Tuesday, August 29, 2017

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 

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