Bailly, Julie


ItalianaGioachino Rossini - L’Italiana in Algeri

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège, 2013 | Bruno Campanella, Emilio Sagi, Enkelejda Shkosa, Carlo Lepore, Daniele Zanfardino, Mario Cassi, Liesbeth Devos, Julie Bailly, Laurent Kubla | Grand Théâtre de Liège, 9 February 2013 - ARTE Live Web

The Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège have a good track record with Rossini and bel canto work, particularly on works that have a more comic edge. One of Rossini’s big melodramas or opera seria works would present a greater challenge and require some big guns to do it justice, but as they demonstrated most recently with the little known early Rossini opera L’Equivoco Stravagante, with a little bit of resource and imagination, there can be considerable colour and entertainment to be drawn out of the lighter Rossini dramma giocoso works. The requirements for L’Italiana in Algeri lie somewhere in-between. It’s a popular comedy, but like Il Barbiere di Sevilla it also requires a good balance between strong singers, comic timing and a sense of style or panache to really make it work. Liège do pretty well on all fronts in their latest production.

Director Emilio Sagi puts the emphasis of the production on style, and there’s good reason for that. Much of the comedy of L’Italiana in Algeri (An Italian Girl in Algiers) relies upon the premise of the exoticism and glamour of its Eastern setting, in the palace of Mustafà, the Bey of Algiers, with his seraglio of wives, slaves and eunuchs. The Bey however is tired of his wife Elvira and wants Haly, the captain of his corsairs, to procure an Italian wife for him, so the opera also has to present the idea of Italian style and women as being just as exotically attractive as a North African harem. You can of course make even that idea alone funny - and there’s lots of spaghetti eating here to play with that in the Pappataci scene - but the idea of Italian exoticism works best if you set it, as Emilio Sagi does here, in the glamorous age of the Dolce Vita of the 1960s.


The production achieves this impressively with the simplest of means. Enrique Bordolini’s sets provide a few pointed Byzantine arches to give a flavour of an Eastern palace, working with the colouration of Eduardo Bravo’s lighting and Renata Schussheim’s costume designs to make this a most attractive production that works perfectly with the playful tone of Rossini’s writing for L’Italiana in Algeri. There’s solid work from Bruno Campanella in the pit that is similarly well-attuned to the content. This is consequently a sophisticated Rossini production that emphasises how well the composer could bring his musical resources, his sense of structure and timing to bear to play out a series of entertaining and sometimes silly comic situations. It is not as raucously funny as it might be - some of the recitative is cut, reducing the effectiveness of the situation between Lindoro and Elvira - but the direction and the tone established in Sagi’s production is consistent and entertaining.

With only a few minor reservations, the casting is also excellent and certainly as good as it ought to be for this opera. Liège get the right balance of freshness from their regular Italian opera regulars for the secondary roles (solid performances from Julie Bailly, Liesbeth Devos and Laurent Kubla as Zulma, Elvira and Haly) and combine it with experienced singers in the more challenging main roles. Not so much Daniele Zanfardino - last seen in Liège’s production of Rossini’s L’Equivoco Stravagante - as Lindoro, but he has the right timbre of voice for a Rossini tenor, if not quite the strength or range. That’s not so much of an issue here, and he copes well with the demands of the role.

Much more critical to establishing the tone of the dramma giocoso is the range and the interplay between Isabella and the Bey, and the Royal Opéra de Wallonie had two excellent singers in these roles. Carlo Lepore’s singing is beautifully grave and musical, his bass working well alongside the other singers, round out in the duets and ensembles. In acting terms, his handling of Mustafa’s comic potential was also perfect, suitably commanding, faintly ridiculous and comically lecherous. He needs however a feisty Isabella to be a bit more spirited than the comparatively weak Elvira that he wants to get rid of, but she also has to be demanding enough to knock him into place, and that’s exactly what you got with Albanian mezzo-soprano Enkelejda Shkosa.

That’s about all you want from L’Italiana in Algeri - a sense of style, a little bit of exoticism, a bit of unstrained comedy and some good singing that doesn’t stand out or draw attention just for the sake of ornamentation. The latest Liège production to be broadcast via Internet Streaming, L’Italiana in Algeri can be enjoyed for free for the next few months on the ARTE Live Web site.

TraviataGiuseppe Verdi - La Traviata

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège, 2012 | Luciano Acocella, Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, Annick Massis, Xavier Cortes, Giovanni Meoni, Alexise Yerna, Cristiano Cremonini, Julie Bailly, Roger Joakim, Ziyan Atfeh, Patrick Delcour, Marcel Arpots, Iouri Lel, Marc Tissons | Live Internet Streaming, 26 April 2012

It’s almost becoming de rigueur for nudity and topless women to feature in opera productions these days, but up until Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera’s production for the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège, I’d never seen it done before in La Traviata. A popular repertory work, Verdi’s La Traviata is usually done in a straightforward traditional period manner, but Verdi - himself subject to gossip and rumour about his relationship with Giuseppina Strepponi at the time of writing the work - wanted the opera to challenge contemporary attitudes towards unconventional relationships, and the frank directness of the La Traviata was indeed quite shocking for its time. Now all we have to “shock” an audience is a flash of a topless woman. I don’t want to be seen to be making excuses for the practice, but you can see how it could be valid in the context of Verdi’s other shocker of this period, Rigoletto, where nudity featured during the orgies of the Duke of Mantua in David McVicar’s production at the Royal Opera House, and I suppose the same case could be made for La Traviata. When you think about it, Violetta Valéry’s profession as a courtesan - the “fallen woman” of the opera’s title, necessarily treated with circumspection due to censorship restrictions in Verdi’s time - is likewise often also delicately glossed over in stage productions. Not so here.

One could make a case then that the use of nudity in all three acts in the Liège production is not just there for shock or titillation, but that it’s relevant to the themes and tied in with the structure of La Traviata itself. Originally titled ‘Love and Death’ during its composition, these two themes are vital to the impact of the work and they are where Verdi places the most emphasis in his scoring, with Violetta considering the possibilities of true love in the beautiful ‘Ah, fors’è lui’ in Act I, and reflecting on her death in ‘Addio del passato’ in Act III. On their own, certainly, these pieces are strong enough to encompass the beauty, the tragedy and complexity of emotions that have been engendered in Violetta over the short period of her time with Alfredo, but if the staging can draw the attention of the audience to what is being expressed, then so much the better. In Act I then, the aria is set alongside beside the revelry of the guests on a huge bed during ‘Si ridesta in ciel l’aurora’, while in Act III, there is an echo of a reminder of these times as Violetta hears the revelry of party-goers from her death bed. Act II meanwhile uses the nudity effect of the “bella ritrosetta” (“saucy little beauty”) to emphasis the connection between Love and Death in the play of Gastone and the Bullfighters, which otherwise seems like a piece of entertainment unconnected with the work.

Traviata

Unfortunately, while there is relevance in how this all fits in with the opera and its themes - scored brilliantly by Verdi at his most melodic and inventive - there’s not a great deal else that stands out in the direction of this production, which struggles to find any interesting way to respond to the challenge of staging the familiar settings of the work. The first scene of Act II in particular really drags along. As heartfelt as the emotions are during the long scene between Violetta and Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont as he tries to persuade her to give up her love affair with his son for the sake of his reputation and his family, and as well sung as these key moments of appeal are from both sides here during ‘Pura siccome un angelo’ and ‘Ah, dite alla giovine’, they gain nothing from having the two principals sit at the front of the stage and sing out towards the audience. There needs to be a little more connection felt, or at least tension between them over their respective desires and fears, and that’s hard to achieve without some good stage direction.

Aside from the use of brief nudity, the other two acts and the second scene of Act II then are otherwise unexceptional, but the staging does at least serve its function reasonably well. Even if the budget doesn’t always stretch to elaborate sets and designs, the Opéra at Liège under the direction of Mazzonis di Pralafera, seem to me at least to always manage to include a few original touches that allow them to strike a strong balance between traditional theatricality and some personal character. There are a few other minor touches here - Alfredo clutching Violetta’s bloodstained white nightgown during the overture, the guests at the society parties seated as if to watching the unfolding of the latest theatrical developments in society - which are interesting without straining the traditional narrative too much. The same principal would apply, it would seem, to the casting of singers who more than meet the demands of the work if not perhaps with any great distinction. As Alfredo, Xavier Cortes sings well - clear, strong and resonant, and Giovanni Meoni is a grave and dignified Germont Snr., but neither bring any great interpretation to the roles and they don’t look like they have been given a great deal of acting direction either.

Traviata

Demonstrating however, in line with the rest of the production, that they know exactly the right places to place the emphasis, the performance of the orchestra under Luciano Acocella is marvellous and Annick Massis stands out as an exceptional Violetta Valéry. Even during the otherwise dull staging of the Germont/Violetta duets in Act II, the tempo and balance is considered throughout to give the performers the opportunity to really enter into the emotions of this critical scene. If the staging doesn’t work in favour of the singers there, elsewhere it has all the necessary impact, particularly in those aforementioned key moments of Act I and III, and their fine delivery by Annick Massis. She perhaps doesn’t have the fragile delicacy of Violetta in Act I, hitching up her skirt, hopping on a table with a glass of champagne and kicking off her shoes for her ‘Sempre libera’, but it captures the nature of the extraordinary new sensations awakened within her and it’s sung with strength, passion and character. On the flipside of those emotions, her ‘Addio del passato’ is filled with all the longing and heartrending emotion that likewise underpins the strength of the third Act. It’s a superb performance.

If the Opéra Royal de Wallonie’s production then doesn’t always demonstrate great originality, it does nonetheless manage to find its own character within the limitations of the setting, but more significantly, it knows exactly where to place the emphasis for the maximum impact and it takes great care with the casting to ensure that those moments can be achieved. With Annick Massis as an impressive Violetta Valéry, particularly strong in the Act III conclusion, and with Luciano Acocella directing the orchestra through a terrific performance that draws all those considerable qualities out of Verdi’s great score, this production, broadcast live via the website of the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège, amounted to a very fine and occasionally impressive La Traviata.

EquivocoGioachino Rossini - L’Equivoco Stravagante

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège, 2012 | Jan Schultsz, Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, Sabina Willeit, Daniele Zanfardino, Enrico Marabelli, Laurent Kubla, Julie Bailly, Daniele Maniscalchi | Live Internet Streaming, 28 February 2012

Written when the composer was only nineteen years of age, Rossini’s third opera L’Equivoco Stravagante (“The Curious Misunderstanding”), a drama giocoso, premiered in Bologna in 1811, playing only for three performances before it was banned by the police. It hasn’t been performed very many times in the intervening 200 years, so it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to see this rare early Rossini opera performed at the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège (via internet streaming during its run there in February 2012), see it performed so well, and have the chance to consider the curious nature of the work and its history.

One thing that is immediately evident from this production is that even at this very early stage, the Rossini style is immediately recognisable in L’Equivoco Stravagante. It romps along with jaunty melodies and individual arias, the arrangements gradually building up to entertaining group finales with tricky vocal deliveries that match the content of the comic drama. The drama itself is, depending on your viewpoint, the typical nonsense of Italian opera buffa or a delightful farce, but it’s one that in this case is particularly outrageous – the material controversial enough to have the work censured and banned. Initially, it seems straightforward, the usual romantic complications ensuing from a situation where a wealthy landowner, Gamberotto, hoping to make a suitable marriage for his daughter – ie. one that is beneficial towards elevating his social position – has promised the hand of Ernestina to the wealthy but stupid Buralicchio. Ernestina has another suitor, Ermanno, but the penniless and timid young man would seem to have little chance of winning the favour of the bookish young woman, or persuading her father that he would make a good match.

Equivoco

That’s until the servant Frontino, hoping to assist Ermanno in his endeavours, comes up with an outrageous idea that is to lead to the “curious misunderstanding” of the opera’s title and, as it happens, the idea that also would lead to the work being banned. Buralicchio is fooled into believing that Ernestina is actually a man, Ernesto, the castrated son of Gamberotto, who only dresses as a woman as a means of evading military service. Buralicchio, incredibly, buys this rather implausible suggestion (he is extremely stupid after all), but when the military forces turn up at the Gamberotto household looking for the army deserter, it looks like Frontino’s plan could have backfired (and the composer’s when the police similarly brought down the curtain on the opera itself) .

Whether the libretto, by Gaetano Gasbarri, is as funny as it is supposed to be is difficult to say – there is a great deal of play on words and double meanings in the original Italian, but there were no subtitles on the performance of this production that I viewed when broadcast through the Opéra Liège web streaming service. The subject itself however is risqué enough, taking on two subjects that would have been controversial for its time through suggestions of castration (which was illegal), and dealing with desertion from the army. Without the ability to follow the original Italian libretto, it’s hard to say therefore whether the plot and libretto of L’Equivoco Stravagante is as funny as it is supposed to be or whether it’s just plain silly. All I can go on is the performances, and while they are all entertaining to watch and listen to, it’s obvious that the characters are broad buffo types – none of them particularly bright, and none of them entirely what they appear to be on the surface.

Equivoco

What is evident however, brought out particularly in the fine production by Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera which sets it in Hollywood during the 1920s or 1930s, is that there is some amount of social satire here on the class pretensions of the nouveau riche. The setting, in a Hollywood mansion adorned with fine art and a swimming pool at least makes that aspect of the aspirations for glamour and status from the non-hereditary wealthy more evident than it would have been if it were set during the Napoleonic era in which it was written, but it also means that the production looks wonderful. The casting is also good for the necessary appearances, and the singers, without exception, are marvellously adept at the buffo roles, as well as singing this particular work with the requisite Rossinian spirit and verve. Like most works of this type, it can be dramatically rather static on the stage, but the director and cast do their best to keep it all highly entertaining, as does the terrific performance of the music score by the Orchestra of the Opéra Royal de Wallonie under the musical direction of Jan Schultsz.