Thursday, February 22, 2024

Teatro di San Carlo - Don Giovanni - 02/18/24

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 
Librettist: Lorenzo da Ponte 
Conductor: Constantin Trinks 
Producer/Director: Mario Martone 
Don Giovanni: Andrzej Filonczyk 
Leporello: Krzysztof Baczyk 
Donna Anna: Roberta Mantegna 
Donna Elvira: Selene Zanetti 
Zerlina: Valentina Naforniţa 
Masetto: Pablo Ruiz 
Don Ottavio: Bekhzod Davronov 
The Commendatore: Antonio di Matteo 

As I am slowly but surely getting back into my routine after my wonderful Sicilian winter interlude, I noticed that, as if to make sure I cover all my usual hang-outs, my calendar had an opera performance at Naples’ Teatro di San Carlo scheduled a couple of weeks after a concert performance at Rome’s Parco della Musica, and not just any opera either because we’re talking about Mozart’s perennially irresistible (in so many ways) Don Giovanni
Of course, the pleasure of the company of my Napolitan friend Vittorio, not to mention the pleasure of his superlative cooking, are always worth the short trip down South anyway, but the added incentive of hearing Mozart’s ultimate masterpiece live in the prestigious setting of the San Carlo made the whole perspective even more exciting. 
Last, but certainly not least, the Don Giovanni du jour would be no less than meteorically rising Polish baritone Andrzej Filonczyk, a very capable and, let’s face it, very handsome, singer who had already made a good and lasting impression at the San Carlo as Filippo in Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda last September. I for one did not mind seeing (and hearing) him again. 
So last Sunday afternoon, after starting the morning with my usual trek up the Pedamentina di San Martino followed by one of Vittorio’s fabulous cappuccinos, which are famously topped by a serious layer of manually produced foam, we made it to Naples’ crowded and loud historic center for a quick spin around Piazza del Plebiscito before taking our excellent orchestra seats in the buzzing house that was filled to the brim. So good to be back! 

Whether Don Giovanni is more drama or more comedy can be argued ad infinitum (It has not been called a dramma giocoso for nothing), but one thing most opera buffs readily agree upon is that Mozart’s last opera is a bona fide masterpiece, in which the composer made exceptionally ingenious use of his uncommon artistic talent and newly found maturity. Who knows what other works he would have come up with, if it had not been for his untimely death? (Sigh). 
The title role is no doubt the challenge of a lifetime for any baritone, but Andrzej Filonczyk did not let that thought faze him. On Sunday, his Don Giovanni was more rambunctious kid in a candy store than highly experienced libertine, but the legendary insatiable appetite, as well as the smooth moves and the casual ruthlessness, were all there. In addition to his natural athleticism, his singing was clear, confident ,and engaging. This Don Giovanni had plenty of scoring power indeed. 
Polish bass Krzysztof Baczyk, an actor and singer of impeccable timing, was equally convincing as Don Giovanni’s long-suffering servant Leporello, never failing to bring some light touches of comic relief when things were getting a bit too tense. And the eagerly anticipated catalog aria, during which the constantly put-upon poor guy giddily detailed the content of his boss’ little black book, was the delightful treat we have all come to expect. 
The first of the three female leads to make an appearance is Donna Anna, who on Sunday was persuasively interpreted by Italian soprano Roberta Mantegna. Once she realized that Don Giovanni was the man who had raped her and murdered her father, revenge became her name, and there was no stopping her from having it. 
Stylishly clad in red and having clearly taken a page (or two) from the me-too playbook, Italian soprano Selene Zanetti was a proud and fierce Donna Elvira, frequently storming the stage with boundless energy and penetrating singing as she was hunting down the scoundrel who had seduced and abandoned her while introducing the other women to the joys of sisterhood. Hell had probably never had any fury like that particular woman scorned. 
To complete the trio of Don Giovanni’s leading ladies, Moldavian soprano Valentina Nafornita brought a genuinely graceful presence and extraordinarily agile singing to sweet and innocent Zerlina (Truth be told, I’ve always wondered how truly innocent Zerlina is). Her duet with Filonczyk in “Là ci darem la mano”, one of the most ethereally beautiful seduction songs ever, was a memorable moment of melodic bliss. 
Argentine tenor Pablo Ruiz made a strong Napolitan debut as an endearing Masetto, and Uzbek tenor Bekhzod Davronov was all steady loyalty as Don Ottavio. As the one who would have the last word, Italian bass Antonio di Matteo contributed supernatural force and cool resolve to the fateful figure of the Commendatore. 
With its refined mix of light and dark, and countless gorgeous melodies, Mozart’s masterful score needs no introduction. Our conductor for the evening was German maestro Constantin Trinks. Well-known for his expertise in Strauss and Wagner, he clearly demonstrated on Sunday that he could handle Mozart as well. As for the ever-dependable San Carlo orchestra, they also clearly demonstrated that they could handle Viennese fare as well as the more familiar Italian fare. 

If the cast boasted plenty of young singers, the production by eminent Italian film director and screenwriter Mario Martone was making its return to the San Carlo after premiering there 22 years ago. The decor consisted of an audience-facing tribune—part Elizabethan theater, part generic court of law—populated with characters and spectators that would progressively empty until it had only a few spooky corpses on it. Add to that a few clever props, some good-looking period costumes, and the occasional presence of the performers in the audience, and you have an endlessly adaptable staging, which obviously came in handy when updates had to be made to keep up with the last two decades. 
Unsurprisingly, some of those updates had to do with women's rights and the gender equality movement, such as when identical young women representing each country of the catalog aria showed up one by one to eventually dance like mechanical dolls around Donna Elvira. Or when Zerlina was playfully tying the hands of a more than willing Masetto’s with red ribbon while repeatedly begging him to beat her, which instantly turned the cringe-worthy request into a light-hearted display of women’s empowerment. 
Besides the openly feminist messages, the production should also be praised for its exquisitely composed tableaux, in which one could admire a carefully calibrated balance among attractive colors, compelling dynamics and extreme contrasts. The ball scene, for example, had the dancing take place behind the tribune under three fancy but not ostentatious chandeliers, so the audience knew what was going on without being overly distracted by it. 
Equally efficient in its eye-catching minimalist design, Don Giovanni’s last supper consisted of a few well-chosen props that conveyed both his aristocratic roots and his casual lifestyle. Even his demise at the hands of the Commendatore as they both stood at the top of the tribune dressed in ghostly white was swiftly carried out and niftily wrapped up with three fiery blasts of fire. Take that, Vesuvio! 

As if Don Giovanni’s endless tribulations were not enough, we also had to contend with an off-script real-life incident during intermission when an audience member fell on some steps while entering the orchestra section. But while the incident caused a localized commotion that required the presence of the San Carlo’s in-house doctor and the ever-present fire department, she apparently got back on her feet, and we all moved back to Don Giovanni’s eventful life and death without missing another beat. So much drama, so little time.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Orchestra e Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia - Verdi - 02/03/24

Giuseppe Verdi: Messa da Requiem 
Conductor: Antonio Pappano 
Tenor: SeokJong Baek
Mezzo-soprano: Elina Garanca 
Bass: Giorgi Manoshvili
Soprano: Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha 

Happily back in the Eternal city, which these days is compensating its biting cold with bright sunshine and, even more important, a significant decrease in mass tourism, I figured that I would get back into my routine by… getting back into my routine, which involves, among other things, spending quality time at the nearby Parco della Musica by attending the blissfully early and wonderfully satisfying 6:00 PM Saturday concerts of the ever-reliable orchestra and choir of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. When in Rome… 
In fact, as if to follow up on the Rigoletto I had very much enjoyed in Palermo two weeks earlier, the orchestra had scheduled Verdi’s magnificent Requiem for the week of my return to Rome. Even better, it would feature international star and personal favorite Elina Garanca, and rising star SeokJong Baek, whom I had heard good things about and had wanted to check out for a while. And it goes without saying that the presence of Antonio Pappano, the orchestra’s current music director and our conductor for the evening, was a solid guarantee of high quality. 
So, on Saturday evening, after yet another cold but sunny day, I took my seat in the middle of the very last row of the upper tier in the packed Sala Santa Cecilia for what is probably the only blazing opera version of the catholic funeral mass. The fact is, it takes no less than Verdi to compel most people to sit through the 90 minutes of it. And I was feeling very lucky to be there too, the entire three-concert series having sold out long ago. Those Romans sure know a good thing when they see one. 
Even before the music got going, we all knew it would be an extra-special evening when a large sign appeared above the stage and informed us that the performance was dedicated to Claudio Abbado, who passed away 10 years ago. One of the leading Italian conductors of his times, he had a very long, very deep and very fulfilling relationship with the Accademia di Santa Cecilia. The Parco della Musica even acknowledged this special bond by naming its hanging gardens after him five years ago, and they’ve become a lovely de rigueur stop for any visitor. 

And then the music did get going, taking us on a daunting yet irresistible journey filled with overwhelming emotions, glorious melodies, violent contrasts, and plenty of intensely colorful drama, even in the most introspective moments. No matter how you look at it, death’s arrival has to be a little stressful, right? The composition is deliciously operatic in its breadth and tone, and blatant disregard of liturgical conventions, which may very well be why it has been so popular ever since its premiere in Milan in 1874 for the first-year anniversary of Manzoni’s death. 
The show-stopping highlight of the work is what is considered by many, me included, the most terrifying—and most terrific—Dies Irae of the entire canon. And sure enough, on Saturday evening, God’s thunderous wrath suddenly filled the large auditorium with tightly controlled whiplashing force and fury, each exciting recurrence of it bringing a new frisson of jubilation throughout the audience even as those episodes were progressively gaining in doubt and torment what they were losing in sheer horsepower. 
But Verdi’s Requiem does not revolve entirely around its extraordinary Dies Irae, it also offers many opportunities for the soloists to shine. And they did. An effortlessly regal vision in an elegant black gown and stylish hairstyle, Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca quickly proved that she also has the chops to brilliantly carry out anything she sets her heart and mind on. With her trademark flawless articulation and superbly haunting tone, she nailed her part. Not to be outdone, young and fearless, and equally chic, South African soprano Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha delivered a downright thrilling performance that soared to truly heavenly heights. You go, girl! 
South Korean baritone turned tenor SeokJong Baek and Georgian bass Giorgi Manoshvili were for sure worthy representants of the not so stronger sex, and they made the most of their moments in the spotlight with impeccable technique and laudable commitment. Baek showed that his bold transition to lyrical tenor had been highly successful; Manoshvili’s unflappable singing made us completely forget about the dashing singer but unwelcome Putin supporter Ildar Abdrazakov he was replacing. Those gentlemen may not have made quite the same dazzling impression as the ladies did (Who could?), but their commendable contributions were still much appreciated. 

Once the whole journey over, it is customary, not to mention necessary, for orchestra, choir, soloists and audience to take a short pause to catch one’s breath and go back to reality, unless of course you have some clueless or inconsiderate jerk who starts clapping right away, apparently relieved that the whole thing is done and over with, and they can leave at last. Lamentably, that’s what happened last Saturday, but the truth is, even this unfortunate ending could not break the magic of the evening. Maestro Abbado would have been pleased.