ECCOCI (ANCORA) IN PESARO

116

by Kyriakos Loukakos[1]

        After intensive traveling in a matter of hours via Nürnberg, Munich, Athens, Venice and Bologna, the passage from Bayreuth’s Wagnerian oddities to the earthy exuberance of the Pesarese seashore seemed like a blessing. Here at last we hoped to seek what we had missed elsewhere, that is the certainty that we would enjoy Rossini «as in no other place in the world»[2]. The traumatic experience of attending Frank Castorf’s Ring des Nibelungen production in a place we strongly felt that ought to respect and nurture Wagner’s art and reputation in the creator’s own terms, enforced decidedly our gratitude to the Rossini Opera Festival, which, in its 35th edition, continues to enhance the composer’s appeal via a strong and judicious combination of musicological research and interpretative originality. What becomes more and more obvious to us, as still novices to its charm, is Pesaro’s all round support to a master whose undergoing reevaluation reveals hidden treasures through their deep and multi – faceted understanding.

Under the vigilant eye of Sovrintendente Gianfranco Mariotti and alongside his monotonous plea for more -well deserved- public financial support, ROF and its counterpart Fondazione Rossini di Pesaro materialize some kind of wonder by safeguarding the precious heritage of Rossini in all its precious aspects. Their last feat is the restoration of more than 4700 autografi rossiniani for a modest sum of money not exceeding 8000 euros! A labour of love accomplished with the most recent state of the art techniques, parallel to the undergoing, already advanced and utterly revelatory,  Edizione critica of Rossini’s works. It is a process that is being constantly transferred to the stage and has been long focusing the attention of an ever increasing international public[3]  to a wealth of details that bring at last justice to this composer’s intrinsic and delicate artistry.

In all the respects mentioned above, we regret our missing this year’s student performances of Il Viaggio a Reims, that was officially visited by groups of American and Chinese students, an event that further certifies the educational work that the Festival fulfills with the noble goal of establishing globally an authoritative vocal style conform to the original Rossinian intentions.

Another regret remains our failure to attend the first ever production in Pesaro of Rossini’s 1813 dramma serio Aureliano in Palmira, especially since its devoted conductor Will Crutchfield, already noted as a scholar and director of the opera section of the Caramoor International Music Festival of New York, presented the work, whose autograph is missing, in a critical edition that required a considerable amount of study drawing on several different sources. This «complete» version comprised music heard for the first time ever, which incidentally not for a moment outstayed its welcome during the Rai Radiotre direct relay we managed to follow.

New Ronconi Armida after 21 years

Upon our arrival to the popular Italian resort, we attended the central revival of this year’s festival, Rossini’s Armida hosted at the ingeniously adapted Adriatic Arena (Tuesday, 19/08, 20.00), originally a place of sport events  at the outskirts of Pesaro. It marked an interesting return for the famous director Luca Ronconi, author of quite a few prestigious ROF productions in the past, including the late Claudio Abbado’s sumptuous 1984 first modern revival of  Il Viaggio a Reims after its unexpected rescue from loss and oblivion. Ronconi’s 1993 Armida production was modeled on the 1930 Paramount film “Morocco”  starring Marlene Dietrich, cause for a provocatively blond Renée Fleming on the cover of the cd set that was subsequently issued. What marks Ronconi’s latest homecoming to the work is a totally different approach, with soldiers’ costumes (Giovanna Buzzi) referring to Sicilian puppet theatre and the whole further perpetrating a fairy tale atmosphere through elaborate tableaux – vivants (Margherita Palli) reserved to the several amorous reunions of the sorceress Armida and her enemy lover Rinaldo.

The opera features only one lady and Ronconi, in his “simpler and symbolist but very fantastic” rethinking of the opera[4], tried his best to put her at the center of the action, drawing mainly to her psychological profile as a somewhat Medea manquée, an initially powerful sorceress who, after  submitting everything to love, faces Rinaldo’s humiliating refusal to accept her even as a simple war companion, becomes a powerless woman and surrenders to vengeance, destroying by her own hand the delicious gardens that had once hosted her passion.

To act as his protagonist in the fiendishly difficult title role, served once by Maria Callas (Florence May festival 1952) and the recently deceased (7/08/2014) Cristina Deutecom (Teatro La Fenice di Venezia 1970), ROF’s artistic director Alberto Zedda chose one of his alumni at the Accademia Rossiniana, the gifted young Catalan soprano Carmen Romeu, an attractive and involved singing actress, despite his awareness that not all of the role’s vocal and histrionic demands would be (yet?) in this artist’s grasp. Acting so, Zedda aimed principally to enabling Armida become a repertoire piece irrespective of big names’ availability, investing rather to a faithful and uncut presentation of Rossini’s inventive and innovative score than to a display of vocal pyrotechnics, which he obviously rated as secondary.

And in fact the opera shone in its original restored glory thanks to the coherent direction of the experienced Carlo Rizzi on the pit of the valiant Teatro Comunale di Bologna chorus and orchestra, supported by the illuminating analysis offered in the accompanying program volume, always a model of its kind. What, alas, Zedda didn’t manage to prevent was the foreseeable inadequacies of Romeu’s singing in certain areas of the role’s tessitura, shortcomings not overlooked by either public or critics, and rightly so since Rossini’s  vocal demands seldom exhaust themselves in vocal display, more often adding to the expressive mark of the characters. So, whether staging Armida without special role exponents at hand is an option remains debatable, especially when roles cry for such transcendentally assured virtuosity as the title one.

Another challenge of the revival, largely won this time, was the casting of 6 tenor parts of a particularly extended vocal range. After many years of intensive career, the Sicilian Antonino Siragusa proved a powerful Rinaldo, with a healthy projection and tantalizing ease in any stratospheric flight required by the exposed writing for the role. His was an insolent dramatic and vocal character contrasting nicely with the well rounded lyrical tone of the Russian Dmitri Korchak in his double function, as knights Gernando and Ubaldo, one of our favorite singers in Pesaro. Although a further tenor, the American Randall Bills, as king Goffredo[5] and knight Carlo, remained an acquired taste to many, we were taken over by his lean and euphonious voice, his confident upper register and his undistracted sense of the singing line, besides a nice timbre differentiation from his other tenor colleagues, including Greek Vassilis Kavayas as Eustazio[6], a master of clear and healthy enunciation in this first official assignment by ROF.

Bass Carlo Lepore, costumed in black,  impersonated both forces of the dark side, king Idraote of Damascus, a Dapertutto – like figure supporting Armida’s effort to distract crusaders from Jerusalem’s siege, and the demon Astarotte, taking the form of a vampire, so  fashionable in our Tv days. He is the possessor of a potent voice, but showed signs of wobble in part 2 of the opera.  The work was presented complete, including a lengthy but musically rewarding ballet sequence choreographed in a rather suffuse way by Michele Abbondanza. All in all and despite Carmen Romeu’s obvious limitations, Armida prevailed as an operatic masterpiece of musical substance, indisputably a transitional work by a genial composer.

Ewa Podleś concert: Or chi sono si vedrà!

It seems that some observations are too obvious to escape more than one person’s perception. This was our first thought when we realized that we were not the first to mark and signify in our review the challenging way in which the already legendary Ewa Podleś colored this particular phrase from Isabella’s act 1 aria in L’ Italiana in Algeri, part of her latest concert in Pesaro. Indeed, we ought to be grateful for her participation to this year’s festivities in Rossini’s birth town, our gratefulness being duly seconded by the triumphant ovations of a delirious public. And we feel confident that eventual publication of this phenomenal concert from Teatro Rossini (Tuesday 20/08/2014, hours 16.30), can only enhance the Festival’s international interest and appeal.

Being the unsung hero(ine) of the 2012 Ciro in Babylonia, this impressive and unfortunately for long neglected Polish mezzo has to be heard live to be believed, as she represents an ultra rare specimen of her kind. Even those who are acquainted with her Rossini arias recital and  Tancredi on the Naxos label or try to follow her EBU concert transmissions and ever rarer operatic appearances are unlikely to envisage the effect of this voice and this personality on stage.

Podleś offered a splendidly varied program, encompassing an array of arias ranging from Gluck to Prokofiev, backed by the Filarmonica Gioachino Rossini under the baton of  Venetian conductor Carlo Tenan, a Lorin Maazel protégée and debutant to the ROF, who showed a special gift not only in the stylistic diversity he managed to induce in a series of overtures he conducted, ranging from Cherubini’s Medea and Weber’s Euryanthe to Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila, but also in the  sensitive and respectful ear he lent to his celebrated soloist. Podleś is no imposing figure on stage. Rather advanced in years, which by the way she doesn’t try to conceal, she gave a rather rigid first impression, before establishing, by means of  face expressions and theatrical gestures, an interactive communication with her public and a reassuring warmth with the youthful orchestra and conductor.

Already upon her first entry, Orphée’s lament on the loss of his Euridice from Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice, sung in splendidly clear French, Podleś carried us to a secret garden of now almost extinct “ladies of low repute” as Tully Potter humorously put it in a series of articles in the prestigious British periodical «Classical Recordings Quarterly».  Even at this late stage in her career, the Polish diva exemplifies real contralto depths and dignity, in her case further enhanced through her coloratura distinction. She further possesses the charisma of a true concert artist that  transforms even an isolated aria, as the above mentioned “J’ ai perdu mon Euridice” (recitative included), to a conclusive narration full of interesting péripéties and haughty declamation, imbued with psychological insight and monitored by emotional involvement, culminating for the reprise of the aria in a burst of resolute anger.

Similarly the Ciro in Babilonia air proved a welcome reminder of her impersonation’s impact in Pesaro 2 years ago (coincidence? A reprise of this great Rossinian rarity was shortly announced for 2015!). What a phenomenal range, what a complete mastery of line and breath control, what an indomitable attack to the vocal challenges,  even at the face of such a Marilyn Horne specialty as Orsini’s brindisi from Gaetano Donizetti’s  Lucrezia Borgia, a cocky interpretation relishing a manly and abysmal low register.

After such a demanding sequence it was only fair that a break should be granted to the Lady, at least in order to accomplish the emotional leap to the war field desperation evoked in Sergei Prokofiev’s cantata Alexander Nevsky, a Podleś encore par excellence. “Che? Senza pausa?” was her resolute response to the conductor’s hesitant effort to inform her that no break had been foreseen for her demanding concert, her underlying request heftily supported by the public and gallantly accepted by the Festival, but only after one more overture by the orchestra and a deeply emotional plunge in the Prokofiev highlight.

For what was a necessarily brief second part of the event Podleś sung a moving Cieca’s monologue from Amilcare Ponchielli’s gloomy La Gioconda, brilliantly accompanied by maestro Tenan’s ultra attentive baton (her public thanks to him was no mere courtesy gesture) and the already mentioned “Cruda sorte” from L’ Italiana in Algeri, exuberant, full of explosive word pointing and vocal defiance, in a way only true artists know to transform themselves on stage. The break produced a more than welcome side benefit in form of a pompously announced and imperiously declaimed monologue of Madame de la Haltière in Massenet’s Cendrillon, part in which she recently excelled in Gran Teatre del Liceu of Barcelona.

Barbiere, certo non  semiscenico!

If modern production standards imply often the disrespect of the works concerned, should we ban directors altogether? And if a quasi improvisatory staging proves successful, should we consider it as a regular way out to a complex issue? Of course not, even if the latest Pesaro revival of the immensely popular Il barbiere di Siviglia,   initially planned as a semistaged version, finally became an almost full staging thanks to the zeal of the Students of  Accademia di Belle Arti di Urbino who generously furnished «ideazione, progettazione, elementi scenici, movimenti di regia, video e costumi» to an utterly direct and refreshing result. Free from any cerebral deviation, the young artists and their equally young musician colleagues let the flow of Rossinian ingeniousness  inspire them to a splendidly conversational flow of the action, perhaps overusing the Teatro Rossini’s parterre area, a choice unpleasant to many spectators who had limited visibility of comings and goings during the first half hour of the opera. Things became more conventional from the moment the action entered the house of Dr. Bartolo. Measured elements of Regietheater included masked servants and the impassive yet facially expressive vigilance of the mute servant Ambrogio acted with gusto by the renowned journalist Alberto Pancrazi, an adopted Pesarese since 38 years. Locals were also involved in the performance, as members of the amateur Coro San Carlo di Pesaro, directed by Salvatore Francavilla and ably but somewhat hesitantly performing their anyway not very extensive part.

We attended the event of 20/08 and the Orchestra of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna fizzed under the intelligent baton of yet another young debutant, conductor Giacomo Sagripanti, first prize winner of the Concorso Internazionale Patanè di Grosseto, who offered a refreshing performance of the score, inspired, as he verbally admitted, by Alberto Zedda’s most recent update of his critical version of the work.

The cast was headed by one more Pesaro debutant, the French baritone Florian Sempey, who scored a well deserved personal triumph as a long hair, baby face, sprightly and slightly rotund Figaro, ideally suited to the character. His baritone voice possesses real quality, his phrasing of the part was exemplary and his singing was accurate and full of vitality and nuance. Thus he managed to outshine even the richly endowed with showpieces (act 2 rondo of course included!)  Count Almaviva of the svelte and good looking Argentinian tenor Juan Francisco Gatell, who nevertheless seemed to have largely recovered from uncertainties and inaccuracies of the premiere as reported (and heard through the Rai Radiotre relay). His slightly dry timbre can acquire a plangent quality in more lyrical passages and, at his best, his top rings as freely as one can get in this world, if not confronted with Juan Diego Flórez. Both he and Sempey relished their exchanges and enunciated the text, as everyone in the cast, with admirable clarity.

 

After her somewhat boorish Malcolm of last year, Palermitan mezzo Chiara Amarù offered a cheeky and lighter – voiced Rosina, a  perfect fit to Sempey’s jovially pragmatic Figaro. Never has their act 1 duet sounded so natural and evolving out of the situation or the act 2 lesson so full of unexaggerated fun, without the slightest sacrifice in the acribic execution of the music. As Rosina’s  tutor Paolo Bordogna is a sure hit in Pesaro. His somewhat limited and light bass voice is of no special quality, but what he does with it is always the fruit of exhaustive preparation and total abandon on stage. His was a much younger and more handsome Bartolo than usual, cutting a believable alternative to the Almaviva option, and  his singing, though not eschewing memories of Baccaloni, Corena, Dara et al (on record), was full of verve, excelling in the ultra fast singing of his aria and the pandemonium of the ensembles. Bordogna’s need for marital help found an imposing ally in Alex Esposito’s properly hieratic Basilio, a notable portrait after the artist’s macho Mustafà in Davide Livermore’s last year frenetic L’ Italiana in Algeri. A third Sicilian artist debuting in Pesaro, soprano Felicia Bongiovanni as Berta, could be easily mistaken for Frau Mary’s first cousin in Wagner’s  Der fliegende Holländer, a real archetype of a spinster who furnished indomitably her high notes in the extended finale primo. Andrea Vincenzo Bonsignore presented sturdily both Fiorello and the Officer. All in all a delightful performance but not necessarily a  model  for  general use.         

Petite Messe Solennelle: orchestral version  in world premiere

   As it is the custom in Pesaro, the last performance of the festival is being transmitted open air, available to all citizens comfortably sitted in front of a giant screen at the central Piazza del Popolo, opposite the imposing XV century Palazzo Ducale. This year’s special event was the world premiere of Rossini’s Petite Messe Solenelle in its orchestration by the composer himself and in the critical edition recently published by the Rossini foundation. Without illusions as to the disparate character of the work, as it was formed by Rossini largely from existing compositions, Alberto Zedda is nevertheless convinced that this orchestration has not been a dutiful task for the ageing composer, but the fruit of constant return to his work and that it should be treated accordingly, as a creation of intimate devotion reflected in the delicacy and sparseness of the orchestration.

Zedda’s emblematic execution of the piece (Teatro Rossini, Thursday 21/08/2014, 20.30 hours) was revelatory to an extent unfathomable to all of us who knew (or thought they did) the work from recordings of the past. That was largely due to the venerable Rossinian’s establishing of an unprecedented sense of symphonic unity for this special mass, helped by a well integrated vocal quartet, technically fluent and without peer in understanding of Rossini’s music. Zedda managed to sustain momentum impressively even through the orchestral introduction to Sanctus and the choral passage that followed it. Voices blended comfortably throughout under his inward baton. Special vocal moments included tenor  Dmitri Korchak’s defiant «Domine Deus», bass Mirco Palazzi’s resonant and supple «Quoniam Tu solus altissimus», soprano Olga Senderskaya’s suitably bucolic «O salutaris hostia» and Veronica Simeoni’s deeply felt «Agnus Dei». But the ultimate highlight of this performance remained the devotional power of the work itself thanks to Zedda’s indisputable empathy with it, evidently shared with his Bologna’s Municipal Theatre forces. A labour of love as so many things in Rossini’s precious hometown Festival[7]…


[1] Music and Lyric Theatre critic Kyriakos Loukakos is considered to be a leading vocal connoisseur in Greece. He is an attorney at law and a Dr. Juris of the Cologne University. In 1991 he joined the Greek Ministry of Home Affairs as a member of its Strategic Policy Unit and, as of 1998, he is a senior investigator at the Quality of Life Department of the Greek Ombudsman’s Office. But music has been his lifelong passion, leading to the formation of his own extensive archive of records and privately recorded performances on several kinds of sound carriers. Therefore, from 1994 to 2010 he has commented and presented almost every opera feature for Greek Radio 3, including innumerable EBU direct relays and deferred transmissions, as well as contributing an extensive series of vocal artists’ and conductors’ portrayals. In 1997, commemorating the 20th anniversary of her passing, he presented a 28- hour step-by-step biographical radio homage to Maria Callas and the total output of her recorded roles, for the first time as a whole in radio chronicles. He also reported for the ERT WORLD TV cultural program “9+1 Muses”.
Since 1997 he is the music critic of the Sunday edition of the Athens daily journal “I AVGI”. He has provided texts for practically every major musical institution of his country (Athens Megaron Concert Hall, Athens Festival, Thessalonica Megaron Concert Hall, Greek Parliament Foundation, Athenaeum International Cultural Center, European Cultural Centre of Delphi, etc.) as well as serious cultural magazines (Peritechno, Odos Panos, To dendro, Classical Music, as well as and for the bimonthly periodical ILIAIA). He further supervised a  CD-set edition of 7 complete operas in rare archival recordings featuring distinguished soprano Vasso Papantoniou. In 2011 he managed extensive bilingual texts and overall supervision to a lavish 4-cd set, issued by  “The Friends of Music Society” of the Athens Megaron Concert Hall and devoted to hitherto unpublished recordings from the archive of the late (mezzo) soprano Arda Mandikian, a close collaborator of Benjamin Britten and Sir Peter Pears and the Dido in both the first ever complete performance of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, in Oxford (1950), and the subsequent first complete recording of its second part, Les Troyens a Carthage, under the baton of Hermann Scherchen. The set was favorably reviewed by such prestigious international periodicals as International Record Review, Opera magazine, The Record Collector and Classical Recordings Quarterly and was accorded the 2012 “Gina Bachauer International Foundation” Record Prize. Since 2011 Dr. Loukakos has further reported regularly, in Greek and in English, for the e-magazine for drama, dance and music critique www.critics-point.gr, an activity he now refreshes through his new e-magazine address www.criticscorner.gr .
As of January 2018 he is Honorary President of the Greek Drama and Music Critics Association, a Union established in 1928 and a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics, operating under the auspices of UNESCO, whose Executive Committee he duly presided for 4 consecutive terms (2005 – 2018). Since 2013 he is Secretary General of the “Maria Callas Scholarships Society” and, in 2015, he enrolled as a Member of the “Citizens Movement for an Open Society” and of the “Athens Conservatory”  Society.
[2] According to the Financial Times
[3]  See for further details in ROF Ufficio Stampa official statement
[4] As he put it in an interview to LA REPPUBLICA journal
[5]  Meant is the Flemish count Godefroy de Bouillon [Baisy, c. 1060 – Jerusalem, 18 July 1100], one of the high ranking participants to the First Crusade to Jerusalem.
[6]  Incidentally the name of Godefroy ’s father, Eustache II [c.1020 – c. 1088].
[7] All photos by courtesy of the Rossini Opera Festival Press Office