Pizzi, Pier Luigi


GiocondaAmilcare Ponchielli - La Gioconda

Opéra National de Paris, 2013 | Daniel Oren, Pier Luigi Pizzi, Violeta Urmana, Luciana D’Intino, Orlin Anastassov, María José Montiel, Marcelo Álvarez, Claudio Sgura | Viva l’Opéra Cinema Live in HD, 13 May 2013

Ponchielli’s La Gioconda is a work that seems ideal for the French lyric stage, but although written in 1876, it has never been performed before at the Paris Opera. Watching it via cinema broadcast from the Opéra National de Paris in its first ever production there, a few reasons come to mind why this work of undoubted quality hasn’t been performed more often. Firstly, it probably falls into the same category as Meyerbeer’s operas, works that are a bit old-fashioned and overly ornate, their melodramatic content too exaggerated with Grand Operatic mannerisms for the tastes of a modern audience. Ponchielli was a contemporary of Verdi, but perhaps more significantly, Puccini was one of his pupils and the verismo style of the next generation of Italian composers undoubtedly played a large part in consigning many of the absurdities of the old style to the past.

The other reason La Gioconda perhaps hasn’t been performed more often is probably for much the same reason that the bel canto repertoire fell into neglect for almost a century - it really takes exceptional singers of personality and stature to really bring its qualities to life. It’s no surprise that the last time the work enjoyed popularity was when it was performed by Maria Callas and by Renata Tebaldi in the 1950s, but it’s rarely been heard since then. I wouldn’t say that Violeta Urmana is in the category of the world’s greatest sopranos, even by contemporary standards, but she certainly attacked the role with passion and distinction here in the Paris Opera’s production. What the Paris La Gioconda revealed however is that the work doesn’t just rely on the quality of the soprano singing the title role, but that there are five other difficult and challenging roles that it is essential to get right. Here, the Paris production was less convincing.

The set design for the opera’s Venetian locations at least looked terrific. Pier Luigi Pizzi creates the kind of typical big, bold design in primary colours that works so well at the Bastille, and works particularly well for this work. The action in the first two acts takes place on a piazza in Venice, and that’s recreated here well in Pizzi’s neo-classical style with canals and gondolas that seem to float naturally along them. A good sense of space is also created with bridges that serve to bring the choruses and the principals onto the scene. It’s all rendered in black and red, with a bright background that sets it in silhouette against a blazing sunset over the lagoon. The latter two acts simplify the design to a series of steps that allow space for the work’s most famous centrepiece, the Dance of Hours ballet, while also creating the necessary space for the focus to remain on the dramatic developments of the denouement. The set looks good and it functions well with the requirements of the drama.

The acting direction however is simply dreadful. Rarely do the singers interact with one another, but rather they pace up and down the stage in an old-fashioned style, directing their performance out to the audience. Once again, Marcelo Álvarez is the worst culprit. He’s a fine singer, but he has no sense of character and plays every role in exactly the same declamatory way, striking a pose, one arm stretched out, hand clasped in a fist and then swung into his chest, his delivery pitched at the back of the gallery with big gestures so that the audience can see the sincerity of his emotions. It looks even more ridiculous in close-up in a filmed performance. La Gioconda’s ripe melodrama, it has to be said however, does call out for this kind of performance from Enzo, and Álvarez has clearly been encouraged to play it to the hilt.

The other male roles could use this kind of energy and conviction, but it wasn’t much in evidence in Claudio Sgura’s Barnaba or Orlin Anastassov’s Alvise. Barnaba is an out-and-out villain, the scheming jealous mastermind who manipulates all of the characters, but is unable nonetheless to achieve the one thing he wants - making La Gioconda love him. It’s not particularly strong characterisation - Arrigo Boito’s libretto isn’t as refined here as it is for Verdi’s later works (although some of that may be to do with Victor Hugo’s source since Barnaba is no Iago) - but Sgura isn’t strong enough for the vocal demands that might make him more convincing. Even if his actions are equally villainous, Alvise is perhaps a little more nuanced in character, but it would require a singer with more acting ability than Orlin Anastassov to bring it out.

These are extremely difficult roles to sing however, almost as challenging in their range and expression as the writing for the character of La Gioconda, and what the work really needs then to really achieve its impact is six strong singers. The female singers thankfully fared rather better than the male roles. Violeta Urmana’s top notes aren’t particularly beautiful and getting up there is not a smooth process, but her interpretation has all the passion and strength of character required here and she copes exceptionally well with a very challenging role. Luciana D’Intino also sings Laura well, and the two ladies stand-off in Act II over who loves Enzo more was, as it ought to be, one of the highlights of the evening.

Laura: I challenge your heart, o rival! Gioconda: You blaspheme! Laura: You lie! I love him as the light of Creation. Like the air that enlivens the breath. Like the heavenly and blessed dream from which came my first sigh. Gioconda: I love him as the lion loves blood and the whirlwind its flight. And lightning its peaks, and halcyons the whirlpools and the eagle the sun!.

This is a prime example of the kind of ripe and floridly over-written lines that the singers are expected to deliver in La Gioconda, so full credit to Violeta Urmana for being able to sing “I love him as the lion loves blood” and being able to convincingly look as if she could eat her rival alive as well. Urmana’s scenes with her blind mother La Ciega are also excellent throughout on account of another strong performance from María José Montiel.

La Gioconda might be a work of a bygone age and the Paris Opera might not have made a totally convincing case that it can be staged well, but there are a couple of reasons why Ponchielli’s work has the ability to endure. One is the beautiful and famous Dance of Hours ballet sequence, which was exceptionally well-choreographed here and impressively performed, even if it wasn’t particularly in context with the rest of the work. With gold-coloured topless male and female lead dancers, it looked more like something from the Crazy Horse on the other side of town.

The other reason is the final fourth Act, which fully lives up to the contrived melodrama of the previous scenes. La Gioconda is a surprisingly dark work - and it’s in this you can see the impact the Ponchielli would have on the next generation of Italian verismo composers - with what little romance there is in it is tainted by jealousy, bitterness and hatred with one of the bleakest and unforgiving endings in an opera prior to Puccini’s Tosca. If the singing couldn’t always reach those heights, the full power of the work’s qualities were at least brought out in a terrific performance by the Paris Orchestra conducted with true dramatic energy by Daniel Oren.

GiornoGiuseppe Verdi - Un giorno di regno

Teatro Regio di Parma, 2010 | Donato Renzetti, Pier Luigi Pizzi, Guido Loconsolo, Andrea Porta, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Alessandra Maranelli, Ivan Magri, Paolo Bordogna, Ricardo Mirabelli, Seung Hwa Paek | C-Major

Popular wisdom would have it that Verdi was not entirely at home in the genre of comic opera, and history more or less backs this up. You could say that it took him all his life to get to the stage where he was capable of bringing the full wealth of his talent and ability to the genre in his magnificent final work, Falstaff. It’s possible also though that it took that length of time for Verdi to get over the abject failure of his first attempt at comic opera writing with his second work, written when he was 26 years old - Un giorno di regno.

A ‘melodramma giocoso in due atti‘ - a comic melodrama in two acts - there are indeed some operatic conventions found in Un giorno di regno that one would not associate with the typical Verdi opera (harpsichord-accompanied recitative!), but unfortunately - in as much as they prove to be inappropriate for comic writing - there are also touches that are very much characteristic of the composer. In Verdi’s hands neither prove helpful to the making the opera work, but a strong stage production and good singing at this very rare performance of Un giorno di regno at the Teatro Regio di Parma make this a fascinating experience even if it can’t quite go as far as rescuing the reputation of Verdi’s early failure.

There’s not much one can do however about the fact that the comedy element of Un giorno di regno is really not that funny in the first place. Set in France, around 1733, the Chevalier Belfiore is staying at the Château of Baron Kelbar in the guise of Stanislas, King of Poland, while the real Stanislas secretly leaves the country to return to defend his throne. Belfiore wants to drop the disguise as soon as possible, since the baron is about marry his widowed niece, the Marquise del Poggio, to Count Ivrea. Belfiore is in love with the Marquise, but since he has disappeared to take on the role of Stanislas, she believes that he has abandoned her - although the king looks strangely familiar to her. To add further confusion to the romantic complications, the baron has planned for a double wedding to marry his daughter Giuletta to the Treasurer, La Rocca. Giuletta however is in love not with La Rocca, but with his nephew Edoardo, who loves her in return, but is poor and therefore an unsuitable match.

It’s a standard comic set up of the romantic complications that arise from arranged marriage mismatches and secret or hidden identities of characters in disguise. The twist in Un giorno di regno, which could be translated as ‘King for a Day’, is that Belfiore realises that he can take advantage of the powers that he has been temporarily gifted with on the blessing of Stanislas, and has the ability to make some royal commands and appointments that will sort out the business between Giuletta and Edoardo. As for his own romantic situation, well, he can only hope that his “reign” will end in time for him to reveal his true identity and claim the hand of the Marquise.

It’s not a plot that is entirely bereft of comic potential. Rossini had to make much out of thinner material than this, and Verdi seems to have at least learned that much from Rossini, scoring with vigorous arrangements that build in tempo towards explosive ensemble finales. Verdi however lacks Rossini’s lightness of touch, and what would be an amiably riotous situation in a Rossini opera, rises into a rousing bombastic declamation in Verdi’s hands. While it’s fascinating to see just how Verdi develops those situations in his own distinctive way - particularly with a view to what comes later in the composer’s career - they prove however to somewhat work against the comic potential. In one scene, for example, where the young love has been frustrated by the plans of others for personal and political gain, you can hear Verdi straining for the melancholy tragedy of Don Carlos or La Traviata, instead of playing up the comic element of the contrast between La Rocca drawing up military plans while the real “enemy”, Edoardo, woos his intended Giuletta. The music is gorgeous and cleverly arranged, but it doesn’t really establish the right kind of buffo tone that is required by the situation.

Neither really does the stage direction. The best thing you can say about Pier Luigi Pizzi’s direction is that it is unobtrusive and doesn’t draw attention to itself in any way that detracts from the musical drama. It’s generically ‘opera’ period in design and costumes, with columns, bookcases and tables that reflect the mansion locations and gardens, and it’s well arranged as far as putting figures into the right places and keeping the dramatic action flowing without too much standing around going on. It doesn’t however attempt to add anything to the comic situations that might enhance or even improve the weaknesses in Verdi’s musical direction. The stage direction gets the balance right to the extent that it flows along wonderfully without it ever jarring in any way, taking you along with the flow, but it’s not particularly adventurous and this opera could use an injection of a little more humour.

Fortunately, the singing is all-around terrific, giving as fine an account of the work as you could hope for. The younger singers come over best, Alessandra Maranelli’s sweet sounding mezzo-soprano and Ivan Magri’s strong but lyrical Edoardo working well together, finding a good balance between the Verdi sound and the Rossinian. The others however are just as good - Guido Loconsolo as Belfiore, Andrea Porta as Baron Kelbar, Anna Caterina Antonacci as the Marquise and Paolo Bordogna as La Rocca, all managing to bring a degree of character to their roles, singing well, working with each other and with the comic-timing of the piece.

Un giorno di regno is the second release in the ‘Tutto Verdi’ series from C-Major, a collection that is made up of performances of all Verdi’s opera work recorded at the Teatro Regio di Parma. Some trailers for other works in the collection are included on the disc, as well as a visual introduction/synopsis for Un giorno di regno. The quality of the HD image and sound - in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 - is marvellous. The Blu-ray is all-region, with subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.

ButterflyGiacomo Puccini - Madama Butterfly

Sferisterio Opera Festival Macerata, 2009 | Daniele Callegari, Pier Luigi Pizzi, Raffaella Angeletti, Massimiliano Pisapia, Annunziata Vestri, Claudio Sgura, Thomas Morris, Enrico Cossutta, Enrico Iori, Nino Batatunashvili | Unitel Classica - C-Major

I know it’s one of the most performed and most popular crowd-pleasers in the opera repertoire, I’ve heard it and seen it performed any number of times (usually in a fairly traditional staging), I know that, derived from a piece of popular theatre by David Belasco, it’s emotionally manipulative, racially stereotypical, riddled with cliché with little cultural authenticity or ethnic realism – but I still won’t hear a bad word said about Madama Butterfly. Even in its most unadventurous and traditional of stagings Madama Butterfly just works. You might not buy the story for a second, but Puccini’s score makes you want to believe it is real, and he does so convincingly.

I won’t have anything bad said about Puccini either. Easy listening it may be, and unchallenging to some, but familiarity hasn’t made his work any less impressive for me, but rather every listening, every new production of his operas, reveals something new about the structure, the composition of his works, his ability to build a scene and hit you exactly the right way at exactly the right moment for maximum impact – and not necessarily in a deliberately calculated or manipulative way, but truthfully, with every sentiment perfectly balanced and weighted. Even now, with the availability on CD and DVD of a much wider range of composers and rare compositions, Puccini’s brilliance never wanes, but rather, one can see how he is the culmination of a long line of a tradition of Italian opera, who is able to draw from the lyricism of bel canto and combine it with the melodrama of Verdi, but also, in his later works, show an influence or awareness of Wagner in his approach to dramatic structuring. Puccini is undoubtedly one of the masters.

So perfect an opera is Madama Butterfly moreover, that it doesn’t need any modern revisionism or high concept staging. It already works on multiple levels – like all Puccini’s work – and if you want it to see it as a straightforward clash between Japanese and American culture that inevitably results in tragedy, then that’s more than enough for it to work successfully. There are other clashes, divisions and incompatibilities brought out in the opera – from the division of imperialism and isolation, destiny or self-determination, modernity versus tradition to simply the clash of ideals between men and women in respect of what each of them hope to gain from a relationship. All these ideas exist in Madama Butterfly, and some of them can be tweaked for emphasis in individual productions, but they are all there to be drawn out by the listener in even the most basic of stagings.

Directed by Pier Luigi Pizzi, this production for the Sferisterio Opera Festival in Macerata in 2009 isn’t exactly basic, but it is fairly traditional, aiming for a stylised Japanese setting with silk kimonos, bamboo and paper houses on wooden struts and a cherry tree in bloom. Puccini’s Madama Butterfly can bear such idealism, since in many respects, there is an unrealistic idealism in the minds of the two main protagonists, the American sailor B.F. Pinkerton and the young 15 year-old Japanese bride he has bought, Cio-Cio-Can, known as Butterfly – both however clearly have different ideas about what they expect to gain out of this arrangement. This production makes use of the interlude music after the Humming Song to introduce a dreamlike ballet sequence that depicts this idealised version of the relationship, perhaps in Butterfly’s mind as she sleeps awaiting the return of Pinkerton, and it’s a nice touch that works very well with this idea.

The other notable thing about this production is the open-air performance at the arena which is not traditionally theatre shaped. The long wings to the side of the stage however are well used for processional marches, as well as giving a greater sense of isolation of Cio-Cio-San from the world outside. The walls behind the stage however do add to the reverb on the voices, but not in any overly detrimental way. It does tend to lend a stridency to the singing of Raffaella Angeletti who can certainly hold the high notes as Butterfly, but doesn’t have the delicacy that is required in other passages. She does however deliver where she needs to. Massimiliano Pisapia is a robust and traditional Pinkerton, alternating between confidence and cowardice, between being arrogant and being loving. I liked the tone of his voice here throughout. Claudio Sgura’s Sharpless demonstrates good clear diction, but the microphone or the mixing gives his voice too much reverb, and both his voice and Angeletti’s can occasionally be a little piercing in places. Overall however, the singing is good and this is a fine production of Madama Butterfly, presented on a fine Blu-ray with a strong picture and – allowing for the slight extra reverb of the open-air location – good sound-mixes in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1.