Sunday, July 31, 2016

Burtonesque Birdlike Bel Canto

Rossini’s La gazza ladra
Alice Busch Opera Theater
Glimmerglass Festival
July 29, 2016

The magpie flies the coop
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
There is nothing like beating the summer heat in the big city with an upstate escape to the quaint little opera house on the banks of Otsego Lake, home to the Glimmerglass Opera Festival. Not only is it a dozen degrees cooler up here but it is also breathtakingly beautiful and oh so very peaceful. First up on our dance card this year at the festival is Rossini’s semi-seria curiosity, La gazza ladra (or The Thieving Magpie) best known for its concert-worthy overture. After Caramoor a few weeks ago, it is beginning to feel like a Rossini summer and thank goodness for that. There are far worse things a summer could turn out to be.

A very Gorey stage design by Myung Hee Cho
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Peter Kazaras’ direction of the opera adhered to a light-hearted, slightly spooky and always surreal, “dark fairytale” look and feel. The sets, designed by Myung Hee Cho, featured simple stylized cutouts that framed the stage with dark interlocking patterns of branches that were lit along their edges with running lights that periodically changed colors. The production’s most distinctive visual touches were the Edward Gorey-inspired avian costumes with their many feathery flourishes, which were also designed by Cho.

A flock of birds take center stage
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
All of the characters from the chorus to the leading ladies and gentlemen were linked to a corresponding winged creature according to their various archetypes, from cockatiels and crows to hawks and vultures. It was a veritable kingdom of birds. Ninetta and Giannetto were done up as a doves, the latter was dressed a lot like the Artist Formerly Known As Prince. Hair and makeup were the handiwork of J. Jared Janas and Dave Bova, which likewise situated us squarely in the realm of Tim Burton, one of Gorey’s great creative kindred spirits. Needless to say, the show looked great.

A crow-like street vendor
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
The opera opened with what was perhaps the most memorable moment of the night – a dumb show choreographed by Meg Gillentine over the famous overture. During which the backstory is brilliantly told all in perfect step with the various movements of Rossini’s sparkling score. The poor servant girl Ninetta falls from the graces of her padrona when a single piece of silverware goes missing. We see the thieving magpie at work, which sets up for the deus ex machina finale.

Gillentine’s choreography was really wonderful. It was certainly one of the highlights of the night. I personally always feel like dancing to Rossini, so seeing the physical potential of his very tuneful score exploited in this way was very satisfying. The overture is so much fun, complex and captivating, kinetic, and, for once, authentic to this opera (i.e. not recycled from a prior one).

However, other passages sounded conspicuously familiar. Giannetto’s big proposal aria in Act I is almost identical to one of prince charming’s big enthusiastic arias in La Cenerentola. We’ve been seeing quite a lot of Rossini lately and it is kind of fun to play the recognition game, or “spot the recycled bits!”

What could have happened to that pesky fork?
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
The opera has tragic and comic elements mixed together. Notwithstanding the perky music combined with the funky interpretation adopted by this particular production, themes of class warfare, unjust accusations, the death penalty, and sexual blackmail are powerfully present. Sure, not unlike other Rossini operas, there is also, a coup de théâtre at the eleventh hour that suddenly solves all everybody’s problems and brings about an easy and very happy ending for one and all, but the opera’s abiding concerns remain nevertheless serious.

Mind your spoons and forks!
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
The personification of the magpie in the form of the infectious dancer Meg Gillentine, who also did the choreography, was one of the most effective and genius ideas of the production. Not only was the magpie a phenomenal and highly entertaining dancer and actress, she helped tell the story big time. Sure, the plot is a tad absurd; after all it’s based on the unfair theft accusation of a lovely young lady when really it was a thieving magpie’s fault all along. So, it kind of makes sense to emphasize the magpie character as part of the connective tissue of the opera pushing the absurdity of it rather than minimizing it. Hence the birdlike features of the rest of the cast maybe suggests that in this psychedelic fairytale there are several types of birds more or less humanized (and humans more or less bird-ized) all playing a role in the unfolding of the central tensions of the plot.

The birdification of this production also worked brilliantly with all the bel canto fireworks, particularly when coming from the soprano Rachele Gilmore in the role of Ninetta. Gilmore has a pure, highly melodic, virtuosic sound and, particularly in the coloratura bits, sounded like the most lyrical of birds, which was duly noted by the magpie.

The Artist Formerly Known As Prince makes a cameo
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Gilmore’s Act I duet with Giannetto, sung by the smooth-voiced tenor Michele Angelini, was a high point of the evening’s vocal experience. Angelini has a full, high sound in the upper register, and lord knows he needs it for singing roles like this in the bel canto repertoire, but he is really more at home in the mid to lower registers where his masculine chesty voice is round, soothing and seductive. The meager moments he has in this opera left me wanting to hear more from him.

An avian friendship duet
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
One of the highlights from Act II was the harrowing friendship duet between Ninetta, who was basically on stage the entire evening, and the loyal Pippo, a pants role sung by a playful Allegra De Vita. They so beautifully fused their voices together in this emotional low point that occurs after poor Ninetta has been imprisoned over the fork and the spoon. De Vita has a heart-wrenching delicacy to her sound and she pushed Gilmore to new heights of expressivity. It was such a touching moment that it hardly seemed at home in the context of the rest of this opera, at least in this treatment of it.    

Comedy blends with tragedy
Photo credi: Karli Cadel
Several comic parts stood out as well. Later in that same sequence, I particularly enjoyed the trio when Ninetta and Giannetto are saying their goodbyes in prison. The warden is urging them to wrap it up quickly because the mayor is on his way. And just when it seemed like they were done with their duet, they start up with another round of amorous tergiversification, all to the warden’s desperation. Everyone knows that lovey dovey bel canto duets are never short, so the comic timing worked well here.

Ninetta, Giannetto and Pippo were all very strongly acted and sung. The rest of the cast was passable, with some lows, particularly when it came to Italian diction, none more so than in the recitatifs. Many of them could have seriously been speaking Cantonese and I would not have been able to tell the difference. The Italian was really badly butchered in many instances.

All in all, it was solid bel canto fun, not least of all because it is always a thrill to discover a new rarely performed Rossini, particularly under the baton of maestro Joseph Colaneri. Entertaining and very pleasant.

– Lui & Lei

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