Adami, Filippo


Oscar Bianchi - Thanks to my Eyes

Festival Aix-en-Provence, 2011 | Franck Ollu, Joël Pommerat, Hagen Matzeit, Brian Bannatyne-Scott, Keren Motseri, Fflur Wyn, Anne Rotger, Antonie Rigot | Bel Air Media, La Monnaie Internet streaming

Eyes

Writing his first opera, commissioned by the Aix-en-Provence Festival and premiered there in 2011, Swiss-Italian composer Oscar Bianchi took a French drama by Joël Pommerat (‘Grâce à mes yeux’) as the source of Thanks to my Eyes, but took the unusual step of asking the author to adapt the work into the English language for the libretto. The reason for the change of language, according to the composer, working very much in the modern musical idiom, was purely technical and related to the more discordant sounds and textures evoked by the work that suited English singing better than the more musical-sounding French. I can think of another reason not explicitly stated by the composer why you would be cautious about setting a French-language drama to music, and that’s Pelléas et Mélisande.

Even then, while there might be the occasional reminder of the more spooky elements of Britten’s Turn of the Screw in the chamber instruments, it still proves impossible to escape the huge influence of Debussy’s only opera and its extraordinary ability to fuse music to Maeterlinck’s already existing play, while keeping the original almost entirely intact. Bianchi’s approach to creating a musical ambience for Pommerat’s drama works - and works reasonably well to often striking effect, it has to be said - in a similar way. Cutting the original work back extensively to fit an opera work that is only about one hour and ten minutes long, the short scenes in Thanks to my Eyes have a similar feeling of incompleteness, interruption and open abstraction that is there in Debussy and Maeterlinck’s symbolist work. The similarities however exist more than just on the surface approach of connecting the music to the drama.

Eyes

While the story and themes are quite different to Pelléas et Mélisande, there are similarities in the theatrical representation of the drama. A young man, Aymar, timid and solitary, is dominated by his famous father, a great comedian who, in the first scene, is shown handing one of the suits he uses in his act to his son, clearly expecting him to follow in his footsteps. His dominance of Aymar however also extends to control over finding a suitable woman for the young man, suggesting and trying to influence Aymar into choosing a woman like his own mother, much as he chose his wife based on his own mother. Aymar however is torn between two women, a Young Blond Woman and a mysterious cloaked Young Woman in the Night who keeps her face covered, who he secretly meets on a mountain top away from the eyes of his family. He knows however that he must break off this relationship, but is too timid to even be able to take that step.

Reducing the drama down to key scenes, although maintaining a linear, serial flow, even if some of the scenes are rather abstract in nature, does have the impact of bringing any undercurrents and symbolism directly to the surface. Like Debussy however, even though he is working in a much different musical language, the intention of Bianchi is to convey a sense of deeper meaning and suggestion beyond actual language and physical expression. While on the one hand then the figures all fit into regular types - domineering father, passive mother, child seeking to find his own sense of self and expression apart from them - there are other intriguing elements that are indeed evoked by the drama scenes, lighting and the use of the atmospheric chamber music. It may not be the most memorable or melodic music, but its intent is to integrate more fully into the whole theatrical process as a Gesamkunstwerk, as does the expression through the singing.

Eyes

The singing on this recording at the opera’s world premiere run in Aix-en-Provence, is of an exceptionally high standard, and when I say exceptionally high, I’m not just referring to the unusual use of a countertenor voice for Aymar, sung by Hagen Matzeit. This is an appropriate choice for the figure, emphasising his difference from his (not unexpected) bass-baritone father, Brian Bannatyne-Scott. The singing and sometimes wayward phrasing weave in complex ways, and work well off each other in this context. Interestingly, while the two women are sopranos (both singing the roles wonderfully, Fflur Wyn in particular having to reach some extraordinary high notes), the mother has a speaking-role only, and speaks in French, as do the others when speaking to her. The dramatic reasons for this are remain unexplained - it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that their mother might be a native French speaker - but it does introduce another intriguing dramatic and vocal element that contributes to the overall complexity of the meaning contained within the overall soundscape.

The tone of the music and singing and the effect it creates is matched by the staging, directed by the original author and librettist, Joël Pommerat. Locations are generic - outdoors, indoors, on a mountain top, at a edge of a cliff - uniformly grey in the darkness (barring a sunrise and some atmospheric lighting effects here and there), sparse and solitary, clearly evoking an emotional landscape more than a literal one. On the whole, regardless of what you judge to be the qualities of the often obscure motivations and actions in the drama or whether you find the style of music pleasant or not, the work does indeed transport you into another world entirely and hold you in its thrall for over an hour.

Broadcast via the Internet streaming service of La Monnaie-De Munt, (available on-line until 5th May 2012) this recording unusually isn’t of the current production running in Brussels, but a recording made at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2011. I’m not sure how this would have been presented on the stage, but the television recording allows the disparate scenes to flow and change without any breaks in the music, using frequent intertitles (in French) along the lines of “A few moments later, in the same place” or “That night, on the mountain top” to effect the rapid switches in time and location. Yes, Thanks to my Eyes is a rather strange, experimental piece of avant-garde music-theatre whose meaning may be difficult to fathom, with music and singing that may be challenging to the ears, but it does succeed in creating an alternative means of expression that comes across effectively on the screen and I’m sure even more so in a theatre.

InimicoBaldassare Galuppi - L’inimico delle donne

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège 2011 | Rinaldo Alessandrini, Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, Filippo Adami, Federica Carnevale, Liesbeth Devos, Juri Gorodezki, Priscille Laplace, Anna Maria Panzarella, Alberto Rinaldi, Daniele Zanfardino | Dynamic

Born on the island of Burano in the Venetian Republic, Baldassare Galuppi (1706 – 1785) is another case of a composer who was highly popular and successful in his own lifetime, but whose work soon fell into obscurity after his death. After a spell in London at the Kings Theatre, Galuppi, nonetheless served two terms as maestro di capella at St Marks in Venice, spent several years in Russia in-between as court composer for Catherine the Great, and left behind over a hundred operas, few of which have ever been revived. L’inimico delle donne is therefore a welcome opportunity to hear performed one of the later works for which Galuppi was celebrated in his day, the opera buffa.

Galuppi’s early work was in the fashionable opera seria style of the day, like everyone else working to librettos by Metastasio, but it was in the dramma giocoso, working in collaboration with the playwright Carlo Goldoni that Galuppi found a form more in tune with his style of composition that not only achieved great success and popularity, but left behind a certain amount of influence that can be seen in the works of Haydn (Lo Speziale, with a libretto also by Goldoni, and Il mondo della luna, for example) and Mozart, particularly on the style of Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail. It’s the latter than comes to mind often in L’inimico delle donne’s exploits of a lady who has arrived on an exotic foreign land and becomes embroiled in the romantic and political affairs of its ruler, but influential musical touches – particularly the ensemble finales, a characteristic that Galuppi would become known for – are also delightfully evident here.

It’s not Goldoni, but Giovanni Bertati (known also as the librettist for Cimarosa’s The Secret Wedding) who adapted the Zon-zon, principe di Kibin-kanka for Galuppi’s 1771 opera, and indeed, much of the buffa conventions are all in place here in L’inimico delle donne (“The Enemy of Women”). Agensina has been shipwrecked on the oriental land of Kibin-kan-ka with her father, escaping from rich noble suitors that pursue her, since she has a profound dislike for men. Zon-zon, the prince of Kibin-kan-ka, is obliged by the law of the land to get married, but similarly he doesn’t like women, finds their scent revolting and considers them about as attractive as toads. Inevitably, after squaring up to each other when they are introduced, Zon-zon begins to find Agnesina not quite as disgusting as the suitable women lined-up for him by his retainers, while Agnesina for her part finds herself strangely flattered by the attentions of this foreign prince.

Inimico

I say inevitably, but clearly there’s nothing inevitable about it except in terms of convention. There’s no real reason why Zon-zon would find Agnesina any more attractive than the other women presented to him, and there’s no reason why Agnesina would put aside her lifelong distaste for men either, but it’s just accepted that this is the natural course of events. As characters, they are far from fully-formed or convincing, and the situations – for all the comic potential they hold – are likewise scarcely developed and simply just resolve themselves. The most amusing moments occur when Agnesina’s father, Geminiano, is called upon to pretend to be the Idol Kakakinkara Kinkanaka in order to announce the marriage of Zon-zon and Agnesina as being the will of the gods – a deus ex machina which helps out Zon-zon as well as helping to make the plot work – and there is some entertaining rivalry when Xunchia is called upon to instruct the innocent foreign girl in the arts of love (she could do with some fashion tips too), but little of this is really exploited or even carried through to a satisfactory conclusion.

Surprisingly, the potential isn’t really exploited in musical terms either. The opera is spritely paced, with lively Baroque dance rhythms, but it’s all fairly conventional and not greatly aligned to emotional expression other than through slight variations of tempo. There’s very little recitative and even arias are brief and restrained, with no high-flown sentiments or great displays of vocal dexterity, but this treatment seems well-suited to the light-hearted subject. It’s also possible that Baroque music specialist Rinaldo Alessandrini has cut back on some of the excesses in his arrangement of the work to make this a bit more accessible in a modern context. Even so, the opera remains musically interesting, particularly in how horns and woodwind are employed in the score.

L’inimico delle donne is a modest affair then that in itself is not particularly funny, but there’s a lot of fun that can be drawn from it with the right kind of staging, and every effort is certainly put into it in this rare 2011 production by the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège. The stage direction by Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera respects the period, the tone and the buffa conventions with its colourful Mikado-like Oriental setting, though it introduces a few twists of its own in the form of shadow projections in the background. These work well for the shipwreck sequence at the start, but rather strangely set the futile Turandot-like (song instead of riddle) attempts of the Court ladies to win the hand of Prince Zon-zon to back-projected sporting events. Overall however, the tone is perfect, the costumes appropriately outlandish and exaggerated, with some fun and imaginative props.

The music and the staging are well judged then, but what helps carry it all off are the performances. The singing is terrific from Anna Maria Panzarella (who will be familiar from various Rameau productions) as Agnesina and from Filippo Adami and Zon-zon, who both enter into the spirit of it in their acting performances without over-egging it. It’s Agnesina’s father Geminiano however who has some of the best lines and comic moments in the opera, and he’s wonderfully played by Alberto Rinaldi. There are no weak elements either in the Court ladies or retainers to the prince, with Liesbeth Devos standing out as the feisty Xunchia.

Released by Dynamic on DVD only, the quality of the image is generally good but not all that impressive. It doesn’t look like the production was shot in HD, but presented in Standard Definition NTSC it’s still quite good. Contrast is high, and there is some slight shimmering breaking up lines, but the colourful staging looks good and the camera work captures the occasion well. Audio tracks are LPCM stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 and there’s a lovely tone to the orchestration and clarity in the singing. There is a little bit of ambient noise and stage clatter and one or two pops on the recording, but nothing that detracts from the overall quality. Subtitles are in Italian, English, French, German and Spanish.