Wieder einmal überrascht das Wexford Opera Festival 2017 mit einer kleinen Bombe: Giacopo Foronis absolut unbekannte Oper Margarita, 1848 noch vor seinem Schweden-Exil mit daraus resultierender Cristina die Svezia (über die wir ausgiebig berichtet hatten) am Mailänder Teatro Re uraufgeführt. Wexford und Anders Wiklund, der die Ausgabe besorgte, seien Dank. Von dieser und von Franco Alfanos atmosphärischer Tolstoi-Oper Risurrezione berichtet unser Korrespoindent Charles Jernigan im Folgenden (im heimatlichen Englisch) – die ebenfalls gespielte Medea Cherubinis in der allzu bekannten (Zanardini)-Lachner-Fassung einer Maria Callas lassen wir aus, auch als Protest, wieder einmal mit dieser entstellenden Bearbeitung konfrontiert zu werden. Da hätte man von Wexford mehr, nämlich die Originalfassung in Französisch mit den Hoffman-Rezitativen, erwartet. G. H.
Foroni’s Margarita is Rediscovered Treasure in Wexford: Jacopo Foroni (1824-1858) will be a name that few opera lovers know. Born near Verona to a musical family, he studied in Milan and made his operatic debut there at the Teatro Re in 1848 (he was 23) with Margarita, an opera semi-seria based on a French libretto by Eugène Scribe intended for Boieldieu (who died before he could finish it). The Teatro Re was a small theater named after the impresario who had it built (Carlo Re) on the site where the famous Milanese Galleria now stands (it was also the site of the first performances in Milan of Rossini’s Tancredi). Nearby La Scala was at the time considered an ‚Austrian‘ theater, financially backed by the Hapsburg empire which controlled a large section of northern Italy, and looked on with suspicion by Italian patriots. Margarita had a very successful debut at the smaller theatre, both with audiences and critics, in part perhaps because of indirect but well-understood criticism of Austrian rule, but its run was interrupted by a direct challenge to Austria–the „Cinque Giornate“ rebellion, Italy’s first attempt to free itself from foreign domination, which temporarily drove the Austrians out of Milan. Foroni was active with the Italian patriots, and he was forced to flee when the Austrians regained control of the city.
The young composer went to northern Europe, and ended up with a touring Italian opera company in Sweden, where he settled for a time and caught the favor of the king, Oscar I. As a calling card, Foroni returned the compliment to his adopted land and composed a new opera in Italian on a Swedish subject (Cristina, regina di Svezia); he rose to become Director of the Royal Opera and Hofkapellmeister (Court Composer). Returning to Italy when political conditions allowed, he mounted a revised version of Cristina in Trieste and in 1851 composed a new opera, I gladiatori (The Gladiators) based on the Spartacus legend. Returning to Sweden, he took up his duties again as Hofkapellmeister, not only seeing to the production of operas at the Royal Theater, but introducing Swedes to symphonic, chamber and religious music by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Rossini and even Wagner. His last opera, performed posthumously in 1858, was a Swedish comedy based on a well known medieval French farce, Advokaten Pathelin. Foroni had died three months before the premiere in a cholera epidemic; he was 34.
Swedish musicologist Anders Wiklund rediscovered Cristina, regina di Svezia a few years ago for the Festival of Vadstena and produced an edition which was first performed in concert in Sweden and recorded (Sterling, with a slightly different cast). Wexford offered the opera to great acclaim in 2013 (after Vadstena, Stockholm and Oldenburg), and now Wiklund has prepared the score of Foroni’s first opera. Wexford once again has a coup, offering its first staging in the modern era. It is a wonderful score, well constructed and full of very beautiful and melodious music and clever rhythms.
The libretto by Giorgio Giachetti is set in a Swiss village and tells the tale of the wealthy orphan girl Margarita (mezzo-soprano), who is in love with Ernesto (tenor), a farmer turned soldier who is returning to the village now that the war is over. Roberto (baritone) also wants to marry her because she is rich, in order to pay back money he has borrowed from his uncle, the new town mayor, Ser Matteo, for his gambling and drinking debts. When Ernesto returns, however, Roberto’s plans go out the window, and Giustina (soprano), Margarita’s friend and Ernesto’s sister, goes off to get a notary to marry the lovers. However, Count Rodolfo, returning from the war, interrupts the plans and asks Ernesto for help in a duel he must fight over his own beloved, and Ernesto follows him, losing his hat, decorated with a ribbon given to him by Margarita (a garter in our production), in the process. At the end of Act I, Giustina reports that she has seen a man attacked in the forest; she does not know the outcome, but has found a hat with a ribbon…. In Act II, Ernesto acknowledges that the hat is his and is thrown into prison by the mayor, who sees a way to restore Roberto’s chances with Margarita. Indeed, when Margarita asks Roberto for help, he offers to use his influence with the mayor to free Ernesto if Margarita will marry him. To save her lover from the gallows, she agrees. Count Rodolfo arrives to explain that he was the one who was attacked and that he has escaped. Ernesto is freed, but distraught to discover that Margarita has agreed to marry Roberto. All is saved, however, when the Count recognizes Roberto as one of his attackers; the marriage agreement is torn up, Margarita and Ernesto are united, and it is Roberto’s turn to go to prison.
Giachetti’s libretto is well constructed but standard issue opera semi-seria with a typical setting: a small village square with the nobleman’s castle on the hill in the distance. A powerless peasant (Ernesto) is accused of a crime on flimsy evidence (the hat) and imprisoned by a corrupt power authority (the Podestà-mayor); execution looms, but the truth comes out in the nick of time. Except for the fact that the accused is a man instead of an innocent young girl, the story is almost identical to Rossini’s La gazza ladra, a work which had its debut in Milan thirty years before Foroni’s work. The rural setting, the choruses of villagers (which are frequent and important), the aria structure, the melting mezzo-soprano duet in Act II (like the Pippo-Ninetta duet in La gazza ladra), the villain who is also a buffo (Roberto and the Podestà) all have close parallels in Rossini’s opera. The structure may be Rossinian, but the music is not, although the buffo duets and the love duet in Act II („A te dappresso“) often resemble the Donizetti of Don Pasquale, and one can hear the influence of Bellini’s La sonnambula (another opera semi-seria) at times. Otherwise, it is new wine in an old bottle–and very good wine it is, closer to Verdi than the earlier composers.
An opera semi-seria combines elements of opera buffa with elements of opera seria, and it in this case the libretto and the music do a fine job of balancing the comic and the serious/sentimental. Roberto, for instance, is both wicked villain and comic character. He sings a wonderful buffo patter duet with Matteo the Mayor in Act I, but he has a duet with Margarita in Act II (when he forces her to agree to marry him) that stage director Michael Sturm compares to the Tosca-Scarpia duet in Act II of Puccini’s opera. Certainly it is serious, with music which forecasts Rigoletto and even middle-period Verdi. Act I is predominantly comic with bubbly choruses, a love duet and happy arias like Giustina’s entrance piece which celebrates the returning regiment and ends with brilliant coloratura display which sounds like a ländler, a popular Austrian dance with a yodel-like refrain. In Act II, things turn serious with Ernesto’s imprisonment; there is a gorgeous aria „in catene“ (a prisoner’s aria) for Ernesto, the aforementioned Margarita-Roberto duet, full of anger, fury and resignation, and a duet for Margarita and Giustina, which may be the musical high point of the score. This latter duet matches anything in early Verdi for poignance and melodic invention, although it joins the soprano and mezzo voices in the manner so dear to the bel canto composers. Then, before the happy resolution, Margarita has a big aria which morphs into a grand ensemble which is musically inventive and complex. The happy finale-stretta takes the form of an infectious Viennese waltz. In this act, one superb musical number follows another, making this opera a melodic „find“ on the level of Cristina.
One curiosity about the music is the use of popular Austrian forms such as the waltz and the ländler. Most curious of all is a trio near the opera’s end for Ernesto, Roberto and Ser Matteo. The mayor and his nephew want to free Ernesto now that Margarita has agreed to marry Roberto; they urge him to flee, but Ernesto is suspicious of them. The trio takes the form of a march, almost a polka rhythm, which is remarkably close to Johann Strauss Sr.’s „Radetzky March,“ which premiered a few month after Margarita, and was written to celebrate Austria’s victory over rebellious Italian cities under Field Marshall Radetzky von Radetz. It is certainly an odd rhythmic choice for a trio between two buffo characters and the tenor-hero. Director Michael Sturm feels that this music is ironic, and that the Podestà and his nephew Roberto represent the oppressive, corrupt Austrian authorities. The standard semi-seria plot thus becomes a veiled reference to their misuse of power, indicting people for false offenses on little evidence. It is certainly true that during the trio, Ernesto accuses the Podestà and his nephew of lying and corruption.
Setting the opera in Switzerland and giving it an old form (semi-seria) was a safe way to avoid censorship according to Sturm. Nonetheless, the Director moves the setting of the Wexford production to post-World War II Milan which we see in the solid unit set of a bombed-out landscape of urban northern Italian architecture. His inspiration (he says) came from post war Italian films like de Sica’s „Miracle in Milan“ or Rosselini’s „Roma, Città Aperta.“ Other scenery drops into place or is brought into the Milanese piazza to create various other scenes–Margarita’s bedroom or the town court room. Instead of a prison, we got a scaffold with a hangman’s noose for Ernesto’s „prison“ aria in Act II. Mostly it works. The colorful costumes (1950’s post-war Italian) are very attractive too; like the solid sets, they were by Stefan Rieckhoff. Lighting by D.M. Wood was atmospheric in this opera and very helpful in establishing mood and scene. (Wood provided wonderful lighting for Margarita and Risurrezione this year in Wexford, but the garish „white“ light for Medea was as annoying as the production).
Sturm’s production (which will go to Oldenburg) appropriately treats the buffo parts traditionally, and the choral movement (they often dance) gives the production verve. The fairly complicated story is told clearly through the action and acting, which tended to be good if not brilliant. Mezzo-soprano Alessandra Volpe was a very pretty, rich-voiced Margarita, especially good in the duets. She has a sumptuous lower register and real power, but it was not always under perfect control, especially at the second of the two performances I saw (Nov. 1 and 4, 2017). Giustina seems to be a character whose principal purpose is vocal contrast, and Giuliana Gianfaldoni sang her coloratura passages correctly; her voice has power too, although it tended to be less smooth in the higher parts. It melded perfectly with Volpe for their Act II duet. Ser Matteo seems obviously intended for a buffo bass and Matteo D’Apolito is a baritone, but he was excellent vocally and as an actor, his patter amusing and accurate. Filippo Fontana was a slim Roberto with a limp–apparently the reason he has not been in the army. Vocally he was reasonably good, though not so good as I remember him from two previous seasons at Wexford (in An Italian Straw Hat and Don Bucefalo). Baritone Yuri Yurchuk was a mellifluous Count Rodolfo. Tenor Andrew Stenson as Ernesto was the weakest of the principals. His is a sweet tenore di grazia and like all the singers, he was better in Act II than in Act I (the music is better in Act II also). Sometimes he was tentative with the decorations or had some trouble finding the notes, but his Act II „prisoner’s aria“ was beautifully sung, including a perfect high note at the end. Timothy Meyers conducted what seemed to me to be a well-paced performance, but complete unfamiliarity with the score makes judgement difficult. The chorus (as in all of the Wexford operas) was very well trained (Errol Girdlestone, Chorus Master) and they acted as well as they sang.
Donizetti died the same year as Margarita’s debut, and by then he had been silent for a few years as he descended into madness, and although Foroni’s music is clearly reminiscent of late Donizetti from time to time, it strikes me that it is closer to Verdi than to the earlier bel canto composers. In any case, Foroni has a style and shape to his melodies that is his own. In other words, he was a composer with his own discernible voice. It is a tragedy that he died so young, certainly; otherwise he might well have given Verdi a run for his money. Both Margarita and Cristina, regina di Svezia are splendid operas, well worthy of revival. Margarita will be streamed by Irish radio and I hope a CD or DVD will be forthcoming. Count me as an ardent Foroni fan. I loved this opera.
Alfano triumphs: According to Conductor Francesco Cilluffo, Turandot made Alfano and unmade him. When Puccini died leaving Turandot incomplete, Franco Alfano–then a respected composer around 50 years old–was asked to complete the score. Using Puccini’s extensive notes, he did as requested, but at the world premiere in 1926, the conductor, Arturo Toscanini, did not perform Alfano’s ending and famously laid down his baton where Puccini’s own composition stopped. At subsequent performances the Alfano ending was done in a drastically cut version, and even today, a production or recording which includes all of the final duet which melts Turandot’s heart is rare. Finishing Turandot made Alfano famous, but it also garnered him endless criticism for not being Puccini, and that has obscured his own work, which included several operas and a large number of songs and symphonic pieces over a career which ended with the composer’s death in 1954 when he was 79. In the post-war years, Alfano’s reputation (like Mascagni’s) was not helped by his association with Mussolini’s fascist regime.
In our day, Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac has made something of a comeback, championed by no less than Placido Domingo at the Metropolitan and elsewhere. The original score of La leggenda di Sakùntala (1921), usually considered Alfano’s masterpiece, was discovered in the Ricordi archives in the early part of this century, and produced in Rome (where I saw it) and Wexford. And Risurrezione (1904), based on the Tolstoy novel, is revived from time to time, as here in Wexford this year (…)
Risurrezione: Obviously, Tolstoy’s novel and the opera have strong Christian overtones of hope even in the worst circumstances and the possibility of redemption. It is interesting that not only Katiusha is ‚resurrected‘, but also the callous Dimitri. The Wexford production by Rosetta Cucchi shows how Katiusha grows into a strong, powerful woman who takes her fate into her own hands as much as possible and changes her life. Offered rescue by her ‚knight in shining armor” she refuses twice–in the Moscow prison and at the Siberian encampment. And her strength and love make Dimitri a strong person as well. The opera ends with hope.
Cucchi did not alter the work’s time and place; it takes place in early twentieth century Russia and boasts very realistic sets by Tiziano Santi and period costumes by Claudia Pernigotti. For instance, the Act II train station looks exactly like a small Russian station, complete with snow and water running off the corrugated roof as the snowfall melts; towards the end of the act, we see the train with its windows and people in the compartments. In other words, the realism typical of verismo is in the sets and costumes as well as the music. The only concession to expressionism or symbolism is a large picture which hangs in the salon of Act I, Mikhail Vrubel’s „The Demon Seated“. It represents a „beautiful demon seducing an innocent human“ and is a metaphor for the story, yet it too is a period painting appropriate for the production, dating from 1890. The Christian message which lies behind the story is clear, but it is in the background, in the Easter choruses which we hear sung offstage in Acts I and IV, and in the knowledge that this is a story of rebirth.
There is a coup de théâtre at the end of the opera too, which makes the theme of resurrection visible, as the orchestra swells in the most beautiful music of the work. In the cold and snowy landscape of a Siberian winter, a huge panel of the snowy white background hinges down to represent a field full of new wheat. The figure of a beautiful child who represents Katiusha’s lost innocent self comes into the field. The child has been there from time to time since Act I as a reminder of what Katiusha has lost; now she represents what Katiusha can become, her faith. The grown woman in the Siberian prison encampment sheds her heavy winter coat and in her shift joins the child, hand in hand. Quite frankly, it is simply magnificent and deeply moving, the very image of Resurrection. Perfect, realistic lighting by D.M Wood enhances every scene too.
Equally fine are the principals in this production, particularly the extraordinary Katiusha of Anne Sophie Duprels. She is an amazing actress (and I emphasize that quality before commenting on her vocal ability), from the Innocent of Act I to the mature woman of Act IV, but she is particularly stunning in the prison scene of Act III. Shocking, drunken, having lost all semblance of humanity, Ms. Duprels depicts this nadir in the arc of Katiusha’s life like a born actress of the first order. She has the kind of voice that rises to a powerful phrase in the manner of verismo too, a voice which can be clearly heard over large and complex orchestration, but it is a voice which can bring nuance to a phrase too as in Act I when she sings to the beauty of the night. Ms. Duprels and Director Cucchi have certainly created the most powerful, dare I say magnificent, production of this year’s Wexford Festival. Gerard Schneider’s Dimitri is very fine too. He has a good, solid voice and his characterization was spot-on. In fact, all the members of the large cast were superb, directed by Cucchi as individuals, and the women’s chorus who represented the prisoners of Act III were just as individualized and clearly deserved the individual bows they had at the curtain call.
Conductor Francesco Cilluffo obviously has a love for and empathy with music of the verismo composers. I saw him conduct Mascagni’s Guglielmo Ratcliff at last year’s Wexford Festival and also contemporary composer Marco Tutino’s Le braci in Martina Franca; Tutino is very much in the verismo tradition. Cilluffo’s orchestra was wonderful, and musically, the orchestration is the most interesting thing about the opera. Alfano’s music is deeply rich and has recognizable melodic surges, but as a composer he lacks Puccini’s uncanny ability to come up with a great, memorable melody, seemingly at will. There is no „Un bel dì“ or „Mi chiamano Mimì“ in Resurrezione. Perhaps Alfano was not that kind of composer, but he could write moving, effective music, and Cilluffo made as strong a case for the music as could be made.
It is interesting that at this year’s Wexford Festival, the most powerful score musically (Medea) received the worst production, and the opera that arguably has the weakest music was the most powerful. I would like to note that Cucchi did not update her story nor attempt a regie production. She did not play down the religious aspects as another director might have done. She gave us what was already there, and in the very best way possible: it was very moving, undoubtedly the hit of the season. Mr. Sturm, the director of Margarita, while giving us a charming, enjoyable opera, updated the time frame, moved the setting, and was inspired by movies, not music. Ms. Shaw, for Medea, did everything contemporary European directors are famous for–updating, regie-izing, deconstructing and demeaning the work; it was a disaster. Is there a lesson in there somewhere? (Foto oben: Wexford Opera Festival 2017: „Margarita“ von Foroni/ Szene/ Foto Clive Barda) Charles Jernigan