Pertusi, Michele


GazzaLadraGioachino Rossini - La Gazza Ladra

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro 2007 | Lü Jia, Damiano Michieletto, Mariola Cantarero, Dmitry Korchak, Alex Exposito, Michele Pertusi, Paolo Bordogna, Kleopatra Papatheologou, Manuela Custer, Stefan Cifolelli, Cosmo Panozzo, Vittorio Prato, Matteo Ferrara | Dynamic

There’s an air of familiarity to Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie), and it’s not just the famous overture (reputedly dashed off the evening before the first performance) that is second in popularity only to the composer’s overture to William Tell, nor in this case is it anything to do with the composer’s habit of reusing his music for other compositions. What is familiar to the point of predictability in La Gazza Ladra (written in 1817 between La Cenerentola and Armida) is the manner in which its opera semiseria melodrama plotline plays out.

The plot of the opera is not dissimilar to other later and perhaps more obscure examples of that style – Halévy’s Clari, Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix, even Bellini’s La Sonnambula isn’t far off either – featuring and a couple of young lovers from differing classes in an Alpine/provincial setting whose hopes are thwarted by the one set of parents, who wish for a more suitable marriage for their son than to the peasant daughter of humble tenant farmers. Usually the purity and innocence of young woman in question is also unjustly maligned (‘mad scene’ optional at this point), only for the stain on her character resolved and tragedy averted in time for a happy ending. All this is the cause of much romantic reflection, lamenting and rejoicing in high-flown arias employing extravagant coloratura and stratospheric high notes.

La Gazza Ladra adheres closely to this model, but what differentiates it from other lesser examples of the opera semiseria is the fact that – obviously – it’s by Rossini, and being Rossini, the music is always melodically thrilling and inventive. The hook in this particular opera is of course that thieving magpie theme that flits through the opera musically, as well as the recognition of it as a playful dramatic theme, a deus ex machina element that pops in now and again to move the plot along and prevent it from getting bogged down in melodramatic excess. It helps if a production recognises this fact and never takes itself too seriously, but it also helps if you have singers who are capable of meeting the vocal demands and. Fortunately this production of La Gazza Ladra from the 2007 Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro mostly lives up to the invigorating tone of the work on both fronts.

GazzaLadra

A period staging won’t cut it in a modern context when the plot can be as stodgy and old-fashioned as this, even with Rossini’s music to enliven it. At the same time, it’s a mistake to get too clever, since the singers have enough on their plates with the extreme technical demands on their singing without being encumbered with elaborate acting and movements. Directed by Damiano Michieletto, this production – like most for this style of opera nowadays – goes for stylised colourful, minimalist, picture-book style imagery with no attempt at realism of locations, and theatrical costumes of no fixed period or style. There’s no grand concept either, though it does have a theme and some unusual touches – a grouping of all-purpose pipes that can be adapted to represent trees, pillars, cannons, prison bars, in the manner of Lepage’s Machine for the Met Ring – and there’s an acrobat dancer to play the part of the magpie, a playful touch that works quite well.

The singing is hit and miss, but by and large it’s a decent account of the opera. Mariola Cantarero is a fine Ninetta, with a lovely tone of voice that is more than capable of reaching all the notes and making them count. Dmitry Korchak has a nice tone of voice, but there’s little character in it and the demands of the Giannetto tenor role are a little beyond him. Alex Exposito is an excellent Fernando, his baritone not quite as strong as the role calls for, but he has a wonderful voice, sings well and, just as importantly, puts a great deal of character and feeling into the role of Ninetta’s conflicted father. Michele Pertusi plays Gottardo, the sleazy magistrate with the hots for the heroine – another convention of the genre and one that Pertusi, as a villainous bass, is well used to playing, and he plays up to the role reasonably well. The orchestra is conducted by Lü Jia give an excellent, lively and sympathetic account of the score, even if the detail of their work isn’t all that clear on this release.

For their first foray into High Definition, Dynamic’s upgrade of this 2007 production isn’t the greatest. Previously available on DVD, the Blu-ray is scarcely an improvement on the Standard Definition version in either video quality or sound. The quality itself isn’t bad, the image remaining colourful, but it’s soft and lacking in fine detail and there is mild movement blurring. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was an up-conversion of the same master used for the SD release. The audio, available in PCM 2.0, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS HD Master-Audio 5.1 is rather thin for the orchestration, but the singing is clear throughout. It should be noted however that all the singers are wearing microphones. The BD is also one of those that ‘loads’ and takes over your player, but I didn’t notice it causing any problems. Menus, pop-ups and subtitle selection all work fine. Region free, BD50, 1080i, subtitles in Italian, English, French, German and Spanish.

SonnambulaVincenzo Bellini - La Sonnambula

Royal Opera House, 2011 | Daniel Oren, Marco Arturo Marelli, Andreas Leisner, Celso Albelo, Eglise Gutiérrez, Elena Xanthoudakis, Michele Pertusi, Jihoon Kim, Elizabeth Sikora | Covent Garden, London - 2nd November 2011

It’s tempting to make excuses or a rationale for the limited musical arrangements and the somewhat contrived situation that leads to a melodramatic crisis in Bellini’s La Sonnambula. Updating the period and setting it in an Alpine sanatorium in the 1950s, influenced to some extent by Thomas Mann’s ‘The Magic Mountain‘, director Marco Arturo Marelli attempts to provide some psychological depth to the work, but in reality only confuses the issue further. Like most bel canto opera, it probably just better admitting that the only real reason for its scarcely credible plotline is to provide plenty of opportunities for virtuoso singing, and on that level alone, La Sonnambula – and indeed this production of it – more than justifies its existence.

For some commentators, it’s this simplicity that is in fact the key virtue of Bellini’s approach to the work. Its two act structure is a model of dramatic form, but it also reflects the simple attitudes that exist in its village-life setting in regard to the central issues, where a young woman Amina, is accused of infidelity to her fiancé Elvino on the eve of her wedding, having been found in the bedroom of a recently arrived stranger. Unaware that it’s her habit of sleepwalking that has led to her unfortunate night-time excursion, the opera’s theme then is based around the simple notion of purity as seen through the eyes of smalltown moralists who purport to uphold it yet question it in its sincerest form in Amina.

Judged purely on musical terms, you have to admit that Bellini gets it perfectly right. There’s not too much in the way of ambiguity in the characterisation or in the musical arrangements that underscore this straightforward conflict. Provided, that is, that you have a singer in the role of Amina with the kind of voice that can suggest simplicity and purity wronged and give it an air of authenticity in the ringing high notes and coloratura that express her innermost love for her husband-to-be and the sincerity of her intentions. And when you consider that this is a role for a Callas or a Sutherland, you can understand why it’s not as easy to pull off as it sounds.

Sonnambula

Fortunately, the Royal Opera House had two strong leads in Eglise Gutiérrez and Celso Albelo, both of whom were capable of reaching the extraordinary vocal challenges of the opera, even if they were both a little lacking in the charisma and the acting demands required to give their roles the kind of depth that Marco Arturo Marelli was undoubtedly looking for. There have been some criticisms of Gutiérrez’s Italian diction and the fact that her voice became increasingly thin on the high notes, both of which are true. Normally, I’d be inclined to regard such questions of technique as secondary in importance to the overall characterisation, but in the case of bel canto opera, characterisation is indeed subsidiary to the technique and is all about the singing. There are few enough singers in the history of opera, let alone around today, who are capable of meeting both demands in this kind of work however, so expectations surely need to be adjusted, and personally, I was impressed by how both leads met the challenges presented by this particular opera. No excuses need be made however for Elena Xanthoudakis as Lisa or Michele Pertusi as Count Rodolfo, both dramatically more convincing and dynamic as characters, both singing impressively, with real feeling for the work.

The use of chorus was also brilliantly employed. Choral work is not usually something you associate with bel canto opera – at least not until Verdi found a way of harnessing its possibilities as a means of popular expression – but it’s used here in just such a manner as the voice of public opinion, who watch and comment approvingly or disparagingly on everything that develops. Accordingly, they change with the wind, from “How could she, the faithless wench!” (I’m paraphrasing) and “How can this be anything but what it seems?” to “We always knew she was pure and true”. It’s realistic to the situation, but inevitably feels a little overstated, working contrary to the director’s intentions of giving the piece a realistic psychological or sociological treatment. So too, unfortunately, does the role of Elvino, whose change of heart and preparations to summarily dump Amina on their wedding day and marry Lisa instead is not only questionable, but his lack of faith in Amina is surely unforgivable.

A lot then depends on the dramatic twist to make it all work and fall into place, since it not only precipitates the drama, but also ultimately resolves it. Sleepwalking is an interesting notion that is worth exploring – the sleepwalker acting out unconscious inner thoughts and desires – but Marelli’s staging isn’t really able to do anything with it here in La Sonnambula, or make it any more dramatically convincing. There are no true human characteristics realistically expressed, no great revelations opened up, not even any real sympathy or comprehension shown along the way. Everything is as it appears and purely reactive to outward appearances.

Sonnambula

Which in a way sums up not only La Sonnambula, but this particular production as well. The score and the treatment here are perfectly in touch with its subject, the stage design impressive to look at and well-suited to the drama (if it isn’t able nonetheless to make the most of Amina’s famous perilous sleepwalking scene), and there’s genuine skill and talent evident on every level, but ultimately there’s no great depth to the work and it’s a disservice to the opera, the singers and to the audience to attempt to suggest that there’s anything more to La Sonnambula than is apparent on its enjoyably exquisite but hollow surface. That however, is more than good enough.

ComteOryGioachino Rossini - Le Comte Ory

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Juan Diego Flórez, Michele Pertusi, Joyce DiDonato, Stéphane Degout, Diana Damrau, Susanne Resmark, Monica Yunus | The Met: Live in HD - April 9, 2011

The big selling point of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s 2010/11 season has of course been the start of their new Ring cycle, the season opening with a technically impressive set and some wonderful singing for Wagner’s Das Rheingold, and it is due to end the season and prove the worth of its Ring cycle with the second instalment of the tetralogy Die Walküre later in the month. In between however, while there have been many highlights among the varied productions broadcast around the world live in HD, it’s undoubtedly been the bel canto operas that have stood out like sparkling little gems amidst the rather more solid fare of Boris Godunov, Don Carlo and Iphigénie en Tauride during the Met’s current season.

Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and Lucia de Lammermoor where however revivals of successful Met productions, with Anna Netrebko and Nathalie Dessay slipping almost effortlessly into roles that they can be relied upon to perform exceptionally well, but the challenges of producing Le Comte Ory by Rossini, the father of bel canto, are rather different. One of the final operas composed by Rossini in France, a year before he prematurely retired from opera writing in 1829, Le Comte Ory features some of the composer’s most challenging singing roles in a rather more sophisticated composition that would draw on arrangements from some of his earlier Italian operas. Less well-known than the more famous Rossini works, it’s not so much then that Le Comte Ory is a lesser work by any means, but rather that it’s only recently that singers of sufficient ability have been trained to tackle the formidable challenges that Le Comte Ory – and indeed many other bel canto operas that are currently undergoing revival – present.

We’re talking evidently of Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez, one of a very few tenors who can consistently hit and hold the High Cs and Ds littered throughout the minefields of operas like La Fille du Regiment and Le Comte Ory to catch out and expose tenors who are rather less nimble and lacking in the kind of stamina they demand. Receiving its first performance ever at the Met for these reasons, it is indeed difficult to imagine anyone else but Juan Diego Flórez being able to carry off the role of the Count off with any conviction. It’s not however just a matter of being able to find a lead tenor who can meets the demands of the opera, Le Comte Ory also presents challenging roles for soprano and mezzo-soprano, and with Diana Damrau and Joyce DiDonato being drafted in to form a remarkable trio, the Met can justifiably make excuses for waiting so long to be able to assemble a worthy cast for Rossini’s late masterpiece.

ComteOry

Even after these successful performances, whether the opera is a masterpiece or not is however still open to question. The plot of the comic opera, based on a one-act 1816 vaudeville written by Eugène Scribe and Charles-Gaspard Delestre-Poirson – who also produced the libretto for the opera – is not the most sophisticated. The story is little more than a Carry-on affair revolving around the activities of a notorious libertine who dons disguises in order to seduce as many of the women of the land as possible while their husbands are away fighting in the Crusades. In Act 1, wearing a long black flowing beard, he passes himself off as a wise hermit who dispenses advice to the women folk in exchange for offerings and one-on-one “consultations”. His ultimate aim is to bed the beautiful Countess Adèle, sister of the Count of Formoutiers, but he has a rival in the form of his own page, Isolier. His disguise rumbled by his own tutor, Ory regroups his forces and plans another assault on the women of the castle by disguising himself and his big bearded men as nuns on a pilgrimage.

The fact that Le Comte Ory is a comedy is in itself no reason why the opera can’t be great and reveal deeper truths about men, women, love and lust – Mozart’s operas with Da Ponte stand as testament to the deeper human urges and the tragic impulses that lie beneath them, expressed both through the music and the subtleties of the libretto. Le Comte Ory isn’t on the same level musically or in the libretto, but it is certainly a little more musically sophisticated than most other bel canto operas, and if the libretto doesn’t reveal any great truths or insights, the quality of the singing does at least raise it to another level. Flórez, unsurprisingly, is dazzling as the Count – even despite being up all the night previous to this performance and taking to the stage only a half hour after assisting his wife give birth – playing with verve and perfect comic timing, making it all look effortless yet consistently hitting all the high notes with not so much as a flutter or waver in tone. Diana Damrau was even more impressive as Adèle – her singing role equally if not even more challenging than that of the Count – adding colouratura and displaying impeccable legato in a performance that was not only technically flawless, but accompanied by fine, entertaining comic acting.

Despite having wonderfully written singing roles to demonstrate the exceptional singing ability and technique, the real test of the opera and its true brilliance is found however in the interaction of the singers, and in this respect, Flórez, Damrau and DiDonato formed a delightful team that fully justified the Met’s efforts to bring them together in this way. In this particular opera that close interaction is tested to its limit in a three-in-a-bed ménage-a-trois romp in Act II that not only lived up to the sauciness that was promised in the advance publicity for the opera – the scene exploiting the fact that DiDonato was in a trouser-role – but was as expertly orchestrated and choreographed as anything out of The Marriage of Figaro’s most complex mistaken identity denouements, with five to ten minutes of the most dazzlingly brilliant singing and entertainment delivered between the trio in the most tricky of acting situations. Simply stunning.

ComteOry

The stars all made their big impression then, but elsewhere they were well supported by a fine all-round production. Even though he explained the rationale behind the reduced scale of the production during his between act interview on the HD broadcast, I’m still not entirely clear why Bartlett Sher chose to stage the opera as a period opera staging-within-a-staging. It certainly put a little necessary comic distance between the theatricality of the old-style farce drama, but was also effective in allowing the performance to flow without long scene-change interruptions, which was ultimately to the benefit of the piece. The conducting of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the Chorus by Maurizio Benini similarly played to the strengths of the opera’s fast-paced rhythms, and there was fine singing and performances also by Susanne Resmark as Dame Ragonde, the castle stewardess, and Michele Pertusi as the tutor.