Del Monaco, Giancarlo


Riccardo Zandonai - Francesca da Rimini

L’Opéra National de Paris, Opéra Bastille | Daniel Oren, Giancarlo Del Monaco, Svetla Vassileva, Louise Callinan, Wojtek Smilek, George Gagnidze, Roberto Alagna, William Joyner, Grazia Lee, Manuela Bisceglie, Andrea Hill, Carol Garcia, Cornelia Oncioiu | L’Opéra National de Paris, 3rd February 2011

Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini is the composer’s most famous opera, but it hasn’t been staged in Paris since its first performances nearly a century ago. For anyone unaware of what to expect from what is a relatively little-known opera, The Paris Opera promised a revival that would at least make a strong impression. They weren’t wrong about that.

Francesca

The biggest impression was made during Act One, Giancarlo del Monaco’s elaborate gothic-tinged nature morte set for Polenta Palace gardens in Ravenna resembling a colourful version of Jack Clayton’s film The Innocents (an adaptation of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw). It proved to be the perfect setting for the lush romantic and at the same time faintly sinister tone of the First Act, Zandonai’s score emphasising the sweepingly romantic element of Francesca and her ladies awaiting the arrival of Giovanni Malatesta, the man she has been arranged to marry, while minstrels offer foreboding songs of Tristan and Isolde and Galahad and Guinevere. The build-up to the arrival of the young man is incredible, the ladies of the household wound-up to a level of near hysteria at his imminent arrival, presaged by a strident rising crescendo that descends into a reverent hush, a murmur reminiscent of the humming song from Madama Butterfly (coincidentally also being performed at the Paris Opera in the current season), as Paolo el Bello, Paolo the Beautiful, arrives on stage. Roberto Alagna doesn’t even need to sing a note in the first Act – the curtain descends and the audience, if not necessarily impressed, are at least left somewhat dumbfounded.

The tragedy, as a careful reading of the above description will reveal, is of course that it is Paolo and not his brother Giovanni who arrives, so Francesca is badly mistaken when she immediately falls in love with the young man (and who wouldn’t with an entrance like that!), because in reality Giovanni, as she is about to discover, is a much less inviting prospect – harsh, cruel, ugly and crippled. As in Verdi’s Don Carlo – which Roberto Alagna played in the recent Met production – it’s another unfortunate in a love match that is over before it has really begun, and there are similar romantic complications, family troubles and political consequences that ensue. While there is accordingly similar sweeping romantic scoring, there is nothing thereafter quite as pronounced as in the First Act. That section was Zandonai’s Puccini, while what follows thereafter shows up his other two major influences, Wagner and Strauss. It’s almost as if Zandonai picks and mixes according to the mood and requirements of the scene. A light outside a bedroom as the signal for Paolo to steal surreptitiously into Francesca’s room evokes Tristan und Isolde, and Zadonai accordingly evokes Wagner.

Rather than being a jumble of influences and references however, Francesca manages to form a coherent musical whole, retaining a character of its own, one that, although it has a strong literary basis in the works of Dante and D’Annunzio, is certainly far from the Italian verismo school that the composer is usually associated with. But it’s not quite impressionistic either, as some of the Paris Opera’s writing on the opera in the programme notes suggest. Francesca da Rimini rather is romantic in a Verdi sense – political and romantic intrigues conflated, with a touch of Wagner Romanticism and post-Wagner modernism leading towards a more mid-twentieth century style. Ultimately however, it is fairly traditional in its operatic plot and intrigue, not offering any great surprises in the narrative development, in the romantic expressions of impossible love or in its inevitably tragic finale. Yet, every moment is perfectly judged by the composer and carried off impressively.

Francesca

Giancarlo del Monaco’s staging – always a matter of questionable taste – does however match the tone of the opera perfectly, drawing inspiration from the home and gardens of the story’s writer, Gabriele D’Annunzio’s villa the Vittoriale deglo Italiani. The sets are never as elaborate after Act 1, but matching the tone of the music, they provide solid, traditional, period rooms that are sparse but with significant bold touches. It would be unfair to say that Roberto Alagna has all his work done for him by the score, particularly after the huge Act 1 build-up, but rather it’s more a case that he often has to fight hard to keep above the huge sound of the orchestral accompaniment that underscores every emotion and utterance. He proves to be more than capable and is understandably and justifiably the big name attraction for his return to the Paris opera, but it is Svetla Vassileva as Francesca who impresses most. Both have challenging roles, with little pause or parlando – everything is sung and the opera is beautifully written for the voice, particularly for the female roles. The fascinating score, the dynamic arrangements and the sometimes unusual instruments featured gave the Orchestra of the Paris Opera at the Bastille a chance to show what they could do and they were most impressive, playing with clarity and precision.

FanciullaGiacomo Puccini - La Fanciulla del West

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Nicola Luisotti, Giancarlo del Monaco, Deborah Voigt, Marcello Giordani, Lucio Gallo | The Met: Live in HD - January 8, 2011

The staging of La Fanciulla del West in the current season of the Metropolitan Opera and its broadcast around the world as part of their The Met Live in HD programme, was to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Puccini’s American opera. Based on a play by famed American theatre impresario David Belasco, “The Golden Girl of the West”, the first ever performance of the opera at the Met was directed by Belasco himself, conducted by Arturo Toscanini, with Emmy Destinn as Minnie and the great Caruso as Dick Johnson, with Puccini himself in attendance. The elaborately period detailed Giancarlo del Monaco production from 1991 was revived for the occasion of the anniversary of one of Puccini more intriguing operas, if perhaps not one of his best.

Dating from 1910, it’s not inaccurate then to consider La Fanciulla de West as the first “Spaghetti Western” (although such racial stereotyping was played down here, as were some of the rather crude racial references to Native Americans and the Chinese in the actual opera, at least in the subtitled translation). The opera, based on Belasco’s play, certainly establishes a few of the traditional characters and set-pieces that would become familiar in Hollywood Westerns down through the ages, and these are certainly retained with the traditional, and perhaps even knowing, nature of the Met’s production. The saloon, complete with moose-head for target practice, is established as the perfect place to introduce the characters in Act 1. Set in a Californian mining camp around 1850, the men are prospectors, forty-niners, some of them gamblers playing poker, some of them cheating – leading to the inevitable bar-room brawls and shoot-outs – while others long for the folks back home and take comfort in bible lessons. All of them however are in love with the only woman in the place, Minnie, who works at the Polka bar.

Unfortunately, Puccini can’t bring anything deeper than this out of the elements and the storyline is consequently little more than a basic love story that plays out between two pretenders for the barmaid’s hand, the sheriff Jack Rance, and newcomer Dick Johnson, who is reality is an outlaw known as Ramerrez. Puccini is of course the master of the love story, particularly the tragic love story where life throws almost insurmountable difficulties at an unexpected love that has just freshly blossomed, but while there is some clever use of metaphor for those sentiments in the mining occupation of the prospectors – the only treasure all of them want above all the gold in the mountains is Minnie’s love – the storyline elsewhere is fairly run of the mill, the drama being around whether it will be an outlaw who steals that particular “treasure” from the virginal Minnie.

Fanciulla

Puccini however attempts rather more sophistication in the music itself, modernising his writing, mindful of the impact of Wagner while at the same time keeping those familiar melodic traits and crescendos that hit the expected emotional high notes. If it’s not quite to the same depth or complexity in the characterisation of his romantic hero and heroine this time, and there are no memorable arias comparable with Tosca, La Bohème or Madama Butterfly, the singing does however manage to express a longing and an emotional life to the characters that would otherwise be invisible behind the tough, weathered exteriors of the hard-life and deprivations they have suffered being so far away from home, living in the hope of something better.

As Deborah Voigt acknowledged in the interview during the interval of The Met Live in HD broadcast, Minnie is consequently a rather more challenging singing and dramatic role, and not suited to the typical heroine of a Puccini opera. Voigt fits the bill well as Minnie, noted for her Strauss and Wagner roles, but having some of the gentler lyrical qualities of a Puccinian lyrical soprano. While the demands of the role and the performance took their toll on some of the high notes of the Act 1, Voigt hits the emotional force of all the key moments in Act 2 – where the opera really comes together – bringing out the full depth of Minnie’s personality while retaining the vulnerability of her position. Lucio Gallo reprises the role of sheriff Jack Vance that he performed for the rather camp Nikolaus Lehnhoff production at the Nederlandse Opera last year (reviewed on Blu-ray here), giving it a little more spice as the baritone baddie, all but twirling his moustache. Marcello Giordani sang the role of Dick Johnson well enough, but never made much of an impression otherwise.

I’ve never been totally sold on La Fanciulla del West as an opera – mainly on account of the rather simple and crude storyline – but it does represent an interesting stage in Puccini’s career and it does indeed have many fascinating musical aspects and melody lines that draw much more out of the work than is evident from the surface impressions given by the characters. La Fanciulla del West is perhaps a Puccini for those who don’t normally like Puccini, but without the usual sureties of a typical Puccini opera, it’s also consequently more difficult to make it work effectively. I haven’t seen a production I’ve been entirely happy with – though I’m sure it can be done – but, particularly in its impressive second Act, the Met’s 100th anniversary staging was a fine effort nonetheless.