, she faints and the baddie gets her a refreshing calice of some beverage to restore her forces. Fast forward, both Malvina’s kids and the king have been killed by the baddie who is really on a roll. Malvina goes insane and, if that was not enough, it also turns out that the calice she drank earlier had slow release poison and she dies. In utter despair for having lost his father, wife and kids, Arturo finally kills the baddie. Curtain.

A Pacini autograph
Sounds vaguely familiar? Not surprisingly as the libretto is by Salvatore Cammarano, who also authored Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, with which it has many plot points in common. Malvina, however, is inspired by a true tragic love story between the noblewoman Ines de Castro and King Pedro I of Portugal in the 14th century and just happens to incorporate elements familiar from other Donizetti operas like Anna Bolena with its mad scene and Lucia with its last moment exit of the heroine to higher heavens. Think “Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali.” The royal Portuguese affair was such a scandal that the Bourbon censors demanded that the action be moved to Scotland if the opera were to be performed. Lots of drama on and off stage!

The tomb of Inês de Castro
(aka Malvina)
Malvina successfully premiered in Naples in December 1851, had a few revivals but had all but vanished from the repertoire by 1862. Fast forward to May 2016 when the tiny yet fierce indie company VPR manages to resuscitate Malvina. The performance was in a modest Upper West Side church, in a semi-staged recital form with a single pianist accompanying the singers. Even with such meager means, all of the artists involved did such an extraordinary job that the beautiful bel canto and the gripping drama came across with vivid and lasting power. Seriously, when we walked out of the venue we did not know what hit us. We sang highlights from the night to ourselves all the way home and they were all brand new tunes to us. It was just that captivating.

All you need is bel canto. Bel canto is all you need. Pacini’s music was stunning, sounding like a combination of Donizetti and early Verdi and with plenty of exhilarating bel canto ensembles including trios, quartets, a quintet and even a septet! The range and intensity of emotions portrayed by the soprano in the title role run the gamut, akin to the most heroic assoluta roles. Passionate lover, desperate mother, endearing friend, loving daughter, crazed broken soul are just a few of the colors expressed by this character. The other female lead is the Irish princess Morna, written for a contralto with great agility abilities. Interestingly, this opera features a baritone in the lead role of the romantic hero and a tenor in the place of the villain. Quite a reversal from usual conventions, which is apparently due to the fact that the Naples opera theater for which the piece was composed did not have a leading tenor under contract at the time but did happen to have available one of the hottest baritones of the time.

The cast was solid across the board. Baritone Benjamin Bloomfield, singing the male lead role of Arturo, had a booming voice that waxed lyrical when necessary. As the besotted lover in the center of the story, pulled between his own personal passion and a dynastic arranged marriage, he sticks to his guns and remains with the woman he loves. Particularly moving was the aria in which he consoled his true love with the words: “Sei mia sposa, e il cielo lo sa.” It's big bel canto drama. Something that could have come straight out of the Lucia di Lammermoor playbook.

Arturo seeks revenge on the smarmy Wortimer
Photo credit: VPR
Soprano Angela Leson, singing the title role of Malvina was sweet yet commanding. She brought a tenderness to finding herself caught in the middle of a love triangle that humanized the story. In her initial duet with Arturo, “O figli innocenti,” Leson plaintively set the stage for her maternal plight. It was very hard not to sympathize with the pair that was already so in love. She really showed her chops, however, when it came to her mad scene late in the opera. She is suddenly a wounded mother who is forced to relive the murder of her children and waxes between sadness and memories of happier times. It was high drama and Leson ran with what she had to work with.

The arrival of mezzo soprano Karolina Pilou late in the first act took the evening to a whole other level. She has a chesty sound and an agility that are truly mesmerizing. Her wonderful instrument sounds like a velvety plum, with such an effortless purity and fluidity and the overall effect of enveloping the listener in an hypnotic liquid. Singing the role of Morna, the betrothed of the prince, she had enough to do over the course of the evening to keep me thoroughly plugged in. Her opening cavatina Fra lo splendore e i cantici, where Morna sings her love, joy and excitement of marrying Arturo, was one of the highlights of the evening. In the romanza Stella nemica e infausta Pilou displayed more heart wrenching dramatic colors. After having discovered her at a LoftOpera event last fall, it was a pleasure to hear her take on something even meatier. She is a singer to watch out for.

Tenor Aram Tchobanian as the smarmy Wortimer was convincingly despicable, counterintuitively singing the role of the bad guy, something you so rarely see a tenor do in the standard repertory. He bent the sound of his instrument into a grotesque snarl that made him both utterly detestable but also sucked you into his ultimately tragic fall. There are very few villains who fall into his category in the opera's that I know.

And then there is Pacini’s rather novel use of the chorus. It really felt like early Verdi works where the chorus starts to have a key narrative function to move the plot forward. Pacini has the chorus of royal courtiers comment on key narrative points, and in Act III the chorus really plays a central role by recounting the course of tragic events that transpired during the intermission (i.e. Mortimer killed Malvina’s kids, the King is about to die and Malvina goes mad). In VPR’s setting, the 21-member chorus was a particular treat as the venue was pretty small. There is definitely something special about experiencing a chorus of this size in full bel canto cry so up close.

The stellar cast
Photo credit: VPR
The amount of work, dedication and passion it takes to put together something of this value and quality are incredible and we cannot but commend VPR and all parties involved for it. The discovery of Giovanni Pacini’s Malvina di Scozia was truly a revelation. Things like this make us wonder how many other lost gems might be out there just waiting to be discovered by industrious young minds like the people at VPR. We cannot even begin to imagine how sensational it would be to have this opera staged with a full orchestra and sure hope that someone pulls together the funds to make it happen.

– Lei & Lui

1 comment:

  1. I agree might have to scroll way down or use the search bar.