San Carlo/Abbado: La Traviata

Date: March 23, 2013
Conductor: Roberto Abbado
Production: Ferzan Özpetek
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

If Carmen Giannattasio is not already, or does not soon become, a global superstar, who would? Her courtesan was appropriately coy and collected in public, only willing to unleash her limitless emotional reserve, whether of joy or of despair, in situations alone. Her portrayal of Violetta’s charm in Act I, of emotional destruction in Act II, and of physical dissolution in Act III managed to impress, while the progression, from ebullience to death, was hauntingly real. As a singer, she phrased her lines and placed her notes carefully, as if caring for a new-born child, but never with the kind of flamboyance that tended to draw attention away from lyricism into mechanisms. Her flurry of notes in Sempre libera was an emancipation of fluidity and floral abundance. During her repeated curtain calls, she looked humbled and honestly overwhelmed by the audience’s outpouring of love and warmth.

Jose Bros had a rather forgettable evening as Alfredo. His voice has proven to be effective for bel canto, but, at least for this evening, lacked the sort of searing projection required to do Alfredo, never mind Verdi, justice. His Brindisi was fine, most probably because it had all the trappings of bel canto singing, but problems with his voice surfaced in his big Act II number. In the cavatina, he sounded weary and consumed, even when he was supposed to sing about boiling spirits. As he transitioned to the cabaletta, his voice was still rather lightweight, but, as if backup power renewed him temporarily, at least harbored some fiery sensation. All that collapsed when he attempted the final high C, which was so strained and flat that surprised even Bros himself. As he moved off stage, he looked visibly disturbed, with some in the audience gasping in horror and wondering whether the tenor could continue. He could and did, but sounded restrained, with a constricted top, for the rest of the way.

The dictatorial cruelty of pere Germont was captured through Simone Piazzola’s strong stage presence, except that when standing next to Bros, who is 48 years old, the 28-year-old Piazzola neither looked fatherly nor authoritative, even with heavy makeup. As a singer, Piazzola had projection and heft, but lacked the kind of vocal allure that stamped each unique voice. Giuseppina Bridelli, as Violetta’s friend, brimmed with an ebullient joy and stayed true to her character’s spirit for most of the evening.

Who really needs another Traviata with a primly decorated room laden with fluffy pillows in Act I, or fake greenery crawling over acid-washed village walls in Act II? This Traviata was exactly that, but while the staging looked hackneyed, it was mostly conducive to the flow of the drama. The exception to this boring realism occurred in Act III, when the audience was invited into the mind of Violetta. The stage had nothing but Violetta’s dimly-lit deathbed engulfed in pitch-black darkness. As she recalled the various happy moments of her life, actors would show up under keyed lights and re-enacted her thoughts, including episodes of bullfights and a couple in passionate embrace. That nifty stage feature provided visual activity, even as Violetta contemplated silently, with only a mellow orchestral sound in the background.

Abbado led the San Carlo Orchestra with briskness and purpose. The Chorus exploded with energy and fine vigor. In the first two acts, there seemed to be a problem with the Cultural Centre’s low-key lighting system as it flickered, though intermittently, with such schizophrenic urgency that it could very well represent something, perhaps the diseases that slowly ate away Violetta’s health. There was also a problem with offstage monitors, which caught a cellphone signal and eked out a few seconds of audible, though not ruinous, reverberations.

San Carlo Naples: La Traviata.

Act I in San Carlo Naples’ La Traviata. Copyright: San Carlo Naples.

Opera, Orchestral music

San Carlo/Abbado: Viva Verdi

Date: March 22, 2013
Conductor: Roberto Abbado
Performer: San Carlo Orchestra and Chorus
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

This year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival closes with Viva Verdi, a program highlighting the Italian composer’s outstanding choral music. The choral selections – Gli arredi festivi and the slaves’ chorus from Nabucco, O Signore dal tetto nation from I Lombardi, and the anvil chorus from Il Trovatore – were sung by the San Carlo Chorus, whose nearly eighty voices meshed in perfect unison. Their dynamic control was especially impressive, with pianissimo releasing as if from a distant past, and with forte so roof-shattering that the entire city had to have felt some serious judder of seismic proportions. In Gli arredi festivi, the flood lights in the auditorium were seen vibrating, as if reacting nervously to Verdi’s choral majesty. If describing that the slaves chorus sent a shiver up one’s spine was cliché, it was also quite appropriate and, at least to this reviewer, true. The ebb and flow of musical energy between the chorus and the strings in Va pensiero’s fourth stanza were truly chilling, even in a well-lit concert setting without an opera director’s vision of the slaves’ lamentation.

Listening to a handful of Verdi’s choral music, one after another, without interruption is akin to eating entrees after entrees of meats without so much as a green leaf or two. As such, inserted between choral pieces were various lighter orchestral bits, including Luisa Miller’s Overture, which features a sprightly clarinet solo, the Act III prelude in I Lombardi, with its feisty violin solo, and the prelude to I masnadieri, with its melancholic cello solo. Also included was Libera me in Verdi’s Requiem. Neither too meaty nor leafy, the piece presented a case of what Verdi could achieve in between: powerful yet diligent, blood-boiling yet properly dignified. Monica Tarone, as the Requiem’s expressive cantor, phrased her versicles with a soothing beauty. Her upper registers were clear and well-placed, but her lower registers languished, often submerged by the avalanche of the orchestra and the chorus.

The San Carlo Orchestra was a fine bunch, with their rendition of the I vespri siciliani overture being a case in point: pleasingly lyrical at the beginning, and authoritative and zesty towards the coda. However, they could sometimes get a little too loud, and seemed to have forgotten, especially the lower brasses, that they were no longer playing in the pit.

San Carlo Orchestra and Chorus, in an all-Verdi program.

San Carlo Orchestra and Chorus, in an all-Verdi program. Graphic taken from: Hong Kong Arts Festival’s website.


San Carlo/Rousset: Il marito disperato

Date: March 16, 2013
Conductor: Christophe Rousset
Production: Paolo Rossi
Location: The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Hong Kong.

Il marito disperato (The Desperate Husband) is an opera buffa whose libretto triggers plenty of transitory laughter but whose score, while pleasant, offers very few memorable moments. It is thus not surprising that Amazon lists a grand total of one recording, and that the opera has been sitting in the library archives for as long as anyone can remember until San Carlo, in collaboration with director Paolo Rossi, brought it back on stage in 2011.

This production represents the fruits of a project by the Naples/Campania government aimed at restoring the city’s cultural tradition. The opera has roots in Naples: its premiere occurred there in 1785, and its composer, Domenico Cimarosa, launched his career in the city and is considered to be the finest embodiment of the Neapolitan school of music.

Il marito is rarely performed anywhere, but its subject matter is universal: a story of love and deception that exemplifies aspects of the human condition. Its delivery is rendered through commedia dell’arte, a method of stagecraft that dramatizes fixed social types, such as the funny old men, the scheming servants, and men with an outsized libido. In Il marito, exaggeration of clichés rules the day, in stark contrast to verismo’s naturalism, but as a communication tool of the human condition, the result is no less effective.

The desperate husband is Don Corbolone, who believes that Gismonda, his wife, must be locked at home to avert flirtatious intrusions. The scheming servant is Dorina, who takes the Don’s Machiavellian absolutism so personally that she is determined to avenge Gismonda, her mistress. Dorina first makes up slandering stories about the Don in front of Gismonda’s father (funny old man), and then encourages Gismonda to pretend to be in love with Count Fanfaluchi (the man with an outsized libido) so as to further annoy the Don. Gismonda also conspires with her friend Eugenia in a honey trap to solidify her case against the Don. Valerio, Eugenia’s love interest, represents a powerless spirit of innocence amidst all these trickery. As these archetypes cross paths, various aspects of the human spirit – jealousy, selfishness, and ultimately compassion and forgiveness – are laid bare for all to see.

These themes are so universal that they take place not just in Bourbon times but all times – it is with this premise that Rossi sets the piece in what he calls a contemporary “near future”, complete with dark shades, microphones and Nike headbands. While modern, the production is quite traditional in a sense that dramatic cues are aligned with the libretto. When the libretto calls for rain, weapons and clothing, they were sure to be ready onstage. Paolo Rossi, as a live-in director, breached the stage often, as if he was directing the whole thing as it soldiered on. His stage presence was not intrusive, but rather superfluous as he added very little to the flow of drama other than as a form of concept art. Video projections as well as colorful props on either side of the stage provided some embellishing flavors, but were neither impactful enough nor directly involved in pushing the story forward. The unique and winning concept, however, was the frequent appearance of a male dancer representing onstage the masculine ideal that lived in Gismonda’s psyche. Dressed like an aerobics teacher in those cheesy sports videos in the early 90s, the un-credited dancer would rollick, move about, and flex his muscles onstage just as Gismonda sang about loneliness (in Dove mai, dove si vide) or desire. The dancer became an onstage mental archetype in Rossi’s post-Freudian analysis.

Andrea Concetti, as the Don, exhibited a prominent Italianate baritone with full control of his vocal goods, especially in legato. Concetti is the kind of singer who does not fuss with embellishments, and more specifically tends to keep his vowel endings short but clear. This trait works to Concetti’s favor in the role because the Don’s spirit cannot appear too brash and ornate in the midst of a grand scheme against him. Maria Grazia Schiavo sang Gismonda, who as the outsider under house arrest early in the opera lamented wasted life in Dove mai, where her voice effused with hints of melancholy and youthful nervousness. As her participation in Dorina’s scheme became more pronounced, her vocal dispatch adjusted. In Da mille furie sono agitate, her big number in Act III, Schiavo’s Gismonda, now an insider with full knowledge of the scheme, exploded with full abandon. Here, her lines had conspicuously more support and clarity, with a fast, steady vibrato and a vocal top made of solid gold. Elena Belfiore seemed to thoroughly enjoy her stage time as the anything-goes Dorina. Her voice was buttery and smooth, but often times lacked projection whether paired with Gismonda or in ensemble singing. Filippo Morace, as the outlandish Count, had some of the best comedic moments of the evening, often by interacting directly with the audience and revealing him as the real butt of the joke. Alfonso Antoniozzi, as the father, sang well but impressed further with his acting and animated facial expressions. Patrizia Biccirè, as Eugenia, was a reliable singer and a savvy actress who naturally commanded the stage through her exaggerated body movements. Shi Yijie, as Valerio, polished his phrases with a gentle diligence and a fine metallic top. The promising young singer should find a bright future ahead of him.

The music in Il marito may not be truly memorable, but there are beautiful snippets, especially in ensemble efforts. The quartet at the end of Act I, where the avengers are about to begin their exploits, and the septet in Act III, where the schemers relish their scheme against the Don, are good examples of Cimarosa at his finest; this ensemble cast happily obliged, resulting in enjoyable, syrupy delight. Christophe Rousset, baroque expert with few peers, had the reliable San Carlo Naples orchestra in complete control. His tight leash provided the necessary law and order to rein in the overflowing comedic abundance onstage.

Il marito disperato, in Hong Kong.

Il marito disperato production still. Bruno Praticò (left), did not make it to Hong Kong, and was replaced by Andrea Concetti, who allegedly had to learn the entire role in a few weeks. Photo credit: San Carlo and the Hong Kong Arts Festival.


Il marito disperato production still. Photo credit: San Carlo and the Hong Kong Arts Festival.