La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Zeffirelli's Traviata in Rome

by Giuseppe Pennisi

Although Maestro Franco Zeffirelli is approaching the age of 90 (more specifically he will be 87 in a few months), he is still at centre stage of Opera and theatre in Italy and abroad. Next summer, all the Arena di Verona productions will be signed by him. Last September, the comparatively new management of the Metropolitan Opera’s decision to start the 2009-2010 season with a new production of Tosca with the stage direction of Luc Bondy caused an uproar because the audience still wanted Zeffirelli’s 25 year-old staging.

In Rome, the Teatro dell’Opera has serious financial difficulties, and for the last seven months, it has been managed by the Mayor of the City. A new Board was appointed on December 14th – the first meeting is scheduled on December 22nd. Again, in the midst of these troubles, Maestro Zeffirelli is right at the top of Roman and Italian opera goers’ attention. He is the Teatro dell’Opera’s pick for productions to reinvigorate finances; the last production of the 2009 Roman season is his Traviata. The first production of the 2010 Roman season will be his Falstaff, starting January 23rd.

This Traviata was served on a golden plate with, as an appetizer, a major upheaval in the Italian musical world and a likely appendix from the Roman Court of Law. As discussed later in this article, the staging is not new – a very similar Zeffirelli’s Traviata was performed in Rome in 2007. The main attraction was the debut in the title role of Ms. Daniela Dessì, with her life companion Mr. Fabio Armilliato as Alfredo; they were expected to sing at two gala performances on Dec 27th and New Year’s Eve. But Zeffirelli objected to her taking up Violetta on the grounds that she was getting along in age and weight. There was no Artistic Director to counteract him. Things got really heated at the press conference when strong words were exchanged. Ms Dessì cancelled all her contracts with the Rome Opera, including her much awaited performance as Alice Ford in Falstaff. Mr. Armilliato followed suit. Now, the matter is in the hands of lawyers and judges. Finally, during the press conference, Maestro Zeffirelli delivered a strong speech against the new way of staging Traviata (and other operas) in brothels (Irina Brook, Graham Vick), cemeteries (Laurent Pelly) as well as against updating opera plots to our time and age. This stirred up a lively controversy also on the regular (e.g. not specialized) information press. In short, on Dec 18th, at the opening of this Traviata, the air in the Rome Opera House was so thick it could be cut with a knife. Before the performance started, Zefferilli’s fans and foes were looking in anger at one another in the grand foyer.

As for the performance, this review deals mostly with the staging because I will treat the more specific musical aspects in the British Music and Vision, available also on the web at

First, Maestro Zeffirelli has several Traviata in his bag. This is either his eight or his ninth. I would call it his “8 and ½” as a nod to Fellini’s 1963 movie. His eighth Traviata was shown in Rome in 2007. In turn, this eighth Traviata was based on a production that the Met has shown for nearly a quarter of a century – changing, of course, the singers as the years went by. There are two significant modifications between Rome’s 2007 Traviata and the long standing Met production: a) in Rome, the plot unfolds as a long flashback (with Violetta dying during the overture to Act I) whereas the Met follows the 1853 libretto scrupulously; b) technology is skillfully used, with painted scenes replaced by computerized projection, this all fully mastered by Maestro Zeffirelli himself (in spite of his age). As compared with the 2007 showing, this “8 and ½” has a different choreography in the ballet of Act II.

Second, Maestro Zeffirelli’s productions are always bigger than life. They mean to bring the audience to the wide wild world of Opera, as the Lyric Opera of Baltimore called itself way back in the Seventies with a view of attracting a newer audience. In this Traviata, the stage has three levels and lights change with the mood of the scene and with the music – e.g. in Act II, lighting is lushly green in Violetta’s villa, terrific and sinful red at Flora’s party, and ghostly grey in the final concertato. Through computerized mirrors, the boxes and the orchestra seats appear on the stage, with the audience becoming part of the performance. 

Third, acting is quite well cared for. Singers do act as actors in a Broadway Playhouse. The huge mass of extras, mines and dancers do not crowd one another. Fourth and finally, the conductor is in line with the stage director not vice versa.

For Maestro Zeffirelli Traviata is based on youth and sensual passion, not on any socialist and related class-struggle view of the world like in some recent European productions. Thus, Maestro Gianluigi Zelmetti conducts with the slower tempos required to emphasize love and passion. There are three different casts in main roles: Cinzia Forte, Myrtò Papatanasiu, Mina Yamazaki as Violetta, and Roberto De Biasio, Antonio Gandìa, Stefano Pop as Alfredo.

This is Maestro Zeffirelli; either you like him or you hate him. There is no halfway. Normally, we know quality of a pudding when we eat it. In spite of the controversies referred to above, the nine performances were sold out already in September and two special previews were organized by charities because of the great demand for tickets. Box office sales are a good indicator of what operagoers like or do not like. On December 18th,, at curtain call, Zeffirelli’s fans overturned his foes.

The Playbill

            Musical Director                         Gianluigi                Gelmetti
Chorus Master
Stage sets and Direction

Violetta Valery

Myrtò Papatanasiu (18, 20, 22, 31) /

Cinzia Forte (19, 23, 29) /

Mina Yamazaki (27, 30)

Flora Bervoix
Katarina Nikolic (18, 20, 22, 27, 30) /

Anastasia Boldyreva (19, 23, 29, 31)

Antonella Rondinone (18, 20, 29, 31) /

Mariella Guarnera (19, 22, 23, 27, 30)

Antonio Gandìa (18, 20, 22, 29) /

Roberto De Biasio (19, 23, 30) /

Stefan Pop (27, 31)

Carlo Guelfi (18, 20, 22, 27, 30) /

Dario Solari (19, 23, 29, 31)

Gianluca Floris (18, 20, 22, 29, 31) /

Cristiano Cremonini

Baron Douphol
Angelo Nardinocchi (18, 20, 22, 29, 31) /

Gianpiero Ruggeri (19, 23, 27, 30)

Marquis d’Obigny
Andrea Snarski (18, 20, 22, 29, 31) /

Matteo Ferrara (19, 23, 27, 30)

Doctor Grenvil
Carlo Di Cristoforo (18, 20, 22, 29, 31) /

Luca Dell’Amico (19, 23, 27, 30)

Giuseppe Auletta /

Luigi Petroni /

Maurizio Rossi

Flora ‘s house  help
Riccardo Coltellacci /

Fabio Tinalli

Andrea Buratti /

Francesco Luccioni /

Antonio Taschini

production of the  Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

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Saturday, April 5, 2008

Met Opera in HD: La Boheme

If there is one opera that qualfies as the all-time audience favourite, it is Puccni's La boheme. It is by far the most performed opera in the 125 year history of the Metropolitan Opera, surpassing other popular works the likes of Aida and Carmen. The current Met production by Franco Zeffirelli, first seen in the 1981-2 season with Teresa Stratas and Jose Carreras, is the most performed production in the history of this house. It has been given a total of 349 times! Think about it - the Met season is approximately seven months long, with seven performances a week. For the sake of simplicity of calculation, we are not going to worry about the two weeks in January (the last three seasons) when the theatre was dark. This means the Zeffirelli Boheme has been seen every night for a staggering eleven months and three weeks, equal to over one and a half Met seasons! It boggles the mind.

Zeffirelli with his super realism and the Met with its deep pockets are a perfect match - witness his Turandot, Tosca, Cav & Pag, and Carmen, all mega-productions that have become audience favourites. Critics on the other hand have not been so kind. Many complain that the massive and overly busy productions dwarf the singers, a criticism not ungrounded. Still for sheer opulence, you can't beat Zeffirelli. The other major criticism is his total lack of "concept" - again a valid comment. If ever there is an "anti-Regietheater Regie", it would be Zeffirelli, who is always faithful to the composer's original intentions. In a Zeffirelli production you won't find a Violetta dying in an AIDS ward, or a Don Jose being executed by a firing squad. For my money, there is always room for a traditional production, and this La boheme is as traditional as it gets.

This revival stars Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu and Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas. Joining them are Basque soprano Ainhoa Arteta (Musetta) and French baritone Ludovic Tezier (Marcello). The rest of the cast are made up of a mix of young artists - Oren Gradus (Colline), Quinn Kelsey (Schaunard) and a Met stalwart - Paul Plishka (Benoit and Alcindoro), all under the helm of Italian maestro Nicola Luisotti. It was shown today at the Sheppard Grande in four cinemas, a total of 1500 seats, all sold out in advance. The huge crowd was not disappointed. This performance was about as good as one is likely to encounter in the opera house these days.

The glamorous Angela Gheorghiu's Mimi is a bit too overtly flirtatious and calculating in Act One for my taste, although by Act Three, she was sufficiently tragic to elicit the sympathies of the most hard-hearted in the audience. Her singing was beautiful, although I find her timbre a bit cool and not sufficiently Italianate. She "chested" a few times in Act One, perhaps the voice was not yet sufficiently warmed up. Much of Mimi's music is written in the middle, an area of Gheorghiu's voice that is not ideally full. I would have preferred a modicum of portamento - it is a virtue, not a sin, in verismo and Puccini! Her Italian parlando lacks natural ease. (I admit I can't get the voice of Renata Tebaldi out of my mind when it comes to this role) Ramon Vargas may not have the most distinctive of tenor sounds, but overall, his Rodolfo was a pleasure. There was also good chemistry between these two.

The other couple were not on the same level. Soprano Ainhoa Arteta acted up a storm, but there was no hiding the fact that she made a shrill and quavery Musetta. There is a moment in Act Four, when Mimi asks "Chi parla?" to which Musetta replies "Io, Musetta". This is a moment when any half-way decent Musetta gets to show off her smooth legato. Well, this little phrase defeated Arteta completely. As Marcello, Ludovic Tezier's lyric baritone was pleasant if a bit anonymous, his acting insufficiently detailed, especially in his scene with Mimi in the opening of Act Three. There was no intensity coming from him; his facial expression was blank. He wasn't listening to her; he basically just put his hands in his pockets and stopped acting! Tezier was completely outsung by Quinn Kelsey, who was a particularly well sung (and well fed) Schaunard. To his credit, Kelsey, given his large size, managed the strenuously physical staging in Act Four without difficulty. Oren Gradus (Colline) lacked the sonorous bass necessary to make his Coat Song effective, something done to perfection in the past by the veteran Paul Plishka, now as Benoit/Alcindoro. A welcome addition to the roster, Nicola Luisotti conducted an incisive and lyrical performance, although I find his intermission interview and his body language a bit overly solicitous.

Like a comfortably cluttered and lived-in house, the sets in this Boheme is starting to look a tad frayed after so much use. Having seen this production a half dozen times at the Met, I have come to take this huge show for granted, so it was good to have the camera taking us backstage to witness the setup of the Cafe Momus scene, done in three and a half minutes - I was awe-struck by the enormity of the task. The videography was happily traditional here, unlike the quirkiness of the split-screen technology employed in Tristan. The Sheppard Grande audience should thank its lucky stars that once again, the satellite signal was flawless, with only a split second of frozen picture. I saw the show in Cinema Three, where the full house and the still air made it a little uncomfortable, especially for those sitting higher up. But other than that, it was an extremely enjoyable experience.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Today's Birthday in Music: February 12 (Zeffirelli)

1923 - Franco Zeffirelli, Florence, Italy; opera director and designer

Wiki entry
Short Bio

Zeffirelli talks about his 1983 film production of La Traviata (Domingo and Stratas)

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