Mazzonis di Pralafera, Stefano


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.

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.