Von Venedig nach Chinatown & Little Italy

 

Nach der Nuova-Era -Einspielung aus aus Martina Franca 1991 und der Erstaufführung in Wexford 2002 (youtube) ist nunmehr Mercadantes Oper Il Bravo zum zweiten Male eben hier zu sehen gewesen – eine starke Besetzung und ein üppiges Bühnenbild verstärkten den positiven Eindruck, von dem unser Korrespondent Charles Jernigan nachstehend über Mercadantes Oper und über den nicht minder spannenden Doppel-Abend  mit L´oracolo (nach der Sutherland-Bonynge-Decca-CD  gibt´s auch den Mitschnitt aus Frankfurt 2010 bei Oehms Clasics) und Mala Vita  (kürzlich noch in Gießen) berichtet  – in English, pardon us. G.H..

 

Das Werk: Saverio Mercadante’s Il bravo (1839) premiered at La Scala a few months before Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio.  Mercadante, born in 1795, three years after Rossini, would live until 1870, with a career spanning five decades and almost 60 operas, as well as many religious works and pieces of chamber music.  Il bravo, perhaps his masterpiece, comes in the middle of his career and is one of five operas with which he tried to “reform” the well worn, traditional conventions of bel canto opera which had been fixed since Rossini’s earliest works.  Il bravo shows the results of his reforms—a banishment of crescendos, reduction of cabalettas, more ensemble writing, enriched orchestration and more attention to the way the music expresses the drama.  In fact, the music of Il bravo is wonderfully inventive—melodic, expressive and varied, but the libretto is awful: it is impossible to understand what is going on without carefully reading a plot summary, and even then it is difficult to see why the characters behave as they do.  They seem to be motivated by an unnatural loyalty to their parents and an odd concept of ‘honor’.  In this they are not so far removed from some of the more inscrutable motivations of Verdian heroes— especially those of Manrico, Carlo (I masnadieri) and Ernani.

Mercadante: „Il Bravo“/ Szene/ Wexford Opera Festival 2018/ Foto Clive Barda

The ultimate source for the libretto is long novel by James Fennimore Cooper, The Bravo.  Cooper’s multi-plotted work tried to contrast the corruption of the Venetian Republic, in reality an oligarchy ruled by money and pleasure (“Oro e vino” is an opening chorus of the opera) with his hopes for the nascent republic of his native America.  The story of the Bravo is only one of several threads in Cooper’s work; that thread was then turned into a French play entitled La Vénétienne by August Anicet-Bourgeois, from which the libretto derives.  The original librettist failed to deliver his work on time, so Mercadante turned to Gaetano Rossi, the well-known author of hundreds of libretti for Rossini, Donizetti and others.  But Rossi fell ill and turned his incomplete work over to one Marco Marcellino Marcello.  The result is a disastrous mishmash of a plot with poetry which is beneath that of even opera texts.  Knowing this, Mercadante turned to Felice Romani, the greatest librettist of the period, for help, but Romani would not touch it.

So what we have is an opera with wonderful music and a libretto which makes Il trovatore look like the very model of rational logic.  One can understand why opera companies are reluctant to take it on.  A “bravo” is a hired assassin in this context, and this one, whose real name is Carlo Ansaldi, has been forced into his role working as an assassin for the corrupt Venetian state because they imprisoned his father long ago, and to save him from execution Carlo is forced to kill for the State, to become “il bravo.”  Also, long before the opera opens, he has seemingly killed his wife in a fit of jealousy.  Otherwise, the plot revolves around a beautiful young woman named Violetta, recently come to Venice from Genoa.  She is desired by a Venetian patrician, Foscari, and loved by Pisani, a young man who met her in Genoa.  Pisani, for reasons which are never clear to me, switches roles with the Bravo, and wears his distinctive mask.  Since no one knows who the Bravo actually is, this ruse works and causes all manner of plot complications.  In Act II, another woman, Teodora, a wealthy Venetian party-giver, discovers that Violetta is actually her daughter, and in Act III, the characters discover that Carlo, the Bravo, is her husband—who believed that he had killed her.  Violetta is their daughter.  To make matters thoroughly confusing, Teodora’s real name is Violetta too, so this opera boast two Violettas compared to the single Violetta in La traviata.   In the end, Violetta the Younger and Pisani escape and presumably will marry while Violetta/Teodora kills herself so that the Bravo won’t have to follow orders he has received from the State to kill her.  Word comes too late that his father has died in prison, and his ties to the State are broken.  Don’t ask….

The reference to Verdi’s Violetta is not incidental because we hear all kinds of premonitions of Verdi in Mercadante’s score, mostly the Verdi of Nabucco and other early operas, but also of La Traviata, Rigoletto and Il trovatore.  There are even specific melodies which show that Verdi knew this opera well, but Mercadante has his own voice as a composer, a certain twist to the melodies, a certain harmony, which sets him apart as one of the great opera composers of nineteenth century Italy, worthy of a place beside Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi.  The Wexford Festival has recognized his excellence and has produced six of his operas, beginning in 1988.

Die Produktion 2018 (Foto oben/ Szene/ Clive Barda): The production of Il bravo was by the team of Renaud Doucet (stage direction) and André Barbe (sets and costumes).  For the most part they set the story as it is in the libretto, in Renaissance Venice.  However, Doucet and Barbe actually live in Venice, and they wanted to make a statement about Venice’s current problem with excessive tourism, especially from the enormous cruise ships which have turned Venice into a kind of Disneyland on the water and driven long-time residents out.  Their Renaissance stage Venice is occasionally invaded by contemporary camera-toting tourists and locals protesting the accommodation of huge cruise ships.  The scrim which one sees on entering the theater is a Canaletto painting of St. Mark’s Square (complete with cracks attesting to the painting’s age), but with an enormous ship named “M.S. Calamità” dwarfing San Marco and the Doge’s Palace.  The ship’s name refers to the calamities facing the opera protagonists as well as the existential crisis facing Venice from climate change and the tourist invasion.  The trouble is that Venice’s contemporary problems have nothing to do with the story of Il bravo, however admirable the protest of Messers Doucet and Barbe may be, so the intrusion of tattily dressed tourists ogling the procession of a Renaissance Doge is just odd and distracting.  However, for the most part, Doucet and Barbe leave the story alone, creating spectacular painterly tableaux for the big ensemble scenes.  Doucet’s direction of the principals is reasonably good, although there is nothing they can do to clarify the story.

Barbe’s fixed set has a Venetian church (the Church of the Holy Apostles of the libretto?) turned on its side, perhaps to suggest the distorted vision of the corrupt Republic.  A rough wall was dropped for the Bravo’s dwelling and a rich curtain was drawn across the stage to make a more intimate playing area in Teodora’s palace.  It worked well enough, but it was odd that the set for Bolcom’s Dinner at Eight the previous night used a satellite view of Manhattan turned on its side.  I suppose the idea, whether arrived at separately or in collaboration, was of skewed societies.

Die Besetzung: One oddity of Mercadante’s score is that among the five principal singers there are two tenors and two sopranos (and a baritone).  The Bravo himself and Pisani are tenors and Violetta, mother and daughter, are sopranos, which gives us unusual voice combinations for the various duets and quartets.  The men, Rubens Pelizzari (Bravo) and Alessandro Luciano (Pisani) were adequate, forceful tenors who, however, brought little vocal subtlety to their singing—almost everything was at fever pitch and loud, although given that, Pelizzari sang rather well.  The women were better, especially Violetta (Ekaterina Bakanova).  She sang with clear and pure high notes and a real trill, and she was able to vary the dynamics of her role so that her fairly unbelievably innocent character became almost believable; Yasko Sato as Teodora/Violetta was fine, especially at the performance of Oct. 24 2018, and her voice blended mellifluously with Bakanova in the wonderful, harp-accompanied duet in the final act.  I also like Gustavo Castillo as Foscari.  Among the principals, his character alone made sense, and he acted and sang well.

Mercadante: „Il Bravo“/ Szene/ Wexford Opera Festival 2018/ Foto Clive Barda

Lighting by Paul Hackenmueller was atmospheric and Jonathan Brandini led an impassioned and fast reading of the score.  I saw this opera many years ago at the Festival della Valle d’Itria in Martina Franca, Italy, and I recall more lyricism, but the excitement in Brandini’s reading was undeniable.  As far as I could tell, Brandini eliminated only one cabaletta (to Teodora’s entrance aria), and the show lasted three hours and fifteen minutes with two intermissions. There are a lot of superb ensemble scenes with chorus (concertati) in Il bravo, and the Wexford chorus under Errol Girdlestone was very good, sketching individual characters in the big scenes.  Minor characters were sung by Simon Mechlinski, José de Eça, Toni Nežić, Richard Shaffrey and Ioana Constatin-Pipelea.

The Renaissance setting, Venice, the background of the Cooper novel—all of these things make Il bravo an interesting opera in spite of its impossible story, but the musically it is one of the best Italian operas of the nineteenth century (and I do not say that lightly).  Anyone who can listen (without worrying too much about the plot) will find Mercadante’s endless and excellent melodies, with their unusual twists, gorgeous listening.  In his day he was celebrated for his fine orchestration and he certainly knew how to write for the voice. There are good arias, but more interesting are the ensemble pieces—the quartets, duets and concertati.  They are the work of a composer who knew what he was doing.  For those who have heard Verdi’s Violetta warble “Sempre libera” one time too many, I suggest Mercadante’s Violettas; you get two, a mother and daughter Violetta, and only one dies at the end.

 

Wexford Double Bill (and It’s Not „Cav“ & „Pag“): As one of its 2018 offerings the Wexford Festival proposed a verismo double bill, but it keeping with its mission to perform rarely done works, the operas were not the perennial pairing of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Leoncavallo’s I pagliacci.  Instead we got Umberto Giordano’s first opera, Mala vita (1892), and Franco Leoni’s 1905 L’oracolo, but in reverse order.

Enrico Leoni: „L´oracolo“/ Szene/ Wexford Opera Festival 2018/ Foto Clive Barda

Die Werke: Leoni, practically unknown today, was born in Milan in 1864, but migrated to London in 1892, where he made most of his career writing both light and serious music and working as a conductor.  He had absorbed the new verismo style of Italian composers like Mascagni and Puccini, but he also produced light music in the style Arthur Sullivan.  He was a favorite of Queen Victoria.  Aside from L’oracolo, he wrote a Rip van Winkle for Her Majesty’s Theatre and an operetta, Ib and Little Cristina (after Hans Christian Andersen) for the D’Oyly Carte company.  In 1917 he returned to Italy and wrote three Italian operas.  After that, he seems to have split his time between Italy and England, dying in London in 1949.

L’oracolo (The Oracle) premiered at Covent Garden in June, 1905, with Antonio Scotti in the title role of Cim-Fen.  Scotti loved the work and brought it to the Metropolitan, where he continued to perform it there until he retired in 1933.  He has not been heard much since then, but Richard Bonynge recorded it with Joan Sutherland and Tito Gobbi in 1977.  Set in and around an opium den in San Francisco’s Chinatown, L’oracolo is about as gruesome and unrepentant a slice of life as one is likely to see.  Camillo Zanoni wrote the libretto based on a story by Chester Bailey Fernald called The Cat and the Cherub.  Cim-Fen is the throughly disreputable character who runs the opium den.  He kidnaps the young son of the wealthy merchant Hu-Tsin and then asks for the hand of the beautiful Ah-Joe if he is able to “find” the child.  Ah-Joe is in love with Uin-San-Lui, the son of the wise Uin-Sci, the “oracle” of the title, and San-Lui suspects Cim-Fen and rescues the child from the opium den after fighting with Cim-Fen. But Cim-Fen follows San-Lui and kills him with a hatchet.  Ah-Joe goes mad at the sight of her lover’s body, and Cim-Fen hides the child again.  Uin-Sci is distraught at his son’s murder and vows to find the murderer.  He soon he discovers the twice-hidden child of the rich merchant.  When Cim-Fen enters, drunk, Uin-Sci strangles him with his own pigtail, and when a policeman comes by, he props the dead body on a bench beside him, as if they are calmly talking.

Mala vita (Terrible Life) came earlier, in the wake of the extraordinary success of Cavalleria rusticana, which had won first prize in a contest for one act operas promoted by the publishing firm of Edoardo Sonzogno.  Giordano had entered a student work of his own, Marina, in the contest, but it lost; however Sonzogno’s musical advisor liked Giordano’s work and saw to it that he was offered the libretto for Mala vita by Nicola Daspuro based on a play of the same name by Salvatore Di Giacomo and Goffredo Cognetti.  It would become the first “urban” verismo opera, situated in the slums of Naples.

The cobbler Vito suffers from tuberculosis.  He prays for help from the Madonna, and offers to marry a prostitute if he is cured.  When a miraculous cure seems to come about, he offers to marry Cristina, who joyously accepts in order to escape her terrible life.  But Vito and Cristina do not take into account the obsessive love—and lust—of Amalia, a married woman with whom Vito has been having a long-running affair.  The women fight, but eventually Amalia wins the struggle for Vito, and he leaves Cristina in spite of his vow.  Cristina ends the opera with an embittered prayer; she bangs on the brothel door to return to her former life, and falls in a faint.  The work revolves around the the vain hope of the prostitute Cristina to escape her life, the unbridled passion of Amalia and the cowardly moral impotence of Vito.

Mala vita was a success at its first performance in Rome, but it failed when it moved to Naples.  The Neapolitans were scandalized by having an opera performed at the august San Carlo Opera House set among the poor and downtrodden in the slums of their own city—in spite of having the great Gemma Bellincioni (who had created Santuzza in 1890) play Cristina.  Critics abounded of course, declaring that such a work was not suitable for young ladies or the opera’s patrons’ daughters.  Nonetheless, Mala vita rapidly travelled to Berlin and Vienna, and was conducted in the latter city by Mascagni; it was praised by Eduard Hanslick, the notoriously conservative critic.  Hanslick found it both “gripping and revolting” at the same time.  It was later conducted by Gustav Mahler.  After the success of Andrea Chenier, Giordano and Daspuro revised the work to make its gritty realism more acceptable to Italian audiences, changing the title to Il voto (The Vow), but the new version was less popular than the old one had been.

Enrico Leoni: „L´oracolo“/ Szene/ Wexford Opera Festival 2018/ Foto Clive Barda

Die Aufführungen: Both operas in Wexford were directed by Rodula Gaitanou and conducted by the verismo specialist, Francesco Cilluffo.  The same superb unit set by Cordelia Chisholm served both works and she also designed the costumes.  Paul Hackenmueller did lighting for both works, and several of the cast members played roles in both.  Gaitanou moved the settings of both works to a New York tenement, which was in Chinatown for L’oracolo and Little Italy for Mala vita. The two story brick building revolved on a turntable, offering four different facades for different scenes.  It was a starkly realistic and movie-like set, and the productions of both operas were done with cinematic realism,  complete with fights, stabbings, drunks and the like.  The acting was movie-realistic too rather than “operatic,” and each actor/singer was very, very fine.  Both works revolve around a celebration—Chinese New Year for L’oracolo, and the Piedigrotta festival for Mala vita, which gave the composers the chance to compose festive “local color” music.  In L’oracolo there was a Chinese dragon, while in Mala vita there was the song contest traditionally associated with that Neapolitan festival, the actual brith place of many Neapolitan songs.

Oddly, musical motifs in both operas seem to be the sources for two of the most famous songs by other composers.  A motif in L’oracolo is almost identical to the tune of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Memory” from his Cats, while an aria which Giordano inserted into Mala vita begins with a melody which is identical to that of Eduardo Di Capua’s famous “Ò sole mio.”  “Ò sole mio” has a complex history as a song, but the composer now attributed with inventing the melody was apparently in the audience when Mala vita was produced in Naples.  The song came three years later.  “Memory” has a complicated history too, but it is quite possible that one of the progenitors of the Lloyd Webber tune, which goes back to the 1930’s, had heard the opera, which was still being performed at that time.

Umberto Giordano: „Mala Vita“/ Szene/ Wexford Opera Festival 2018/ Foto Clive Barda

Director Gaitanou chose to change the endings of both operas in spite of her general close adherence to the librettos and the highly realistic stage action, so appropriate for verismo.  In L’oracolos libretto, Uin-Sci strangles Cim-Fen while sitting on a bench and then pretends to talk to him as a policeman walks by.  In Gaitanou’s even more grand guignol version, Uin-Sci does the drunk Cim-Fen in by cracking his neck, and then he eviscerates the body and rips the beating heart out of the thorax.  This was staged with gruesome realism, lots of blood, a scalpel, and viscera plainly visible from the first balcony.  Perhaps it was too much; I think the original would have been more effective in its understatement.  In Gaitanou’s version of Mala vita, Cristina shoots herself in the head rather than return to the life of a prostitute.  Again, the original seems more subtle, even more tragic, but the change offered a sure-fire (forgive the pun) shock to end what is indeed a little shocker of an opera.

I did not expect to like L’oracolo very much, as I have had the recording for years,  and found it a slight work, but in fact it is very effective on stage (although it doesn’t rip your heart out as Wexford’s ending suggests): no character is particularly sympathetic and the protagonist is utterly awful—imagine Scarpia as the protagonist of Tosca.  It is, however, a virtuoso dramatic role for a baritone, handled marvelously in Wexford by Joo Won Kang Leon Kim was a powerful Uin-Sci and the tenor Sergio Escobar was appealing as San-Lui.  Elisabetta Ferris as Ah-Joe offered a beautiful rendition of her Mascagni-like hymn to the dawn, “Bianca luce silente, alba spaziosa” (“Silent white light, spacious dawn”).  Benjamin Cho, Louise Innes and Cillian McCamley played the other roles.  I had feared that this opera would veer into the crude stereotyping of Chinese characters in the manner of Charlie Chan, but in Gaitanou’s hands, it did not.  L’oracolo deserves occasional performances, but hold the evisceration.

Umberto Giordano: „Mala Vita“/ Szene/ Wexford Opera Festival 2018/ Foto Clive Barda

Mala vita is a stronger score with lots of singable melodies and dramatic moments in spite of being its composer’s first staged work.  Even though it is a three-act work, it lasts around 72 minutes.  Sergio Escobar played Vito and Francesca Tiburzi was a wonderfully sympathetic Cristina, both vocally and as an actress.  Dorothea Spilger was great as an actress, her body language depicting her sexuality and panic that she might lose Vito; vocally she was a bit less convincing.  Leon Kim, Benjamin Cho and Anna Jeffers played the other roles.  I believe that Mala vita would easily hold its own as an interesting alternative to Cav or Pag; it is that good.

Both operas have strong choral presences (like Cavalleria and Pagliacci) centered around the festival celebrations.  The Wexford chorus was masterful, and Cilluffo’s committed conducting made it all work.  These may be minor works as operas go (although Mala vita is better than that), but how wonderful to see and hear them in such well-thought out and committed productions.  They gave us a terrific evening of musical theater.  Charles Jernigan (Fotos Clive Barda/Arena Pal/ Wexford Opera Festival)