lunes, julio 28, 2008

From early Verdi to verismo

Recently there were two valid proposals for the opera lover that relishes the Italian repertoire: Buenos Aires Lírica presented a revival of Verdi's "Attila" and the Teatro Argentino (La Plata) gave us that famous verismo pair: Mascagni's "Cavalleria rusticana" and Leoncavallo's "I Pagliacci" ("Cav-Pag" as it is often known).

Verdi's operas prior to the famous "popular trilogy" ( "Rigoletto", "La Traviata" and "Il Trovatore") are as a whole uneven, but some have great value. Foremost is "Macbeth", but let's not forget that we normally hear its later revision; but others certainly are a pleasure to hear: "Nabucco", "I due Foscari", "Ernani", "Luisa Miller"and "Attila". The latter was written in 1846 after a bout of bad health and domestic calamities (his wife and his two children died within a few months). The two preceding operas are probably his worst ("Giovanna d'Arco" and "Alzira") but he certainly rallied with "Attila". Based on Zacharias Werner's "Attila, Koenig der Hunnen" (1808), the libretto was concocted by Temistocle Solera based on sketches by Francesco Maria Piave and Andrea Maffei (though due to Solera's slowness, bits of the Third Act were written by Piave on Verdi's ideas; Solari felt his libretto had been denatured and broke with Verdi).

The gist of the story is the foundation of Venice due to Attila's attacks on Aquileia, his relationship with Odabella (an updating of the Apocrypha heroine Judith, who beheaded Holofernes) and with the Roman general Ezio (who proposes that Attila and him unite: "you will have the Universe, leave Italy to me", dethroning Valentinian III) and a dream that comes true when he meets Pope Leo I, who ordains the Hun in 452 to retreat and not invade the country. Attila is finally laid low by Odabella's sword (a gift from Attila). Historically it isn't true, but no matter. Characters have some psychological density and a lot of the music is inspired; e.g., Attila's monologue, Odabella's very poetic aria, or the cunningly orchestrated music when the refugees from Aquileia arrive to the lagoon where Venice will be born.

BAL did one of its best jobs with "Attila". It is certainly the best production I've seen from Marcelo Perusso, in his triple role of producer, stage and costume designer. As producer, he provided meaningful movements for the characters and chorus and a convincing barbaric ambience. The architectural elements were convincing and beautiful and the clothes attractive, although I demur at the monks' garments which looked Franciscan 750 years before his time. I also think that the suggestion of the lagoon wasn't strong enough in the tableau of the arrival of the Aquileians. Good lighting from Rubén Conde.

The musical side was notably accomplished. The orchestra was carefully chosen and played professionally under Javier Logioia Orbe, who showed an authentic Verdian style in his phrasing. The involved Chorus under Juan Casasbellas sang with dynamism and accuracy. One member of the cast was outstanding: Mónica Ferracani as Odabella.This artist of long career has been going from strength to strength in recent years. Tall and beautiful, her voice isn't naturally ferocious (she sings a lovely Alice in "Falstaff") but she is so intelligent in the management of her means that she convinced fully as Odabella, although her highest point was in the uncharacteristic sweetness of her aria "Oh! nel fuggente nuvolo", where she was simply marvelous.

Cuban bass baritone Homero Pérez Miranda did his best work here as Attila; he was lifelike and credible as the Barbarian, with true dramatic presence, and sang well (of course I can't forget Samuel Ramey, who was Attila nine years ago at the Colón). Omar Carrión, though not in his best voice, was a very adequate Ezio. A notch below was tenor Arnaldo Quiroga, too raw though effective as Foresto, Odabella's knight. I wasn't impressed by Christian Peregrino as the Pope nor by tenor Emanuel Esteban as Uldino, Attila's aide-de-camp.

It may be worth stating that "Cavalleria Rusticana" means "Peasant chivalry". Although it has dramatic faults (a full 20 minutes go on before anything significant happens), the libretto by Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci based on the nouvelle by Giovanni Verga inspired the young Pietro Mascagni to write sincere, melodic music in 1890 that gave birth to "verismo", the new style that wanted to reflect the passions of everyday, contemporary people. Two years later Leoncavallo wrote both libretto and music for "I Pagliacci", a much more sophisticated work in which the "theater-within-theater" concept is fully explored since the famous Prologue. If well done it is a very powerful work.

There were two casts, I heard the first. "Cav" needs sanguine singers and it got them. María Luján Mirabelli (Santuzza), Gustavo López Manzitti (Turiddu) and Federico Sanguinetti (Alfio) have the healthy voices and intense temperaments the work requires. Mónica Sardi as Lola was rather cool and Alicia Alduncin sang well as Mamma Lucia. Willy Landin did a good traditional production, with a nice Sicilian village designed by Juan Carlos Greco and pleasant costumes by Nidia Ponce.

I disagree with Landin's conception of "I Pagliacci"; the characters aren't circus people but ambulant practitioners of the "commedia dell'arte", and the stage picture should be an open-air rustic setting, not a TV set. To my mind he denaturalizes the drama. The stage designs are by Greco and Landín, the clothes by Ponce.

For Buenos Aires Herald

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