Vestri, Annunziata


CenerentolaGioachino Rossini - La Cenerentola

RAI Television, 2012 | Carlo Verdone, Gianluigi Gelmetti, Lena Belkina, Edgardo Rocha, Anna Kasyan, Annunziata Vestri, Carlo Lepore, Simone Alberghini, Lorenzo Regazzo | BBC Television

La Cenerentola is the latest production from Andrea Andermann, who every year provides Italian television and the world with an ambitious live performance of a popular Italian opera, shot in the actual locations and at the times specified in the libretto, and broadcast live as it is filmed for television. With operas like Tosca and Rigoletto (the latter in particular spectacularly filmed in and around the Ducal Palace in Mantua two years ago), there is an element of the works that is enhanced to some extent by being able to view them in their exact historical locations - locations that also happen to look quite stunning. But Rossini’s version of the Cinderella story, La Cenerentola? Well, you can see the problem. How can a fairytale possibly benefit from or even be enhanced by the kind of realism that goes into an Andrea Andermann production?

The notion of setting it in Turin has more to it than helping spread around the benefits that an Andermann production gives to the Italian tourist industry. Turin is traditionally the home of the Italian Royal family, and since Cinderella’s marriage to a Prince is a central part of the work, there is some merit and justification in the choice. It doesn’t take you long past the opening titles - the Overture at least pleasantly animated to give Cinderella a background that leads to her being an orphan now with a stepfather and stepsisters - to get the feeling however that the whole production is fundamentally misconceived. Setting Don Magnifico’s baronial mansion of Act I under harsh overly bright studio lighting for television viewing makes it look neither fairytale-like nor realistic. There are no dark chimney corners, no opulent rooms - it just looks like a studio set with cheap stage costumes and operatic acting. There is some benefit in how it allows the camera to flow along with the action outside the house into the garden for the arrival of the Prince, but otherwise, the opera style seems out of place in its “actual location” surroundings.

More than that, taking La Cenerentola away from the stage actually diminishes the work and reduces the magic of the opera’s wonderful centrepiece scenes - the transformation of Cinderella and the coach journeys. Here, in a live setting and in real locations, those scenes can only be done through the animation framing sequences that are inserted periodically to link scenes and acts. Again, one can’t help feel that introducing realism to La Cenerentola somewhat defeats the purpose of the work, but it doesn’t even have the benefit of theatrical “magic” either. Attempts to add some of that sparkle back in through the sprinkling of “magic dust” and kaleidoscopic effects added in post-production doesn’t really make up for what is missing here, and it actually comes across as quite kitsch instead. To its credit, the ballroom scenes filmed in a palace are every bit as spectacular as you would imagine, and much better than anything that could be achieved on the stage.

If the live on-location idea is misconceived for Cinderella, Rossini’s work is magical enough to work on its own terms - severely cut though it is here to fit television schedules - and fortunately that’s the saving grace of this production. Latvian mezzo-soprano Lena Belkina proved to be very pleasing to the eyes and the ears with a classic dark beauty of Anna Netrebko and even a similarity in appearance with Maria Callas. She doesn’t really have the depth, the power or the richness of voice of those singers, or even the fullness of tone and expression that Cecilia Bartoli, for example, has brought to this particular role - but she is well suited to this slightly lighter (lightweight?) production of a Rossini work that should be played with delicacy of tone and bright wit.

Unfortunately, quite aside from the live and on-location issues, the direction of Gianluigi Gelmetti doesn’t really exploit the comic brilliance of the work. As well sung as the roles of Cinderella and Don Ramiro are, neither Belkina nor Edgardo Rocha are given enough to do, and their characters come over as rather bland. Even Thisbe and Clorinda, the ugly step-sisters, aren’t fully developed here or used to the advantages that Anna Kasyan and Annunziata Vestri are vocally and dramatically capable of bringing to the roles. Only Carlo Lepore’s Don Magnifico comes across with the requisite strength of character and voice that lifts the dynamic of the production above the merely functional.

There’s no particular flair to the filming either this time around. With Rigoletto in 2010 we had direction and cinematography by filmmakers as renowned as Marco Bellochio and Vittorio Storaro, but La Cenerentola has no such distinction. There’s an attempt to bring some visual character by involving a ball of yarn to the “tangled knot” revelation scene, but by and large the direction is rather leaden, and never manages to bring the work to life or match the dazzling wit and sparkling nature of Rossini’s music. It’s a made-for-TV La Cenerentola, nothing more, that sadly has little to do with Rossini or real opera.

ButterflyGiacomo Puccini - Madama Butterfly

Sferisterio Opera Festival Macerata, 2009 | Daniele Callegari, Pier Luigi Pizzi, Raffaella Angeletti, Massimiliano Pisapia, Annunziata Vestri, Claudio Sgura, Thomas Morris, Enrico Cossutta, Enrico Iori, Nino Batatunashvili | Unitel Classica - C-Major

I know it’s one of the most performed and most popular crowd-pleasers in the opera repertoire, I’ve heard it and seen it performed any number of times (usually in a fairly traditional staging), I know that, derived from a piece of popular theatre by David Belasco, it’s emotionally manipulative, racially stereotypical, riddled with cliché with little cultural authenticity or ethnic realism – but I still won’t hear a bad word said about Madama Butterfly. Even in its most unadventurous and traditional of stagings Madama Butterfly just works. You might not buy the story for a second, but Puccini’s score makes you want to believe it is real, and he does so convincingly.

I won’t have anything bad said about Puccini either. Easy listening it may be, and unchallenging to some, but familiarity hasn’t made his work any less impressive for me, but rather every listening, every new production of his operas, reveals something new about the structure, the composition of his works, his ability to build a scene and hit you exactly the right way at exactly the right moment for maximum impact – and not necessarily in a deliberately calculated or manipulative way, but truthfully, with every sentiment perfectly balanced and weighted. Even now, with the availability on CD and DVD of a much wider range of composers and rare compositions, Puccini’s brilliance never wanes, but rather, one can see how he is the culmination of a long line of a tradition of Italian opera, who is able to draw from the lyricism of bel canto and combine it with the melodrama of Verdi, but also, in his later works, show an influence or awareness of Wagner in his approach to dramatic structuring. Puccini is undoubtedly one of the masters.

So perfect an opera is Madama Butterfly moreover, that it doesn’t need any modern revisionism or high concept staging. It already works on multiple levels – like all Puccini’s work – and if you want it to see it as a straightforward clash between Japanese and American culture that inevitably results in tragedy, then that’s more than enough for it to work successfully. There are other clashes, divisions and incompatibilities brought out in the opera – from the division of imperialism and isolation, destiny or self-determination, modernity versus tradition to simply the clash of ideals between men and women in respect of what each of them hope to gain from a relationship. All these ideas exist in Madama Butterfly, and some of them can be tweaked for emphasis in individual productions, but they are all there to be drawn out by the listener in even the most basic of stagings.

Directed by Pier Luigi Pizzi, this production for the Sferisterio Opera Festival in Macerata in 2009 isn’t exactly basic, but it is fairly traditional, aiming for a stylised Japanese setting with silk kimonos, bamboo and paper houses on wooden struts and a cherry tree in bloom. Puccini’s Madama Butterfly can bear such idealism, since in many respects, there is an unrealistic idealism in the minds of the two main protagonists, the American sailor B.F. Pinkerton and the young 15 year-old Japanese bride he has bought, Cio-Cio-Can, known as Butterfly – both however clearly have different ideas about what they expect to gain out of this arrangement. This production makes use of the interlude music after the Humming Song to introduce a dreamlike ballet sequence that depicts this idealised version of the relationship, perhaps in Butterfly’s mind as she sleeps awaiting the return of Pinkerton, and it’s a nice touch that works very well with this idea.

The other notable thing about this production is the open-air performance at the arena which is not traditionally theatre shaped. The long wings to the side of the stage however are well used for processional marches, as well as giving a greater sense of isolation of Cio-Cio-San from the world outside. The walls behind the stage however do add to the reverb on the voices, but not in any overly detrimental way. It does tend to lend a stridency to the singing of Raffaella Angeletti who can certainly hold the high notes as Butterfly, but doesn’t have the delicacy that is required in other passages. She does however deliver where she needs to. Massimiliano Pisapia is a robust and traditional Pinkerton, alternating between confidence and cowardice, between being arrogant and being loving. I liked the tone of his voice here throughout. Claudio Sgura’s Sharpless demonstrates good clear diction, but the microphone or the mixing gives his voice too much reverb, and both his voice and Angeletti’s can occasionally be a little piercing in places. Overall however, the singing is good and this is a fine production of Madama Butterfly, presented on a fine Blu-ray with a strong picture and – allowing for the slight extra reverb of the open-air location – good sound-mixes in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1.