Gaspare Spontini: Fernand Cortez @ Florence

The staging of such a rarity as Gaspare Spontini’s Fernand Cortez is always worth a travel, worthwhile it is also to spend a few words on its genesis and staging history. From what we know, Napoleon, perfectly conscious of the political support it could get from the cultural institutions in general and opera in particular, wished to sugar-coat his Spanish invasion and asked for a libretto that would display modern liberalism over religious bigotry. The plot of Fernand Cortez was perfect for Mexican invasion was at the time interpreted as liberation of the Mexican people from the Aztec oppressors and their barbaric cults by Cortez. But Fernand Cortez, which premiered on 28th November 1809 with Napoleon himself attending, had only a moderate success in France in the first 2 years, which might be due to the disastrous results of the Spanish invasion. We don’t know for sure whether it was Napoleon himself who withdraw it from the scenes. Its success in France established only between 1817 and the second third of the 19th century, with its second version and almost 250 performances. Abroad, the opera had a big success from the beginning, being performed in cities such as Dresden, Brussels,Vienna, Prague (the premiere directed by Weber) Berlin, Budapest, Weimar and Naples (with Rossini conducting) already in the first 15 years after its creation.

The premiere in 1809 was famous for its bombastic staging including Cortez’ ships set on fire, 14 horses on stage as well as the loud music which was much criticized. What makes the opera alluring is the realization of how Spontini’s music was a forerunner of the grand opera and a model for the French operas by Rossini and Meyerbeer. Another reason why it is interesting to hear Spontini’s music are the harmonic inventions. Not having the gift for melody, he worked on big dramatic scenes, dynamic extremes and harmonics which give a sense of continuous movement, harmonic frictions and instabilities.  Musical critics of the time wrote of “dissonances”, of “constant change of tonality “, or “ Full of modulations and dissonances which rapidly follow each other without a moment of rest.” Spontini’s accompaniment during airs and duets are often varied and delicate. However, director Jean-Luc Tingaud pays little attention to them and hastens over the score with little care on details. Additionally the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino is big and has a pasty sound and a dubious acoustic, which prevents to hear all the delicate subtleties (at least from the side on the balcony it does) and therefore sometimes it took me time until i fully got the melody. Also, very often there was half a second time lag between the music in the pit and the singers or choir on stage. A quite unsatisfactory approach of the music.

I really admire the work of Cecilia Ligorio (and her whole team). She creates intriguing settings that manage well to absorb me into the physical space and psychological narrative of the plot. I had the same feeling in Martina Franca (Vaccaj’s Giulietta e Romeo) with its limited resources, and in the Venetian Semiramide last year. Also in Florence she plays with beautiful background canvases, which, masterfully lit, make for some evocative settings (the shore of lake Texcoco where Amazily wants to take her life with the weeds in the foreground is particularly attractive I thought). The movements are well choreographed and there never is a dip in tension. The ballets, a fundamental part in French opera, are modern yet gripping. The dancers (14, as the horses in 1809) give their best. The dances that close the opera, meant to celebrate the creation of a new Mexican culture (and idolize Cortez/Napoleon) are thoughtfully used by Ligorio to balance myth and reality: Cortez’ friend Moralez is seen during the last ballets writing his memoirs, thinking about the false views which are delivered by contrasting interpretations of history. He writes about the atrocities he saw, balancing the creation of new culture against the extermination of a whole society which was so praised by the self-celebratory Cortez, and admonishes to question false heroes. A wonderful and touching way of making theatre.

Amazily has the powerful and warm voice of Alexia Voulgaridou which fills the concert hall with ease. She sings well, has an audible voice in all registers, but sometimes a short breath, which are particularly regretful at the end of her first aria where the last top notes are separated from the rest, cutting the musical arch. Schmuck is scenically more credible in act 2 and 3, but he is not always able to bring the Spanish leader to life and his voice is often covered from the middle register down. The Telasco of Luca Lombardo is satisfactory and sings his aria well. Very good the Alvar of David Ferri Durà which, together with the two Spanish prisoners make for a nice Hymn in Act 3 . Remarkable also André Courville as Grand Pretre. Gianluca Margheri sings a fine Moralez

Conductor-Jean-Luc Tingaud, Director-Cecilia Ligorio, Sets-Massimo Checchetto and Alessia Colosso, Costumes-Vera Pierantoni Giua, Lights-Maria Domenech, Choreography-Alessio Maria Romano, Fernando Cortez-Dario Schmunck, Télasco-Luca Lombardo, Amazily-Alexia Voulgaridou, Alvar-David Ferri Durà, Moralez-Gianluca Margheri, High mexican priest-André Courville, 12 octover 2019, pictures from the site of the maggio musicale fiorentino

Semiramide @ La Fenice

Semiramide comes back to La Fenice, for which it was composed in 1823. It was Rossini’s last opera for Italy. The setting by Ms Ligorio is quite interesting as it changes from a superficial all-golden all-beautiful in the first act to a dark and black in the second, when all mysteries are unveiled. The dark represents, I imagine, the bleak future and dark emotions of almost all characters starting from Idreno who sees his throne snatched away by Arsace, Azema who is forced by the tenor to love him, Arsace discovering the awful truth and Semiramide brought to justice. The dancers are unconnected but bring some movement to the otherwise static plot.

The title role is adequately sung by Jessica Pratt. In the second act she brings a wider pallet of colours to the part and her top register shines but I felt the first act was less emotional and the variations in the repeats were of dubious taste. Enea Scala has some dryness in the high register, I think Idreno is more suited to a tenore di grazia and his push in the upper register make him lack colours but the boldness he approaches the role with is stunning. Esposito is excellent as actor and singer though the character of Assur- I guess-allows him to pull only a limited amount of registers. Teresa Iervolino has a strange enthusiams to attack some notes from below instead of straight on, but except for this she was my overall favourite. Arsace allows for a whole range of emotions and I was touched throughout, the low range of her voice is warm and generous and her coloratura comes with enviable ease. Smaller roles are adequately cast and they all sing well, I especially enjoyed the clear voice of lovely Azema. Frizza directs.

Direttore-Riccardo Frizza, Regia-Cecilia Ligorio, Scene-Nicolas Bovey, Costumi-Marco Piemontese, movimenti coreografici e ballerina-Daisy Phillips, Semiramide-Jessica Pratt, Arsace-Teresa Iervolino, Assur-Alex Esposito, Idreno-Enea Scala, Oroe-Simon Lim, Azema-Marta Mari, Mitrane-Enrico Iviglia, L’ombra di Nino-Francesco Milanese, 27/10/18, photos by Michele Crosera

Vaccaj’s Giulietta e Romeo in Martina Franca

Nicola Vaccaj is now mainly famous for his didactic singing method for opera singers but in his time he was an accomplished composer albeit in the shadow of Rossini. His Giulietta e Romeo  (1825) was very well received and often performed until Bellini wrote his own version in 1830. And even then, Maria Malibran, when singing Bellini’s opera, chose to sing Vaccaj’s finale instead of the original one, a practice frequently copied. Personally I find the music extremely pleasing with some excellent pieces such as the love duet in act I, the father’s touching aria in act II, the whole finale just to mention a few.

The delicate Giulietta was extraordinarily interpreted by Leonor Bonilla. Her beautiful voice rose to the top, ethereal notes very easily. Raffaella Lupinacci as Romeo perfectly rendered the energy of young Romeo. Vocally she did an excellent job in the chiselling of colours but her voice is not strong enough in the low notes and at times she was not very audible. Christian Senn’s Lorenzo was also very good with an equal register everywhere and a very good pronunciation. Leonardo Cortellazzi was an excellent Capellio, good pronunciation, vivid top register, beautiful timbre and fine impersonation of the compelling character the librettist Felice Romani makes of the father. I was less impressed by Vasa Stajkic’s Tebaldo who’s interpretation was a bit monochrome. The excellent Paoletta Marrocu could only make a stage-wise impressive and vocally expressive loving mother. 

The slightly gothic staging was simple but effective. A lateral transversal wall with medieval touches (representing first the Capulets’ palace with the balcony, and then the walls of the cemetery), a tomb and impressive lighting was enough to put us straight into the plot. The movement of the masses was excellent and also the single characters were admirably guided and thanks to Cecilia Ligorio’s direction the show had basically no drops in tension. In my opinion the only disagreeableness came from the conductor. He got loads of applause but in my personal view he directed too much on the slow side, so much as to sometimes lose the arch of the musical line. Directing in an open space he also did not balance the volume enough and some of the beautiful accompaniment got lost in the…open air.

Direttore-Sesto Quatrini, Regis-Cecilia Ligorio, Scène-Alessia Colosso, Costumi-Giuseppe Palella, Luci/Luciano Novello, Capellio-Leonardo Cortellazzi, Giulietta-Leonor Bonilla, Romeo-Raffaella Lupinacci, Adele-Paoletta Marrocu, Tebaldo-Vasa Stajkic, Lorenzo-Christian Senn, pictures from by Fabrizio Sansoni and Paolo Conserva, and, 31/07/18