Opéra Royal de Wallonie


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.

StradellaCésar Franck - Stradella

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège 2012 | Paolo Arrivabeni, Jaco Van Dormael, Marc Laho, Isabelle Kabatu, Werner van Mechelen, Philippe Rouillon, Xavier Rouillon, Giovanni Iovino, Patrick Mignon, Roger Joakim | ARTE Live Web, Internet Streaming

The choice of opera for the Opéra Royal de Wallonie’s 2012-13 season at the restored Théâtre Royal in Liège was an unusual one. Stradella is an unfinished work by César Franck - better known for his symphonic writing and pieces for the piano and organ - written in 1842 when the composer was just 15 years old and only rediscovered in 1984. There may not be too many classic Belgian opera composers to choose from, much less one who was actually born in Liège, but in the event, the production team and the completion of the orchestration by composer Luc Van Hove filled out the sweep of Franck’s lush Romanticism to make something more of this otherwise relatively slight work in its first ever staging. Directed by filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael (Toto le Héro), with some strong singing performances, it was moreover an appropriately near all-Belgian opening production and as such a memorable way to mark the occasion.

The plot of Stradella is relatively simple and unburdened with anything like psychological motivation or even depth of character. The Duke of Pesaro has ordered his lieutenant Spadoni to abduct the beautiful maiden Leonor in the middle of the Carnival in Venice. Having locked her away in his mansion, the Duke tries to win her love by employing the famous singer Stradella to woo her, unaware that Stradella and Leonor are actually an item. As well as being one mighty coincidence, one would think the Duke might have taken some time to investigate Leonor’s love-life, but as I say, such details seem to be of little concern to the young Franck, who instead focuses his attention on exploring the romantic tragedy aspects that this situation gives rise to. Franck’s symphonic scoring is certainly influenced by Wagner to some extent, but the composer clearly favours the more melodic approach of Gounod - Faust sounding like an influence in the ‘À demain‘ duet between Stradella and Leonor early in the first act before the abduction - and it bears a close relation with the composer’s near-contemporary Massenet in this regard.

With an abundance of water on the stage that on occasion tended to get in the way of the performance, the production certainly favoured spectacle over musical or dramatic integrity. It was dramatically justified to some extent by the opera’s Venetian Carnival setting of the opera, but the fact that just about everyone was kitted out in wetsuits or wearing Macs and carrying umbrellas should tell you that there was rather a lot more water than was strictly necessary both on the stage itself - the singers wading waist deep in it for most of the performance - but also in the English summer amount of rain (yeah, that much!) falling from the skies for long sections of the performance. Vincent Lemaire’s sets looked spectacular however, creating a fabulous atmosphere, but it was also more than a little noisy - particularly in one or two scenes from the First Act when Leonor is abducted by the Duke’s men from a canal in the middle of a thunderous downpour. It did however, particularly in the brilliantly staged finale with a floating fish, come over as something of an impressive technical achievement.

The deluge of water (45,000 litres apparently) and the design of the sets however had something of an absorbing effect or dampening of the sound (in more ways than one!) that didn’t really show off the acoustics of the theatre or allow the musical qualities of the work to carry, and it certainly did no favours to the singers who had to remain semi-submerged in it for the entire length of the work. Soprano Isabelle Kabatu had the necessary range and depth for the role of Leonor, but struggled nonetheless on one or two occasions to rise above the stage noise and the orchestration. There were so such problems for the Belgian lyric tenor Marc Laho however, who let none of the bizarre stage directions get in the way of a well-delivered performance, his singing clear and resonant with lovely tone, expression and diction. Bass-baritone Werner van Mechelen was a worthy counterpart to Laho’s Stradella as the Duke’s lieutenant Spadoni, but other than wearing a surreal floating cape borne aloft by black balloons Philippe Rouillon didn’t really make a strong enough impression as the Duc de Pesaro.

Under the musical direction of Paolo Arrivabeni and artistic direction of Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, this was overall an impressive gathering of Belgian opera talent for an interesting and eye-catching opener to the 2012-13 season at the Théâtre Royal in Liège following their ambitious run at the temporary Palais Royal venue last year. Franck’s recently rediscovered early opera doesn’t prove to be a major work by any means, but it’s a lovely little piece nonetheless and a fascinating addition to the French-Belgian repertoire.

Recorded on the 25 and 27th of September 2012, Stradella was viewed via an internet streaming broadcast on the ARTE website, where it can still be viewed - in French language, with no subtitles - up until October 2013.

ManonJules Massenet - Manon

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège, 2012 | Patrick Davin, Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, Silvia Vázquez, Ismaël Jordi, Massimiliano Gagliardo, Marcel Vanaud, Guy de Mey, Roger Joakim, Alexise Yerna, Sabine Conzen, Marie-Laure Coenjaerts | Live Internet Streaming, 20 June 2012

Manon is all about the impetuosity and the folly of youth, the love of the glamour of the here and now, living in the moment, wanting it all, making mistakes along the way and taking all that comes with it with no regrets. That at least is how it is for Manon Lescaut herself, a 16 year-old about to enter a convent and about to see those delicious possibilities put forever out of reach. For Chevalier des Grieux, the young student who sees her, falls in love with her and sweeps her away to Paris, there’s evidently some of the same youthful impetuosity, but he also has dreams and illusions about the future in a manner that isn’t quite compatible with the ambitions of Manon, and it’s in the conflict of their ideals and their experience with the realities of the world that ends up destroying the brief period of their little idyll - the innocence of youth is fleeting - and ultimately leads to tragedy.

The setting isn’t that important then, since these are universal characteristics and their consequences are all too recognisable and inevitable. What is important as far as making Massenet’s opera work on the stage is finding the right tone that captures that sense of youthful idealism, flightiness, inconstancy, innocence and flirtatiousness in the first half that develops into something darker and more substantial in the second. On that account, the orchestra of the Opéra Liège, if perhaps a little sluggish in some earlier parts of the opera, give an overall fine account of Massenet’s deceptively light five-act opera-comique in this new production for the Opéra Royal de Wallonie, conductor Patrick Davin guiding them particularly well through in the darker passions of the latter half.

Manon must be seen as a journey in this respect, and if the first half feels slight, that’s how Massenet composed it, with its real strength and beauty only becoming apparent by the time we get to the conclusion. It’s undoubtedly with this in mind that Liège’s current director in residence Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera structures the production to come around in a full circle, the Prologue and initial scene of Act 1 opening where the opera closes, with Manon and des Grieux meeting again at Le Havre and looking back over the happiness of their time together, the past initially behind a screen but gradually coming to life again as if it has all been ‘relived’ by Manon in her final moments at the end of Act 5. The flashback idea is by no means an original one - there was even a hint of it in Mazzonis di Pralafera’s last production for Liège, La Traviata - but there is a valid reason for it here that is echoed in the repeated musical references at the end of both works, that is vital for tying the whole work together, blending the joy with the tragedy in a manner that makes the journey all the more significant. It’s a typically perceptive response to the work on the part of Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, and it’s one that helps carry the weaker elements in the production - although, really, there are few of those in this excellent production.

There’s at least not much to be concerned about as far as the singing is concerned. Manon demands two strong and capable singers of absolute conviction and the casting of two young Spanish singers, Silvia Vázquez and Ismaël Jordi, certainly meets those requirements admirably. Both need to be capable of conveying that sense of youthful innocence and wonder, capable of being swept off their feet by the discovery of new sensations, caught up in the glamour of themselves and the possibilities open to them. They both however need to be capable of demonstrating a deeper emotional register for the second half of the work, and again, there are no serious failings there. As Manon Lescaut, Silvia Vázquez has a strong enough voice and is capable of hitting all the emotional and vocal requirements, only sounding slightly out of pitch at the highest points. She carries the transformation of Manon from the impetuous youth of Act 1 to social butterfly on the Cour-la-reine promenade in Act 3 with the absolute conviction necessary.

Ismaël Jordi, who impressed me in the alternate cast for the Liceu’s 2011-12 production of Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix, again shows himself to be a terrific up-and-coming lyric tenor as des Grieux here. His acting isn’t always the strongest, but some responsibility for this must go to the director, who, like his La Traviata, doesn’t always find something for the principals to do other than project out to the audience. When you are getting singing however like Jordi’s Act 3 ‘Je suis seul! …Ah fuyez, douce image!‘, as fine a rendition of Manon and des Grieux’s duet ‘N’est-ce plus ma main‘ and as powerful a scene as the one here between des Grieux and his father - wonderfully sung by Marcel Vanaud - those concerns are rendered relatively minor by the quality of the vocal expression of the sentiments the characters are experiencing.

It’s actually in this magnificent performance of the second scene of Act 3 that you can really see the production and the qualities of the structure and singing start to come together, reflecting the strengths of the work itself. Placing the single interval in the middle of Act 3 proves to be most effective in this regard, as there is a natural separation there between the different tones of the two halves of the opera. The sets and costumes are, for the most part, functional, never really establishing any unique character but, always busy with characters, chorus and extras, it works perfectly well for the purposes of the work with the overall structure of the piece. It’s well enough designed however so that the first three acts flow together with scarcely a pause for a scene change, which is quite a feat. One might like a bit more time to get to know the characters and enjoy the scenes - I think there may have been a few careful cuts in the dialogue passages here and there - but in a way it reflects the rush of youth, and, in the end, you come back to see these scenes through the light of experience later, which is perfectly appropriate and indeed well-considered for achieving the maximum impact, the opera ending powerfully with Manon returning to ‘notre petite table‘ of Act 2.

Manon is the final free Live Internet Streaming Broadcast of the Opéra Royal de Wallonie at Liège’s 2011-12 season at the temporary structure of the Palais Opéra while renovation work is being carried out at the Théâtre Royal. Recordings are available to view again in full on the Dailymotion site for one weekend, usually a few weeks after the initial broadcast. The 2012-12 Season, recently announced on their web-site, has a great deal to look forward to on their return to the main opera house, including Verdi’s I Due Foscari and rarely performed works by César Franck and André-Modeste Grétry.

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.

Vera CostanzaFranz Joseph Haydn - La Vera Costanza

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège 2012| Jesús López-Cobos, Elio De Capitani, Federica Carnevale, Andrea Puja, Arianna Donadelli, Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani, Cosimo Panozzo, Elier Munoz, Gianluca Margheri | Live Internet Streaming - 31 January 2012

Watching this delightful production by the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège of a rarely performed 1779 opera by Franz Joseph Haydn, a romantic comedy of amorous and unfaithful aristocrats mixing with the lower classes, it’s difficult not to be reminded of several of the works of Mozart – a contemporary of Haydn – and it’s inevitable that one is going to drawn to make comparisons. The verdict is never going to be in Haydn’s favour, but living in the shadow of Mozart has always been Haydn’s fate, the genius of the younger man recognised and admired even by Haydn himself. Taken on its own terms however, particularly when viewed in such a production that gets right to the heart of the wonderful interplay between the music and the drama, La Vera Costanza has much to recommend.

Commissioned as Kapellmeister to Prince Eszterházy, the composer in residence at the family’s palatial Einsenstadt residence, was something of a blessing and a curse for Haydn. Coming from a humble background, the post gave Haydn the security and freedom to compose some great works, but he and those works remained largely out of the eye of the Viennese public, many of them created in isolation for the entertainment of the Eszterházy court. As a consequence of this arrangement, Haydn never developed the kind of dramatic or musical instinct of someone like Mozart, who – to his cost – refused such kept positions, but by the same token Haydn never had the opportunity to work with a librettist of the quality of Lorenzo Da Ponte, or with material as explosive and revolutionary as that of Beaumarchais.

La Vera Constanza doesn’t perhaps then have the satirical bite of Mozart’s best work in this genre – The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni or Così Fan Tutte – but it can hold its ground to rather more lightweight and conventional treatment of questions of romantic constancy and fidelity as they are played out in something like Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail, Hadyn’s work having more than its own share of beautiful arrangements and charming melodies that are characteristic of the composer. The plot of La Vera Costanza is certainly dramatically contrived, opening with a conventional storm and gratuitous shipwreck that brings the Baroness Irene and her party to the fishing village of Rosina and her brother Masino. The Baroness wants to put an end to an improbable romance between the humble fisherwoman, Rosina and her nephew the Count Errico, and plots to marry her off to the Villotto, who is fabulously rich, but rather ugly and foppish. She is unaware however that Rosina and Errico have already been married in secret, but that he has now abandoned her, without knowing that she has had a child by him.

Costanza

The opera then reveals these ties across the course of its three acts, with stirring emotional journeys along the way where the fidelity and love of one or other of the parties is doubted and agonised over, and with a few additional complications thrown in by the machinations of the Baroness, her consort Ernesto – a noble who wants to marry the Baroness by winning her favour – and by Villotto. Even Errico, doubting the fidelity of the woman he has abandoned, at one point plots to have Rosina murdered by Villotto, only to immediately repent when appraised of her true constancy (“la vera costanza”) by the maid Lisetta. There are no great surprises in other words, it’s all laid out in a conventional manner, set to lovely arias and musical arrangements, and all the complications are eventually ironed out without feathers getting overly ruffled.

The approach to the staging under the direction of Elio De Capitani then is best summed up in a brief interview given during the Internet live-streaming broadcast by assistant director, Clovis Bonnaud. When asked whether the class satire of the opera had any relevance to today, his response is a straight, emphatic and unelaborated, “No”. La Vera Costanza is not the kind of opera then that bears up well to reworking or modern revision – it’s firmly of an old tradition, written as an entertaining diversion and nothing more. Here, at Liège, it looks like, is dressed like, and plays like a colourful pantomime, with attractive set designs that transforms beautifully in Act II to a forest for Errico to be an Orpheus rescuing his Eurydice, and imaginatively uses drops of the Baroness’ forged letters to “tie the knot” again between Errico and Rosina, who have seen through them. It all looks lovely, perfectly suited to the material and the singers clearly have a lot of fun with it, falling into the rhythm measured by conductor Jesús López-Cobos that dictates their movements, gestures and delivery.

Costanza

It helps also that the cast are almost entirely made up of fresh, new, young singers and this kind of opera gives them the perfect opportunity to test their ability, gain experience and show what they can do, and all of them enter fully into the spirit of the piece. It’s an opera that is designed to showcase individual talents, each of the principals given the opportunity to deliver charming arias, but there’s nothing too demanding or extravagant. Some trims to remove excess repetition helps also to make the piece work for a modern audience. The opera was very well-sung and performed at Liège, Federica Carnevale in particular singing Rosina’s arias with heartfelt sincerity and charm, Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani’s bringing a sympathetic touch to the otherwise fickle Errico, with Gianluca Margheri enlivening proceedings and presenting a good sense of comic timing in his singing and performance as Villotto. As with another recent production of a rare Haydn opera – Il Mondo della Luna – it just shows how well a youthful freshness and vitality can serve these kind of little-known and somewhat out-of-fashion works.

La Vera Costanza was broadcast live on the Internet from the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège on 31 January 2012 and rebroadcast from 10th – 12th February 2012. The next free live internet broadcast from the opera house is a rare early Rossini opera, L’Equivoco stravagante on Tuesday, February 28, 2012.  See the Opéra Liège live web page for details.

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.