Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Teatro Massimo - Rigoletto - 01/21/24

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi 
Librettist: Francesco Maria Piave 
Director: John Turturro 
Conductor: Daniel Oren 
Rigoletto: Marco Caria 
Duke of Mantua: Ioan Hotea 
Gilda: Caterina Sala 
Sparafucile: Alexei Kulagin 
Maddalena: Valeria Girardello 
Count of Monterone: Nicolo Ceriani

Although Giuseppe Verdi may very well be my favorite opera composer, I have never been a huge fan of his perennial hit Rigoletto, mostly because I find the idea of a father even unwittingly having his daughter killed, or the idea of a tormented young woman sacrificing herself for her rapist, quite perturbing, and because I cannot really get past the blatant sexism of “La Donna è mobile” (I know, I know, the aria fits the Duke’s womanizing character like a glove and that’s what really what matters, but even the sheer perkiness of it never fails to annoy me). 
But then, as I was planning our trip to Palermo and checking its Teatro Massimo’s current season, I saw that it was the only opera performed there while my friend Vittorio and I would be in town, and we just could not miss an opportunity to check out the prestigious opera house, which I also incidentally learned is the third largest in Europe after Paris and London (Even King Umberto I apparently couldn’t help but wonder why it was so darn big). Extra bonus that tackled my curiosity even further: The six-year-old production was the first, and so far the only, foray of American and naturalized Italian actor and director John Turturro into opera. How about that? 
And that’s why, about 24 hours after an all-Tchaikovsky concert at the nearby populist Teatro Politeama, and another day spent feasting on mouth-watering food and eye-popping art, we moved on to the decidedly more elevated sphere (and three times as expensive orchestra seats) of the imposing indeed Teatro Massimo, its rather sober neoclassical exterior incorporating Greek columns and its much less sober late-Renaissance style auditorium, not to mention much-praised acoustics, by walking two blocks of local streets and crossing the buzzing (What else?) piazza Giuseppe Verdi, in pleasant dry weather this time. 

After a triumphant premiere at Venice’s La Fenice in 1851, Rigoletto has maintained a privileged spot in the hearts and minds of critics and audiences alike. Everybody seems to love it. The plot has also proved to be surprisingly versatile, and many versions of it have been concocted throughout the decades, including the Metropolitan Opera’s much talked-about endeavor relocating the action to 1960s Las Vegas and featuring Piotr Beczala and Diane Damrau. It started its highly successful run back in 2013, and I am still beating myself up for never having gotten around to checking it out despite repeated opportunities.
Back in Palermo last Sunday, Italian baritone Marco Caria looked and sounded totally at ease as Rigoletto, switching from merciless buffoon stopping at nothing to entertain his boss to tender father stopping at nothing to protect his virtuous daughter to ruthless murder stopping at nothing to exact his revenge on her tormentor. He had the vocal range and physical heft to handle the challenging part of the endearing anti-hero, and he had thrown himself into it (hunchbacked) body and soul. 
As Rigoletto’s beloved daughter Gilda, young Italian soprano Caterina Sala confidently displayed her conflicting emotions between heart and mind with achingly beautiful and remarkably expressive singing. You really felt for the girl, even if you also really wanted her to get a grip already. Her chemistry with Caria felt spontaneous and strong, and they eventually responded to our non-stop applause at the end of the second act by bestowing upon us a blazing encore of the duet “Si, revenge, tremenda revenge”. 
One of the worst scoundrels of the opera repertoire, the Duke of Mantua is also a particularly juicy character for any singer willing to sink his teeth into it. And young Romanian tenor Ioan Hotea sure did not hold back. Blessed with a powerful voice as well as boundless energy, he was an impetuous, remorseless tyrant obviously used to getting what he wanted by any means necessary and having a lot of fun in the process too. He handled his two eagerly anticipated arias “Questa e quella” and “La Donna è mobile” with precision and gusto, and an impeccably crisp clarion sound. 
The smaller but still significant parts were competently covered by the Russian bass Alexei Kulagin as a no-nonsense killer-for-hire Sparafucile, the Italian mezzo-soprano Valeria Girardello as a tantalizing and cold-blooded Maddalena, and the Italian baritone Nicolo Ceriani as a fiercely determined Count of Monterone. The men chorus, for their part, constituted an impressive bunch of decidedly unsavory courtiers, although their singing was definitely a treat to be savored. 

John Turturro may be well-known for his quirky roles, but this first opera production of his was generally low-key and essentially in line with the story’s original setting, even if special touches occasionally tried, and sometimes even managed, to spice things up a bit. For example, the first scene took place in an elegantly decadent castle, complete with a decaying decor and misty background, in which kind of grotesque-looking dancers donning high wigs and extra-wide skirts seemed to be dancing the end of an era away. While their presence was certainly justified during the opening party scene (What’s a party without dancers?), their return in the second act came out of nowhere and did not accomplish much besides bringing unnecessary confusion. 
Some visual choices were total winners though, like the large ensemble of scheming courtiers wearing black cloaks, white wigs, and cool black Windsor glasses à la John Lennon. Or the black-clothed shapes writhing on the ground while Gilda was dying, creating an eerie and arresting sight. Other decisions were less convincing, such as Gilda standing outside the sack that was supposed to contain her corpse but contained a red cloth instead, which was plain weird, or her slowly lifting her white skirt to show a red underskirt after her rape by the duke. Whether the fil rouge was meant to convey the loss of innocence, violence against women, or the curse of the Count of Monterone, who was wearing a similarly red outfit, it got to be a bit too heavy-handed. 
On an intentional or unintentional more light-hearted note, quite a few of the characters had what could only be described as a bad hair day on that stage: Gilda, whose angelic strawberry blond locks often reflected pale shades of pink, the duke, whose single curl on each side of his face remained stubbornly stiff despite his agitated life style, Sparafucile, whose few, long and greasy hair advertised his low life status from far and wide, and the Count of Monterone, whose elaborate white periwig quickly established his aristocratic roots and his old age, not to mention that his small part would have a big impact on everybody. 

Considered Verdi’s first real masterpiece by many, the stunning score, with its wide range of tones and textures, perfectly calibrated pace, gorgeous melodies and show-stopping arias, is a marvel not to be tampered with, and in fact eminent Israeli conductor Daniel Oren showed nothing but deep respect and understanding for it, from the intense dramatic peaks to the most poignant moments. The seriously competent orchestra sounded more than happy to have such exciting fare to work with and totally rose to the occasion, which resulted in a richly rewarding experience for all. 
So rewarding, in fact, that a shockingly high number of audience members did not hesitate to use their smartphones to take photos and make videos, as well as check on their personal affairs, during the performance, apparently keener on creating personal memories of it than on actually enjoying it or letting the rest of us enjoy it. 
And they wonder why attendance of live performances by true aficionados is dwindling...

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Orchestra Sinfonica Siciliana - All-Tchaikovsky - 01/20/24

Piotr Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 
Piotr Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64 
Conductor: Beatrice Venezi 
Violin: Stefan Milenkovich 

The quintessential Russian Romantic composer Piotr Tchaikovsky and the uniquely multi-cultural Italian island of Sicilia may not have a lot in common at first sight, but to me and my travel companion Vittorio, they are now forever connected as our first-ever visit to Palermo coincided with an all-Tchaikovsky program by the Orchestra Sinfonica Siciliana at the famed Teatro Politeama Garibaldi, which, with its neoclassical circular structure complete with slender columns and a triumphal arch crowned with a quadriga depicting “the triumph of Apollo and Euterpe”, is the city’s oldest and second most important concert hall after the Teatro Massimo. 
Although we were keeping relentlessly busy exploring the Sicilian capital’s seemingly endless parade of stunning historic and artistic treasures, as well as indulging in its seemingly endless supply of wonderful dishes, all of that in a climate even milder than Naples’, we simply had to jump at the chance of simultaneously treating our ears with gorgeous music, our eyes with a striking concert hall, and our feet with a blissful two-hour break at the convenient time of 5:30 PM last Saturday. 
But then, as if to make the occasion even more memorable, the ambivalent weather essentially gave up on us, and what should have been an uneventful walk turned into a dreadful obstacle course involving exasperating drizzle, unfamiliar territory, dark streets, slippery pavement, and a broken umbrella. Against all odds, we made it to the Politeama relatively unscathed, and were amply rewarded by our excellent orchestra seats in the large, attractive, if a bit run-down, space. 

Tchaikovsky’s highly popular violin concerto is without a doubt one of the very first compositions that made me fall in love with classical music. And what’s not to love about it? It’s big, it’s bold, and it’s beautiful. Although I’ve been lucky enough to hear it performed by some of the top violinists of our times, it had more or less disappeared from my concert-goer’s life these past few years, and it was high time to become reacquainted with it, a bit like catching up with an old friend I hadn’t heard from in a long time but was still very fond of. 
I must confess that I had never heard of Serbian violinist Stefan Milenkovich until last Saturday, probably because his impressive international career and no less impressive support of international humanitarian causes have not revolved extensively around the United States, despite stints at New York’s Juilliard School as student and teacher. Showing up in a long black coat with black spangles scintillating on top was certainly a sure-fire way to make an unforgettable first impression, but it quickly became clear that he did not need that kind of fashion statement to get noticed. 
His musical skills were indeed substantial enough to account for his having been tapped for one of the most exciting, but also one of the most challenging, violin concertos in the repertoire, and while his performance may not have been one of the most transcendent interpretations I have ever witnessed, his more restrained approach proved that there is more than one stairway to Tchaikovskian heaven. Reliably backed up by the respectable orchestra under the baton of young, petite, but unmistakably assertive Italian maestra Beatrice Venezi, he delivered the goods in spades. 
Encouraged by our enthusiastic clapping, Milenkovich came back for an encore that had nothing to do with Russian Romanticism but, as he pointed out himself  in Italian, was the only piece he could think of after Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece: The “Allemande” from Johannes Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 2. And that's how the first part of the program was concluded with a poised and heartfelt take on the Baroque classic. 

More Tchaikovsky was on the way after intermission with his sprawling symphony No. 5, another perennial favorite of concert programs that I hadn’t heard in a long time, but that immediately reminded me why I got hooked on Tchaikovsky in the first place: The attention-grabbing opening fate motive, the wide range of themes, the luscious love song, the highly dramatic grand finale. Nonplussed by the size and complexity of her mission, Venezi led the orchestra through the 50-minute marathon with plenty of confidence and dynamism, appearing barely out of breath after having crossed the finish line. 

Our action-packed Saturday night was not over though, as we got caught in a vicious downpour upon exiting the concert hall, briefly got lost in the general dark and wet confusion, threw away the decidedly useless umbrella, and eventually took cover in a nearby hotel from where we waited for what seemed like ages for a taxi due to serious traffic jams, before making it to the apartment relatively unscathed again. 
After a brief and much needed respite, we started hearing loud dance music nearby, and realized that the usually quiet restaurant across the street had turned into a night club for a private party, which gave me an unexpected and not entirely welcome opportunity to relive my youth until midnight with the biggest hits of 1980s and 1990s. And then the rest of the night was (finally) silence.