Iris in Pisa: By most media accounts, opera is a dying art form in Italy. News stories speak of half-full houses, no young people in the audience and greatly declining budgets. You couldn’t have confirmed that in a series of performances we saw in the small Tuscan cities of Pisa, Lucca and Livorno over a period of about a week. While the big city opera of the region, Florence’s Teatro Communale, was making headlines with a Carmen production that altered the ending (Carmen shoots Don José), specifically made in sympathy with the Italian version of the #Me Too movement, these classic horseshoe theaters were participating in a consortium which circulated three unusual operas among the three houses, and linked the productions with other opera companies in Japan, the U.S. and Italy.
The operas are Mascagni’s Iris, Catalani’s La Wally and Donizetti’s Pia de’ Tolomei, none exactly repertory pieces. We saw two performances of Iris (double-cast) at the gorgeous cream and chestnut colored Teatro Verdi in Pisa, a hop, skip and jump from that tourist’s favorite, the Leaning Tower. The audience was packed for both performances, there were a lot of folks without white hair, and my orchestra seat in the 16th row cost 27 euro. Besides circulating in the three regional theaters, the production was shared with the Kansai Nikikai Opera Theater of Osaka, Japan, and the stage director, Hiiroki Ihara, was Japanese as was the whole production team and some of the singers.(…)
Mascagnis „Iris“ in Pisa/ Szene/ Foto Trofiletti-Bizzi
Iris has a lot of really beautiful music and everywhere one sees and hears what Puccini did with similar material, and what he borrowed from Mascagni and transformed. There is the aria of the piovra (octopus) in Iris, which is hard core verismo when she realizes that the evil Osaka just wants to have sex with her and all she wants to do is return to her garden, her innocence; she recalls a painted screen she has seen in which an octopus wraps its tentacles around a young girl: “Un dì (ero piccina).” You can certainly hear Puccini taking this up for his “Tu, tu piccolo iddio” at the end of Butterfly, and the “Hymn to the Sun” is certainly the model for the finale of Turandot, which Puccini’s pupil Alfano based on the melody of “Nessun dorma.”
The consortial production was lovely in every sense, and based around the classical gestures of Japanese Noh drama. A colorful cyclorama depicted Mt. Fuji and other scenes with colors which might have adorned a poster for the opera around 1900. A simple structure on stage depicted the temple, Iris’ house, and the house of ill repute she is taken to in Yoshiwara, a red light district. Beautiful lighting and wonderfully colored costumes accentuated the production. The two performances we saw (Jan. 13 and 14, 2017) were double cast with mostly young singers.
Paoletta Marrocu, who sang Iris at the first performance, was the only singer known to me; Valentina Boi sang the role on the 14th. The tenor role of Osaka was taken on the 13th by a substitute, Denys Pivnitskyi, and on the 14th by Samuel Simoncini. These two presented very different Osakas, and the two Kyotos (the pimp) were also very different: Carmine Monaco d”Ambrosia and Keisuke Otani. The blind father, Il Cieco, was first Manrico Signorini and then Fulvio Fonzi. On the whole I liked the cast of the performance on the 14th better. The stage direction by Mr. Ihara was excellent; he also was in charge of the very effective lighting. The rest of the production team was also Japanese—lovely sets by Sumiko Masuda, rich costumes by Tamao Asuka and choreography by Rina Ikoma. Daniele Agiman led the Orchestra Filarmonica Pucciniana and the Coro Are Lyrica, which was augmented by additional chorus members for the Hymn to the Sun.
I am writing this in Lucca, about two blocks from Puccini’s birthplace, now a museum. Mascagni was born in nearby Livorno, where we will see the Donizetti opera in a few nights. On Jan. 19, it is the turn of Catalani’s La Wally here in Lucca. Catalani, like Puccini, was Lucca born; only a few years separated their births in the 1850’s, but Catalani died twenty-five years before Puccini. These small cities are rich with operatic musical history, but Puccini, of course, overshadows the other composers. He sits memorialized, a bigger than life size statue in a big bronze chair, in the square in front of his family house. Down the street there is a “Turandot” bar and a “La Boheme” dress shop. There is a “Manon Lescaut” pastry shop and a “Tabarro” restaurant. Puccini is everywhere, a major tourist draw, but it is to the credit of the “Tuscan Circuit” that Tuscany’s lesser composers are also being heard in little known works. Every year thousands travel to near-by Torre del Lago to see Turandot or Butterfly in an outdoors setting. For me, it is so much better to sit in a comfortable, traditional, beautifully restored opera house and listen to strains of music that are less well known – the operatic road less traveled (Foto oben: Mascagnis „Iris“ in Pisa/ Szene/ Foto Trofiletti-Bizzi). Charles Jernigan
Catalanis „Wally“ in Pisa/ Szene/ Foto Andrea Simi
La Wally in Lucca: Lucca is the birthplace of Puccini. It was also the birthplace of Alfredo Catalani in 1854, about four years before Puccini. Catalani is Lucca’s other opera composer (and not the only other one), but unfortunately he died in 1893 years before his compatriot, and today he is known (if at all) as the composer of the Germanic Italian operas Loreley and La Wally. This year the city’s Teatro del Giglio opened its lyric season with Puccini (La fanciulla del West), but it is also honoring its other opera composer with a production of La Wally.
The Teatro del Giglio is one of Italy’s oldest opera houses, its origins going back to the 1600’s, but the current theater dates from a major renovation in the early nineteenth century when the local monarch was Maria Luisa of Bourbon, Duchess of Lucca. She had lost the much more important kingdom of Parma with Napoleon’s rise, but after his defeat, the Congress of Vienna awarded her not a big chunk of northern Italy, but the small Tuscan city of Lucca. In Colorado terms, it was like being made Duchess of Greeley. She was annoyed and like to think of herself as the Queen of Etruria, but truth be known, she was a small time monarch of a small provincial city. When the theater was reconstructed, she wanted it named “Giglio”—the lily was part of her crest. And even today an enormous fairy-tale crown hovers over the royal box in the theater and faded red satin drapes (which might date back to Maria Luisa’s time) frame the box and the crown. Maria Luisa may have had to deal with being a small-time duchess, but she was a big supporter of opera, and many famous singers of the nineteenth century performed at her small horseshoe-shaped opera house, including Maria Malibran and Gilbert Duprez.
Today, the house seems a little faded, but it was packed to the gills for Catalani’s La Wally on January 19, the opening night. This production will also circulate in cities in Lombardy—Modena and Piacenza. Seeing it, one cannot say that traditional opera productions no longer exist in Europe. This one, set in the Tyrollean Alps, with snow everywhere on stage and falling from the flies, was directed by Nicola Berloffa, and had sets by Fabio Sterstich and costumes by Valeria Donata Bettella. With period costumes and no updating, Catalani himself would have recognized his work, except perhaps for the contemporary acting style.
Wally, with a libretto by Luigi Illica, is based on a once very popular story by Willemine von Hillem. Wally, the daughter of Stromminger secretly loves the son of her father’s old enemy, Hagenbach. Vincenzo Gellner of Hochstoff wants to marry her, and when her father finds out about her crush on Hagenbach, he orders her to marry Gellner. She refuses, and her wealthy father tosses her out of his home (the occasion for the opera’s most famous aria, “Ebben, ne andrò lontana”). A year later, Stromminger is dead and Wally has inherited his farm and wealth; Hagenbach is involved with Afra, who owns the local tavern, but he steals a kiss from Wally on a bet from his drinking companions. When Wally discovers that his affection is false, she offers herself to Gellner, if he will kill Hagenbach. In Act III, Gellner throws Hagenbach into a ravine in the mountains; Wally, now remorseful, has herself lowered into the ravine to save him. In the final act, Hagenbach, now in love with Wally, pledges himself to her and offers her a new life, but both are swept off the mountain by an avalanche, surely one of the most extraordinary finales in opera (and one of the most difficult to stage).
Wally is a strong-willed heroine with a fatal attraction to Hagenbach, and in Lucca she was sung by a Lucchese soprano, Serena Farnocchia. Ms. Farnocchia acted well and sang reasonably well, and as a local favorite, was much applauded by the Lucca audience. Hagenbach was sung by handsome, but belt-it-out-as-loudly-as-possible, tenor Zoran Todorovich. I very much liked Francesco Facini’s Stromminger and Marcello Rosiello’s Gellner; Irene Molinari’s Afra was pretty, although her role is small. Marco Balderi conducted the Orchestra Filarmonica Pucciniana and the Coro del Festival Puccini. (Puccini even sneaks into a Catalani opera!)
La Wally is full of very beautiful music and certainly worth doing every now and then instead of still another Butterfly or Boheme. Catalani was much influenced by German orchestration (and stories) and it shows, but he continued the tradition of Italian melody. The Lucca production was provincial here and there (some chorus-orchestra coordination problems in the tricky rhythms), and sort of a basic, old fashioned production which required lengthy intermissions to change the sets (but which was well directed and acted). But overall, it made for a very enjoyable evening in the “Queen of Etruria’s” own theater. Charles Jernigan
Donizettis „Pia de Tolomei“ in Livorno/ Szene/ Foto Imaginarium Creative
Pia de’ Tolomei in Livorno: I, too, have been fascinated by Pia de’Tolomei ever since first reading Dante’s Purgatorio some five decades ago. Who was she? Dante gives her five brief lines at the end of Canto V: “Remember me,” she plaintively asks, “I am Pia; Siena gave me life and the Maremma took it from me, as well he knows who wed me with a jeweled ring.” Pia’s humility, so appropriate for Purgatory, robs her character of the many details we get from the more famous Francesca da Rimini in Canto V of Inferno, and ever after scholars have asked who she was. Most modern research has focussed on a woman of the Tolomei family of Siena (there is still a Tolomei palace there, nowadays a bank) who was married to Nello della Pietra. For reasons of jealousy or wanting a new wife or…whatever, he had her sent to the Maremma, a malaria-infested, swampy area near the Tuscan coast (until Mussolini drained the swamps in the 1930’s) where he had a castle and where she died, some say thrown out of a window. (In younger days, I too searched out the ruins of Nello’s castle and climbed the crumbling, rocky staircase to a room where Pia might have been imprisoned.) (…)
The production we saw in Livorno on January 20 is circulating among the opera houses of Lucca, Pisa and Livorno this season, and will go the Spoleto USA festival in Charleston, SC, in May. It was unconvincing, but the singing and orchestra playing were remarkably good. First of all, it was updated to the fascist era in Italy—the 1930’s judging by the costumes where the Guelphs and Ghibellines became the Mussolini Fascists and the Italian partisans, to no particular effect–or damage. Unfortunately the sets, by Dario Gessati, consisted of big gray cubes and gray, cubed backdrops, all of which distracted from the story and served no purpose that I could think of, symbolic or realistic. This ugly set of movable cubes was filled with large nineteenth century paintings, some of Pia—romantic works with which romantic painters tried to fill in the lacunae left by Dante. Why? At one point, the paintings were piled up and Ghino threatened to light them afire. Why? It was another dreary “concept” which made no sense, and it might have been ok had the stage direction by Andrea Cigni given the singers something to do. All too often, they stood around amidst the cubes and sang. By contrast, I recall a wonderful, compelling production of this opera by the English Touring Opera a few years back, proving that it has real dramatic legs.
Many of the singers’ roles were double cast, and on Jan. 20 we saw Francesca Tiburzi as Pia, Marina Comparato as Rodrigo, Giulio Pelligra as Ghino and Valdis Jansons as Nello. I was very impressed with Pelligra’s tenor, with ringing high notes and smooth delivery and pleasing tone along with an ability to manipulate the coloratura. Ghino has what may be the most famous vocal phrase in the opera, right at the beginning in a bit of throw-away arioso when he sings a line identical to the phrase Verdi would use thirteen years later for Violetta’s “Amami, Alfredo.” It isn’t even part of his catchy aria “Non può dirti la parola,” which follows. Ms. Tiburzi’s Pia was also strong, although she did not attempt much acting. Rodrigo has two arias and a melting duet with Pia (it is an important role), and Ms. Comparato did it all very convincingly while Valdis Jansons was adequate to the role of Nello if a bit wooden. The Coro Ars Lyrica and the Orchestra della Toscana were under the inspired baton of Christopher Franklin. He injected a great deal of vigor into the proceedings and respected all of the cabaletta repeats. (Hurrah!; the singers sang appropriate variations with the da capo repeats as well.)
The Teatro Goldoni in Livorno is much larger than either the Teatro Verdi of Pisa or the Teatro del Giglio of Lucca, but it was well filled (not full however), and there were many young people in the audience, not looking at their iphones, but listening respectfully to Donizetti. They applauded the singers ferociously on a cold, rainy evening in the Tuscan port city. Outside the seagulls called and swooped and the rain poured down in torrents (there is a storm in the opera’s score and the director had the chorus pull out their umbrellas), but inside it was warm and dry and there were Donizetti’s wonderful melodies, well sung and played. I could almost ignore the meaningless production. Meanwhile, the mysterious Pia draws us on… Charles Jernigan