November 23, 2014
Italian operas achieve mixed results
For the Herald
In the space of one week two Italian operas were offered that are set respectively in France and in Spain. Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur happens in Paris about 1730 during Louis XV’s reign, and Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlo gives us a somber view of love and politics in Felipe II’s times. The first was staged by Buenos Aires Lírica in the Avenida Theatre, the second was seen just once at the Coliseo as a project of the Italian Consulate General. The first was a success, the second had serious troubles.
Adriana... was premiered here in 1903 at the Teatro de la Ópera months after the Italian unveiling of this new opera; the Colón waited until 1948 to stage it, and then did so in 1951, 1987 and 1994. Buenos Aires Lírica presented it in 2005; as other opera companies (I believe) didn’t attempt it, it was pleasant to see it again, for Adriana... is a charming work.
Basically it tells of a tangled erotic quadrangle involving the great actress Adrienne Lecouvreur (star of the Comédie Française) with Maurice of Saxony, Duke of Courland (in present-day Latvia), and the vengeance of his erstwhile lover, the Princess of Bouillon (married to the Duke of Bouillon); it ends badly, with poor Adrienne poisoned by the Princess.
Although Cilea wrote during the “verismo” years, his temperament was refined; an able orchestrator and inspired melodist, his music rarely descends to crudity and often touches moments of delicate delineation of character. He revised the opera in 1930 and that’s the version generally done nowadays. The libretto by Arturo Colautti is based on a play by Eugène Scribe and Ernest Legouvé, and undoubtedly it has aged; many fragments seem overemphatic and rhetorical. But it keeps an attractive aspect: the theatre within the theatre. For there are two female and two male “sociétaires” (associates) of the Comédie, and we are shown the backstage coordinated by Michonnet, the stage director of the Comédie, prior to playing Racine’s Bajazet. (To make matters more complicated, Michonnet is in love with Adrienne, who doesn’t know it).
This revival was attractive, for it had a good cast, convincing musical leadership (Carlos Vieu and Juan Casasbellas) and a decent production that respects time and place. The only bothersome factor was that trendy mania, the unit set (Noelia González Svoboda); in this case a rectangular box officiating as a stage (First Act), a hiding place (Second), a different stage in the Bouillon Palace and a symbolic stage in Adriana’s house. It worked partially, but otherwise Crystal Manich’s handling of the proceedings was sensitive and logical, with fine costumes by Lucía Marmorek and good lighting by Rubén Conde.
Our soprano Virginia Wagner was back after some years of working in Europe; she was a handsome Adriana, singing with much taste and dramatic sense, although a bit lacking in volume, especially in the low range. Adriana Mastrángelo looked and sounded splendid as the Princess. Brazilian tenor Eric Herrero was a swaggering hero but he sang too fixedly; his phrasing wanted more nuances. Predictably Omar Carrión was a well-acted and sung Michonnet. The Prince and his sidekick the intrigue-prone Abbé de Chazeuil were strongly impersonated by Christian Pellegrino and Sergio Spina, and the four “sociétaires” gamboled with ease (Eugenia Coronel, Griselda Adano, Mauro Di Bert and Walter Schwarz).
I wish I could be happier about the Coliseo’s Don Carlo (the four-act Italian version) for it is one of my favourite Verdis. Yes, Schiller and the librettists take many liberties and there are “non sequiturs,” but so much of the music is moving and innovative that in a good version it can be an inspiring portrait of human nature mixing love, politics and religion. Not this time, where the only saving grace was the individual good work of some singers.
I have to be blunt: I haven’t seen anything as badly organized in years. It transpired that the ad-hoc orchestra was assembled at a very late time after other orchestras refused to participate, and that conductor Enrique Roel was substituted by César Tello. The unknown Nelson Coccalotto proved inept in his various jobs as stage director, lighting designer and conductor of the Coro Opera Studio Rosario, and Armando Garrido brought the Coro IMMA from the Instituto de Música de Avellaneda; the two choirs produced the sound of an undernourished and poorly amateur half-choir.
The orchestra, with the exception of first cello Carlos Nozzi, was appallingly bad, especially the brass. The stage band was a puny synthesizer (horrible!) in the orchestra. The stage was dominated in every scene by a huge black crucified Christ obliterating any semblance of logic.
To boot, no one seemed to know when to light the hall in the intervals, nor were they able to assemble the artists for curtain calls within reasonable time. The supertitles were wrongly translated, out of phase, and disappeared totally during the whole Second Act. Attendance was poor. If they are going to keep doing opera at the Coliseo they will sorely need an expert to coordinate matters. I believe the Coliseo is viable and it has a pit that holds about 90 players.
For some reason (no explanation) the announced debut of Italian tenor Raffaele Sepe didn’t take place and our tenor Fernando Chalabe had to step in at the last minute. He barely managed but it was a brave effort under the circumstances. The best singing came from Haydée Dabusti as a dignified Elisabetta who phrased with taste. Anabella Carnevali (Eboli) has a huge voice but has to polish her technique.
Leonardo López Linares is a stalwart baritone of very firm highs but his Falstaffian proportions were hardly those of the great warrior Posa. Uruguayan bass Marcelo Otegui offered a very correct job as Filippo, but of course the role needs much more. The tremendous duet with the Inquisitor (Marcelo Boluña) was quite pale. Joel Damián Ramírez sang nicely as the Page, though it’s quite un-Verdian to substitute a soprano with a countertenor. Luciano Straguzzi sounded well as the Priest, belatedly recognised as being the deceased Charles V! The others will best remain unnamed.
All this for just one badly prepared performance of a very demanding opera. Whoever thought at the Coliseo that this venture could work?