Freunden der seltenen Opern ist das Festival della Valle d´Itria im süditalienischen Apulien, dicht neben Bari, in dem reizenden mittelalterlichen Städtchen Martina Franca seit den Siebzigern natürlich ein Begriff. Ort und Menschen sind bezaubernd und hilfsbereit, die weißgewaschenen Häuser der engen Gassen spenden Kühle bei der glühenden Juli/August-Hitze, und man isst dort gut. Hinzukommen ist nicht einfach, Fliegen bis Bari auch nicht, und dann bleibt die Bimmelbahn, die an jeder Milchkanne hält (es sei den, man leiht sich ein Auto). Aber all das lohnt sich. Die recht unorthodox (!) besetzten und gespielten Aufführungen (von denen manche bei Dynamic mitgeschnitten wurden) aus einem sehr eklektischen Repertoire im stimmungsvollen Hof des barocken Palazzo Ducale wetteifern mit Bayreuth in ihren unbequemen Plastiksitzschalen an mangelndem Komfort. Aber der Entertainmenteffekt ist groß, wenn die Nächte lau sind und die Fledermäuse über den Köpfen flattern, die Musik die Nacht erfüllt und sich eine ganz eigene Stimmung über das Ganze senkt. Ähnlich wie in anderen italienischen Festspielorten belebt sich die Stadt nach dem Ende der Vorstellungen in tiefer Nacht. Pizzen türmen sich in den kleinen Osterien, und große Diners erwarten die Hungrigen nach getaner Arbeit in den zwei, drei wirklich guten Restaurants – Augen und Sinne erhalten Nahrung. Im Folgenden ein englischsprachiger Bericht unseres amerikanischen Reisenden Charles Jernigan (der auch einen eigenen Blog betreibt), viel Spaß. G. H.
It is a long train ride from Germany’s Black Forest, where we had attended the Rossini in Wildbad Festival, to the southern „heel“ of the Italian peninsula, but it is also beautiful–from Munich over the Brenner Pass and down through the Dolomites to Verona, Bologna, and then along the Adriatic coast for mile after mile of pristine beach to Bari, the capital of the Puglia region. The train to Bari was late, and we did not arrive until well after 11:00 PM, but our helpful hotel pointed out a nearby restaurant where we could (and did) get pizza and local wine at midnight. The next morning, we picked up a rental car and drove south and west into trulli country and the Valle d’Itria. Trullis are those conical buildings built with thick stone walls that dot the countryside and once were houses for peasant farmers and herders eking out a living from the stony soil. Ten years ago most of these iconic structures were in ruins, but today most of them have been restored as vacation houses for Italians and to rent to tourists. We had rented an air-conditioned trullo out in the countryside of rolling hills, stubby gorse, cactuses and pine trees. Our goal was the Festival della Valle d’Itria, an opera festival in the heart of Puglia which has been on-going for 41 years.
The operas are held, mostly, in the courtyard of the Ducal Palace in Martina Franca, a pretty white-washed, baroque town of narrow medieval streets and attractive piazzas with good restaurants serving the local Pugliese cuisine. In other words, this is opera under the stars, and subject to rain delays and cancellations. It is a long way to come if a performance is cancelled by rain, as has happened to us in the past. This year, we were lucky, and there was no rain during our stay. But it is hot down here in Italy’s deep south–38 humid degrees on some days, so the cooling breezes in the courtyard at night are welcome, and the performances do not start until 9 PM. Ticket prices are the best of any European festival I have been to, with 27 euro ($30) buying you a top price seat.
This year’s Festival could have been called the B.D./A.D. Festival–Before Donizetti and After Donizetti. Of the four operas we saw, two were closely related to the composer of Elisir and Lucia: Giovanni Simone Mayr’s Medea in Corinto and Nicola De Giosa’s Don Checco; Mayr was Donizetti’s beloved teacher in his home city of Bergamo, and De Giosa was a prize pupil of the maestro when Donizetti taught composition at the Naples Conservatory of San Pietro a Majella. The other two operas we saw were a very old one and a very new one: Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea and Marco Tutino’s Le braci (The Embers).
L’incoronazione di Poppea: We began with an innovative production of Poppea (1642) by the students of the Accademia del Belcanto „Rodolfo Celletti“ which took place in the Cloisters of the one-time Convent of San Domenico. This student production was the best offering of this opera I have ever seen. First, there was an ensemble of period instruments (the Cremona Antiqua) led by Antonio Greco, and how wonderful it was to hear this score played by an ensemble that knew the style perfectly. The large cast all looked their roles too, and the Nerone and Poppea looked almost like teenagers, which was somehow highly appropriate for their self-indulgent behavior. Both sang splendidly, especially Shaked Bar as Nero; Quiteria Muñoz Inglada as Poppea was so young and pretty that it was easy to see why Nerone fell for her. In fact, the slightly disconcerting thing about the production was that casting the two self-serving and ultimately evil principals as teenagers made their behavior seem reasonable, and made them appealing to the audience. I found myself sympathizing with the bad guys!
All of the singers were very good (and the acoustics in the Cloister were good too). Nicolò Donini stood out as Seneca, with his always effective death scene, and Anna Bessi as Ottavia, the much abused wife, was superb in her „Addio, Roma“ aria. The production, by Gianmaria Aliverta, used the limited space very well, and proved that less is often more. A series of white wooden boxes acted both as containers and as platforms for the singers. The only scenic element aside from the Convent itself, was a two-level structure with balcony in the corner. The scenery was by Raffaele Montesano; costumes, by Alessio Rosati, played with a relation between contemporary dress and Roman-ish clothing (Nerone wore jeans, but also had a golden laurel crown). Musically, scenically and dramaturgically, this was a splendid production which swept the audience into the long-gone world of early baroque opera as few productions do, and made that world as new as yesterday.
Medea in Corinto: On the following evening, 30 July, we saw the opening night of Mayr’s Medea in Corinto, a touchstone of bel canto opera, more often read about than seen on stage. (We saw it again on August 2).(…) His Medea had its first performance at Naples‘ San Carlo in November, 1813. After 1824, Mayr developed an eye disease which left him blind, and he gave up opera, but he continued to compose sacred music. He died in 1845, not much before his prized pupil, Donizetti. (…) The well known story tells that Jason, leader of the Argonauts, has landed in Colchis, where Medea is a princess and a sort of witch with magic powers. She falls in love with Jason and flees with him, killing her brother and throwing his body parts in the sea to stop her pursuing father. When they land in Corinth, Jason decides to abandon Medea, by whom he has had two children, and marry Creusa, daughter of Creon, King of Corinth. An additional character in Mayr’s opera is Aegeus (Egeo), King of Athens, formerly betrothed to Creusa; he returns to Corinth to find Jason about to marry Creusa, and joins forces with Medea in seeking to block the wedding. At the end of Act I, Medea interrupts the wedding ceremony, and Aegeus troops attempt to carry off Creusa. In Act II, the Corinthians have beaten Aegeus‘ troops and restored Creusa to Jason. Creusa is given an aria of thanksgiving to be home again („Caro albergo“), but her joy is short-lived. Medea summons the fiends of the underworld to help with her revenge. She sends a poisoned cloak to Creusa as a wedding gift. When Creusa dons it, it kills her, setting her flesh on fire. As additional punishment for Jason, Medea kills their two children and escapes on a magic chariot. Jason, distraught, tries to commit suicide.
In 1813 Italy, such a tragic ending is in itself unusual and would probably be possible only in French-influenced Naples. Mayr’s score is also unusual in many ways. It is through-composed for the most part, allowing few pauses or cadences where applause following the musical numbers is possible. Each number flows seamlessly into brief periods of accompanied recitative and into the next number. In Martina Franca, the audience, used to applauding after the musical numbers., at first tried to applaud, but the conductor plunged ahead; only once was there a suitable ‚close‘ where the audience could applaud a singer. Another of Mayr’s innovations was to compose long instrumental passages before some arias where one instrument is featured. Medea’s first aria opens with a violin introduction and obbligato which continues when the singer starts, and there are similar arias with English horn and harp. In fact Mayr was the first composer to use the harp in Italian opera, and in Creusa’s Act II aria „Caro albergo“ („Dear dwelling“), it is of such importance, that the stage director put the harpist on stage, in costume, with a „servant“ holding her music. In Medea in Corinto Mayr has all of the elements ready for bel canto opera–the forms, the orchestration, the big ensembles which end the acts. What he lacks are the beautiful, natural melodies that his pupil Donizetti would import from a more popular tradition of Neapolitan song. There are not many „tunes“ in Medea which run through the head after a performance, and this was a complaint about the opera from the start–that the work was more respected than loved, more intellectual than emotional.
Be that as it may, the undoubted success of Medea in Corinto at the beginning was due to the extraordinary cast that Mayr had at his disposal in Naples — Isabella Colbran (who would become Rossini’s wife) as Medea, and the two tenors–Andrea Nozzari as Giasone and Manuel Garcia, the first Almaviva, as Egeo. Garcia’s little daughter Maria had her first turn on the stage in the silent role of one of Medea’s children; in time she would become Maria Malibran, the most legendary of all nineteenth century singers. These powerful singing actors loved the dramatic intensity that Romani had woven into his libretto. A generation later, Giuditta Pasta (the first Norma) would take up the role, and by all accounts she was riveting on stage. Medea has a great aria in Act I („Sommi dèi“–‚High gods‘) and a greater one in the second act when she summons the furies: „Antica notte, Tartaro profondo“–„Ancient Night, deepest Tartarus“). She has a powerful duet with Giasone and a superb scena near the end when she ponders killing her children (the touching andante section, „Miseri pargoletti,“ boasts a marvelous obbligato on the English horn). No wonder great singing actresses like Colbran and Pasta loved the role. In our era, it has been championed by singing actresses like Leyla Gencer, but it certainly has not entered into the repertoire. (Dennoch gibt es einige Aufführungen zu vermelden und alleine zwei-drei „offizielle“ Einspielungen dazu, wobei die bemerkenswerteste die mit der unglaublichen Marisa Galvany bei Vanguard unter dem Pionier Newell Jenkins neben den Einspielungen von Opera Rara und Oehms Classics in Erinnerung bleibt und auch an die vom Bayerischen Rundfunk 1963 mit der bemerkenswerten Stina Britta Melander zu erwähnen ist. G. H.)
The musical performance at Martina Franca was of a very high level indeed. First, there was the conductor (and new Musical Director of the Festival), Fabio Luisi. Maestro Luisi is best known to Americans as the Principal Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera. To have such a distinguished conductor was a clear plume in the Festival’s hat, and Maestro Luisi proved his worth in a wonderful, taut performance from the large orchestra (the Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia) and chorus (the Chorus of the Transylvanian State Philharmonic of Cluj-Napoca). The principal violinist, the harpist and the English horn player all earned kudos. This is a very choral opera with the chorus participating in a variety of ways, as a Greek Chorus, as soldiers of Jason or of Aegeus, as Underworld furies or as townsfolk–there is scarcely a scene without choral participation. Both orchestra and chorus were large and well trained (Cornel Groza was Chorus Master.)
Chief among the international artists was Michael Spyres singing the Nozzari bari-tenor rôle of Giasone. As always, he was wonderful, with his fully developed lower register and an ability to hit very high notes, even softly. Enea Scala was the other tenor (Egeo), and he was equally fine, with a role which lies more in the middle and high range. I was enormously impressed by Davinia Rodriguez as Medea. (…) Medea is an exhausting role in every way. At the end, after she has carried out her terrible revenge, the libretto calls for her to escape on a chariot drawn by two dragons. Instead, we got Medea framed by a window high up in the Ducal Palace which formed the back of the stage. She leveled her final imprecations with tremendous power, sending chills down my spine. Mihaela Marcu got to sing Creusa’s two lovely arias with grace. She wore the most amazing costume: a floor-length blue gown topped by a blue bustier which would have sold well in the local sex shop. No wonder Jason wanted to dump Medea and take up with the busty Creusa. Roberto Lorenzi, a bass, handled the relatively minor duties of Creonte, Creusa’s father and King of Corinth, suitably.
The stage production was another matter, however. The Ducal Palace has a very, very wide stage, and to fill it Maria Paola di Francesco (Scenery) and Benedetto Sicca (Stage Direction) gave us a wide, wedge shaped platform which sloped down from left to right. At the opening it was entirely covered with green fabric sprouting hundreds of red poppies. After Creusa’s happy aria „Caro albergo“ at the beginning of Act II, as the opera is about to plunge towards tragedy, the poppy cloth is pulled into a wedge-shaped space which cut the platform in two. The cold, grey platform with a rift down the middle was left for the tragedy. )…) At the end, instead of seeing Medea ride off on a dragon-hauled chariot, we saw about thirty white doves released to fly out and over the stage and the Palace to the final bars of music. It was certainly spectacular, but seemed to contradict the tragedy at hand. The distracting element which almost ruined the production came from the director’s decision to use two dancers, Chiara Ameglio and Cesare Benedetti, to represent Medea’s children. They were on stage from the first notes of the overture almost to the end of the long opera, when Medea (fortunately) murders them. Of course the dancers were not children at all, and I found them wildly distracting from the singers; the choreography (by Riccardo Olivier) was often unmusical, but for this opera (which has no ballet) it was much too excessive. The Dancers and Movers constantly upstaged the singers. I don’t think that Giuditta Pasta would have countenanced it. In sum: a great musical performance of a very interesting opera, with an adequate production seriously compromised by excessive use of often banal choreography.
Don Checco: The following evening we had a most amusing diversion after the tragedy of Medea and the Movers. Nicola De Giosa (1819-1881) was born in Bari, attended the Naples Conservatory, San Pietro a Majella, where he was Donizetti’s favorite pupil in the composition class, and had much of his career there. As a composer, De Giosa was most successful in the comic genre, but he was also a conductor and worked all over Italy and in Cairo and Buenos Aires. He was a master of the teatro giacoso, the light, tuneful, comic works which would merge into operetta in another decade or so. In Naples, these works usually included at least one character who spoke and sang in Neapolitan dialect (or language, as it is not easily understood even by Italians who do not come from Naples); at least two of Rossini’s comedies use such a character, and in this work, the Neapolitan buffo is Don Checco himself. If one of these comic operas proved successful enough to move beyond Naples, the part in dialect would usually be translated into Italian. The production in Martina Franca, however, kept the inimitable Neapolitan, which is part of what gives Don Checco his character.
The Program calls this work, premiered in 1850, the „last Neapolitan opera buffa.“ It may be so, but it hardly matters because Don Checco is such a delight. The libretto is by Almerindo Spadetta, who was a house librettist at Naples‘ Teatro Nuovo, where the premiere took place. The action, updated in this co-production with Naples‘ San Carlo, to about 1930, is set in a country inn during winter. Carletto, a waiter at the inn, is in love with Fiorina, the daughter of the innkeeper, Bertolaccio. Among the guests is Roberto, a painter, in the neighborhood to find scenic vistas to paint. Gruff, old Bertolaccio tries to chase Carletto away when he realizes that he is attracted to his daughter, but Carletto returns and we find out that the attraction is mutual („Leggo impresso nel tuo volto“). Bertolaccio confides to Roberto, the painter, that he is taxed a lot by the Count de‘ Ridolfi, who often comes in disguise to check out his properties; he boasts that he, however, will know the Count should he visit his inn! Next, arrives Don Checco, a poor, tramp-like figure, trying to escape the Count’s tax collector, one Succhiello Scorticone (something like Blood-sucker Skin-you-alive). Don Checco, ill-dressed for the frigid weather, sings his cavatina about how cold he is in Neapolitan: “ Ah! ca lii diente abballano“–‚Ah! How my teeth are chattering‘ (??). Bertolaccio decides that the new guest is the Count in disguise and brings him every sort of food and drink, and offers him the best room in the inn. Don Checco soon catches on, and plays his role to the hilt, being treated obsequiously by everyone at the inn. In Act II, Succhiello reveals that Don Checco is not the Count, and there is a hilarious buffo duet between Bertolaccio and Checco („Non ti muovere, impostore“). Everyone is disappointed, but a messenger arrives from the Count: he forgives Don Checco’s debts and blesses the wedding of Fiorina and Carletto with a dowry. Roberto, the painter, was the Count all along! Cue the Happy Ending!
The production (which took up about a third of the huge stage of the Ducal Palace) was delightful in every way. The set (by Nicola Rubertelli) was realistic and full of the amusing clutter of a real country inn. Costumes by Giusi Giustino set the action around 1930. Don Checco seemed to me to be modeled on Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, although there may have been Neapolitan models derived from commedia dell’arte, upon which Chaplin’s character was ultimately based. He is the poor man, forever abused, who uses his wits, and chances on a lucky break. The great buffo bass Domenico Colaianni sang Don Checco in Neapolitan; his Italian-singing buffo counterpart was Carmine Monaco’s Bertolaccio. Big and fat and mustachioed, he was hilarious, and very nimble around the set, jumping over tables while chasing Don Checco with a big spoon. Carolina Lippo was a charming soubrette Fiorina and Francesco Castoro was her mellifluous tenor lover Carletto. Rocco Cavalluzzi played the disguised Count, coming in dressed as a woman at the end to deliver the deus ex machina ending. Paolo Cauteruccio was straight out of some comic version of the Godfather as the hissing Succhiello.
The stage direction by Lorenzo Amato was perfect–lively and never flagging, but giving the singers space when they needed it. There was also a choreographer, Giancarlo Stiscia even though there was no dance per se--no Movers and Dancers. The whole production was a choreographed dance, as commedia of this sort should be. Matteo Beltrami conducted the Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia and the Cluj-Napoca Chorus with great style and brio.
The opera is full of good tunes, many of them waltzes (it does date from 1850). This was an example (perhaps the last) of popular theater for the poor or at least the average citizen of the day. Fun, tuneful, joyous, it is about people and places that the audience would know–inns and innkeepers, young people in love. Even the comic mask of Don Checco was familiar in the way that Chaplin became an unforgettable, familiar figure for his time. It is interesting to note that De Giosa was strongly opposed to Wagner, and refused to conduct the overture to Tannhauser when asked to do so. He wanted to preserve the popular, native tradition in opera. He was opposed to music as High Art presided over by a Composer-Priest who demanded silence and worship from his followers. He advocated music for the people, to relieve the suffering of everyday life if only for a couple of hours. The struggle between High Art and entertainment is one that composers must confront even today. As for this production of Don Checco, I loved every minute of it. I hope that De Giosa’s work, so full of life and joy, will find new life on other stages.
Le braci: The last of the works we saw in Martina Franca was the newest, Marco Tutino’s Le braci (The Embers), enjoying its world premiere in the complete and definitive version. (An abbreviated preliminary version played in Budapest in October, 2014.) Le braci is a 90 minute one-act work, libretto by the composer, based on a Hungarian novel by Sándor Márai called A gyertyák csonkig égnek, literally Candles Burn Out Slowly. Márai fled communism in Hungary after World War II, first to Naples, then to New York and finally to San Diego, where he committed suicide in 1989, just nine months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and his beloved Hungary’s return to democracy. Márai’s novel is in some ways autobiographical. In the opera, the aged Henrik is in his castle waiting for the friend of his youth, Konrad, whom he has not seen for over 41 years. When they were young, they had been great friends, but a woman, Kristina came between them. Henrik married her, but he thinks that she preferred Konrad, a pianist and distant relative of Chopin. Henrik muses over and over about a stag hunt 41 years and 43 days ago when he thinks that Konrad had thought about killing him. After that day Kristina and Henrik lived apart until she died, alone. Konrad left too after the hunt. Now Henrik, the old military man, wants to know if Konrad wanted to kill him and run off with Kristina. Konrad won’t answer, and though Kristina’s diary might hold the answer, Henrik throws it in the fire, unread.
The opera moves back and forth in time, from the fin de siécle elegance of Vienna when Konrad, Henrik and Kristina were young to the present (the book and opera are set specifically on 14 August, 1940) when Henrik and Konrad are old men; Kristina is long dead and Henrik is tended by his ancient housekeeper, Nini. The opera is concerned with the bitterness of reminiscence, but the stag hunt of 41 years ago is an obsession for Henrik–the ‚candles burn out slowly‘. But are these characters from the past who seem so real, who flirt and waltz and are jealous, are they ghosts? Surely the past is full of ghosts (the dying embers), but perhaps Henrik and Konrad are ghosts too. At the end, Henrik acknowledges that „Siamo solo fantasmi, costretto a cercare in eterno il senso del nostro destino. Le braci devono spegnersi lentamente, sino alla fine“: „We are only phantoms, constrained to search eternally for the meaning of our destiny. The embers must burn out slowly, even to the end.“ This ambivalent, philosophically dense story, is set to music by Tutino which is pointedly and bravely ‚old fashioned‘–tonal, approachable, with gracious vocal lines. Tutino weaves in waltz music when the dream world shifts to the characters‘ youth, and particularly Chopin’s „Polonaise Fantaisie,“ a piece which Konrad was to perform as a young pianist. Tutino has said that he wants to continue the Italian tradition of melody, and he has said that he thinks we still have much to learn from Puccini, Verdi and Strauss. Although I did not find Verdi in the score (though perhaps in the dramatic pacing), there were ample reminders of Puccini and particularly Strauss, in the orchestra.Tutino has also based his operas on well known literary works, most recently (just last June) La ciociara (known as Two Women in English) in San Francisco; he has also set Verga’s She Wolf (La lupa). He believes that using a well-known literary source makes it easier for an audience to relate to the opera. Critics in San Francisco found his music to be old fashioned, as if this were 1915 and not 2015, one wrote. They complained that he was taking up the banner of verismo opera a century too late. It is an old dilemma–how to be „new“ and still appeal to audiences who want opera to move them the way that Puccini and Strauss did (and still do). Tutino’s answer is to consciously base his music on these century-old models. One can complain that it is not „new,“ but does it work?
In the case of Le braci, I would say Tutino’s method worked very well. The music is listenable, always appropriate for the drama at hand, and it involved at least this listener in an absorbing story. The production, no doubt, helped. Like the music, it was „old fashioned“ and a realistic approach to a dream play. The unit set by Tiziano Santi was of a sitting room in a decaying castle with peeling wallpaper with stains on the wall. The costumes were highly realistic too, whether representing 1898 or a 1940 of old men. Lighting by Franco Machitella was very apposite too, firelit and shadowy. Stage direction by Leo Muscato was also realistic and reflected the dream-like ambivalence of the story. The central sitting room was flanked by exteriors of bleak woods, where we could see the stag hunt played over and over. Did Konrad shoot Henrik? Maybe. Maybe not.
The central characters of Henrik and Konrad were played by two singers each, one for the young man, one for the old. A tenor Konrad as young man (Davide Giusti) turns into a baritone Konrad as old man (Alfonso Antoniozzi); a baritone young Henrik (Pavol Kuban) becomes a bass Henrik as old man (Roberto Scandiuzzi). All of these singers were good, but Scandiuzzi as old Henrik, the main character in the opera, stood out as truly excellent dramatically and vocally. There was only one Kristina (Angela Nisi) because she exists only in the past, and she was lovely; Romina Tomasoni played Nini, the aged housekeeper. There were dancers too, who waltzed when necessary and were not intrusive. Francesco Cilluffo led the Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia; he was obviously very committed to the score. In the end, the composer came out for a curtain call along with the principals. One can complain about Tutino’s refusal to strike out on new paths, but his score and libretto were very effective. It was a very well-wrought evening of theater with music.
In staging a contemporary opera (a world premiere in fact), the Festival della Valle d’Itria strikes out on a new path with a new and prestigious Music Director. I believe that they will continue to be committed to reviving unknown or little known bel canto works, to composers from Naples and Southern Italy, and now to new works as well. I hope they will succeed. Charles Jernigan