domingo, mayo 27, 2007

Italian opera reigns as ever

The decades keep rolling on but traditional Italian opera is still going strong. The allegiance to Verdi, Puccini and some bel canto operas remains unchallenged, even if Mozart's main operas have gained space in the last thirty years. The reason is simple and you can appreciate it also in pop music: people are more impressed by ample melody than by another parameter in music. And the main Italian operas are gloriously melodic. Two indisputable masterpieces of very different character have recently shared the same conductor: Antonio Russo. After an unjustified absence since 1992, the Teatro Argentino (La Plata) has finally called him back to put the artist in charge of the initial opera of the season, Vincenzo Bellini's "Norma". And Juventus Lyrica, whose main conductor Russo has been since the inception of that institution, offered him Verdi's "Rigoletto".

"Norma" has always been a touchstone for a soprano and it was probably Maria Callas' greatest role, for it combines ideally strong drama with the most affecting and beautiful writing for the voice. Its libretto by Felice Romani (probably the best practitioner of that art at the time) tells with fine verses a plot that intertwines a love triangle with the politics of Gallic fury against Roman domination. It is based on a play written by a minor French author, Louis-Alexandre Soumet; pared of some of the original's exaggerations, it still has strong melodramtic aspects. The music is a never-ending flow of the most inspired melody, in arias, duos and trios. Yes, the harmonic and rhythmic aspects are relegated, but the melos is certainly of trascendent quality.

The Argentino did the work proud. Generally a theatre with local casts, they had the good idea of bringing to us the admirable Italian soprano Maria Pia Piscitelli, who had sung the part at the Colón a few years ago. She was fully up to the requirements. The role needs full command of all registers, the maintenance of vocal line vanquishing fearsome difficulties, a flexible timbre that can express contrasting emotions, and a persuasive dramatic presence. She did her own Norma, not trying to imitate Callas, and she's right: her predecessor was unique. The Argentine singers weren't in the same level, but held their own. Carlos Duarte has been in better voice as Pollione, but he's an intense singer, and Pollione needs that quality. After all, he's the Roman Proconsul and Governor. María Luján Mirabelli was an uneven Adalgisa, sometimes undervoiced and rather weak in the low register; however, she had her good moments, especially in the duets wuth Norma. Carlos Esquivel was a competent Oroveso (the High Priest) rather lacking in emotional involvement. Pablo Skrt as Flavio and María Inés Franco as Clotilde were good.

The Argentino Chorus has always been very good; it now has a new Director, Sergio Giai, who did a professional job in his first presentation. The Orchestra was generally careful and clean, saving some details, and Russo showed a fine feeling for the long melodic lines, always supporting the singers.

There was a luxury producing team: our grand old man of the specialty, Roberto Oswald, fresh from his success in "Turandot", did one of his typical jobs: a sense of spectacle, a rather excessive symmetry, the search for beauty in the fine evocation of the wood, the intercrossing stairs, the symbol of Irminsul's shield (the Celtic god), the expressive lighting, the respect for the singers' needs; he was abetted by his usual collaborator, Aníbal Lápiz, who designed fine tunics for the ladies and Roman military clothing for Pollione and Flavio, for this production, hallelujah, respected time and place.

Much less needs to be said about "Rigoletto". Juventus has the unfortunate current trait of "choosing" the titles through the vote of its associates, and they vote overwhelmingly in favor of the most hackneyed pieces. There was no need for still another "Rigoletto", we've seen half a dozen these last years. They were unlucky at Juventus: their first-cast Rigoletto, Ricardo Ortale, under normal conditions can give a good account of the part, but he was under the weather, and after two difficultous acts he was replaced by Enrique Gibert Mella, whose lean gaunt body and pronounced baldness aren't Rigoletto's habitual appearance (Ortale is true to form, a burly man), but he is an honest, dramatic performer, putting much anguish into his interpretation, though the voice is rather harsh.

The tenor, Norberto Fernández, perhaps nervous due to Ortale's problems, had a bad day and came to grief ostensibly at least twice, though elsewhere he did some nice things with his rather beautiful timbre and adequate presence. Good news now. Soprano Vanesa Aguado Benítez, very young, represents what Juventus stands for: finding new singers of quality. The voice is beautiful and the technique , sufficient to surmount the hurdles of "Caro nome". Two even younger singers were quite satisfactory as the brothers Sparafucile and Maddalena: Fernando Radó and Guadalupe Barrientos; and there was a good Monterone from Mario De Salvo. The others filled in correctly.

The strong point of the production was Ponchi Morpurgo's fine period clothes. Ana D'Anna contributed rather poor stage designs and conventional moves. The male choir under Miguel Pesce was quite acceptable, and the orchestra played below expectations under Russo, who didn't seem himself to be quite on top of things. Maybe he tackled too much work at a time.

Para el Buenos Aires Herald

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