La Scena Musicale

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Claudio Abbado's Grand Tour with his Mozart Orchestra

by Giuseppe Pennisi

Music is the best medicine to cure cancer according to Maestro Claudio Abbado. Doctors removed much of his stomach and he can only eat small amounts at a time.“I found a new life, without a stomach,” he states. “I think differently. My senses are different.” His music-making has also changed: “I hear more lines now; I hear sounds I never heard before.”

Unfortunately, the therapy has weakened him: it’s now a special occasion when Maestro Abbado conducts. At 77, Abbado has mostly turned away from the kind of grand institutions he once led — La Scala, the Vienna State Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic. He pours his energies mainly into a few bursts of concerts, preferably with “his own” orchestra, the Bologna-based Mozart Orchestra. Now on a grand tour, which started in Reggio Emilia in March and continued in Rome (three concerts produced by the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia as a part of the subscription series) and, after a pause in April, the orchestra will proceed to Milan, Ravenna (as opening event for the 2010 Festival), Paris and Ferrara.

Abbado has turned away the distractions of modern conducting, like administration, dealing with unions and constant travel. He plays the music he wants with the musicians he chooses. Altogether he conducts about 30 concerts a season, dividing his time between homes in Bologna and Sardinia, where in the garden at his villa he has put in 9,000 plants. As a payment for his early June Milan La Scala concerts, he asked that the city plant 9,000 trees in the brick-and-mortar town. The Milan City Council is obliging … and following through on the contract.

The Mozart Orchestra was conceived by Carlo Maria Badini (a former La Scala Superintendent) as a special project of the Philharmonic Academy of Bologna, thanks to a decisive contribution from the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio of Bologna (the Bologna Savings Bank Foundation). The Orchestra, like the OSR (see La Scena in November 2009), is a very rare example of a privately funded symphonic formation in Italy. It has 40 permanent instrumentalists (versus 90 in the OSR); this means that for works requiring larger forces (i.e. those by Mahler, Bruckner, Strauss and Nono), the Mozart Orchestra needs to contract extra-musicians or to join another ensemble–in June in Milan it will join with the Filarmonici della Scala. Maestro Abbado became Artistic Director of the Orchestra, and improved its profile by inviting such internationally-renowned instrumentalists as Giuliano Carmignola, Danusha Waskiewicz, Wolfram Christ, Enrico Bronzi, Mario Brunello, Alois Posch, Jacques Zoon, Alessandro Carbonare and Alessio Allegrini.

The Orchestra is a truly international ensemble with young musicians from all over Europe (Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Austria, Holland, Norway, Finland, Hungary and Russia). It made its debut on November 4, 2004 at the Manzoni Theatre in Bologna with Abbado at the helm. Since then other great conductors such as John Eliot Gardiner, Ottavio Dantone, Trevor Pinnock and Frans Brüggen have led the orchestra. On 25 October 2008 at Pala Dozza in Bologna, the Orchestra Mozart played a memorable performance of 
Te Deum by Berlioz, together with the Cherubini Youth Orchestra, the Italian Youth Orchestra, the Choir of the Municipal Theatre of Bologna and the Giuseppe Verdi Symphony Choir of Milan. The impressive choir of treble voices was made up of more than six hundred children. On 13 June 2009, after the Abruzzo devastating earthquake, at the Auditorium of the Guardia di Finanza (Finance Police) School in Coppito (AQ), Abbado and the Mozart Orchestra dedicated a concert to the people of Abruzzo affected by the disaster. At the same time, they also promoted the “Mozart Orchestra for Abruzzo”, Una Casa per la Musica (A house for music) initiative, to raise funds for the creation of a structure in which all the musical organizations of L’Aquila can resume their activities immediately.

On March 28
th, in the packed 3000 seats Sala Santa Cecilia in Rome, the orchestra performed the “Italiana” Symphony by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, the Mozart Violin Concert K. 216, the “Jupiter” Mozart Symphony K. 551 and, at the insisting request for “encore”, a real bonus, Beethoven’s “Egmont” Ouverture. The four different pieces have a unity; they are a bridge from the elegant XVIII Century – the two Mozart’s composition are like Brussels antique lace – to the XIX Century Romanticism – delicate and intimate in the Mendelssohn-Bartoldy “Italiana” (where places and situation are filtered through memory) and stormy and passionate in Beethoven’s “Egmont”.

Abbado’s baton kept a tight but flowing beat as his left hand, at the end of a thin wrist, went its own way, deftly sculpturing phrases and so often asking for less, less, less. Mr. Abbado moves with the deliberateness of someone conserving his strength. He conducted without a score. The audience erupted in real accolades.

However, there was a flaw: the violinist Giuliano Carmignola, a specialist more of baroque than of late XVIII Century, did not sound up to the level of the Orchestra.


Sunday, March 7, 2010

Two Different Productions of Elektra Enthuse Italian Provincial Opera Houses

by Giuseppe Pennisi

Generally, Strauss-Hofmannsthal’s “tragedy for music” Elektra is normally performed in comparatively small opera houses in Germany and in a few Central European countries. Most administrators and musical directors are scared by the thought of assembling a 115-piece orchestra, five Wagnerian singers, a large number of soloists in smaller roles and keeping the audience enthralled in their seats for nearly two hours of extreme tension and emotion.

Well, this season two different productions of Elektra can be seen in Italian Provincial theatres. They are quite successful and surprisingly attract also a new and younger audience, and they are likely to be revived next season.

Italy has many beautiful theatres, smaller than the main Opera Houses (at 500-900 seats) but very elegant and with a perfect acoustics. They are one of the outcomes of the complicated Italian historical development: until less than 150 years ago, the country was fragmented in a variety of small Kingdoms, Gran-Duchies, Counties and other small independent States; like in Germany, each was proud to have its own princely theatre. In addition, in the Italian unification movement and in the romanticism period, Italy opera had the function otherwise played by literature. On the top of the royal or princely theatres, a number of Opera Houses were built, and owned, by the palchettisti, the rich bourgeoisie that had individual boxes; comparatively small towns like Spoleto and Piacenza have two very separate theatres: one (generally smaller) for the aristocrats and other (somewhat larger) for the bourgeoisie. Many of these theatres are labeled, in the legislation, teatri di tradizione; they receive only limited financing by the central Government – most of the funds are channeled to the 13 national fondazioni liriche in major towns – and are supported by local authorities and private sponsors. Co-productions are necessarily quite frequent.

Of the two Elektras, one is a co-production of the theatres of Bolzano, Ferrara, Modena and Piacenza but Reggio Emilia and Ravenna may join in. The other is a production of Catania’s Massimo Bellini – the Italian theatre known for the best acoustics in Europe – but there are rumors that it may travel in Sicily and elsewhere in Italy next season. From these productions there are lessons to be drawn also for smaller Houses in North America – those that normally shy away from Elektra.

From the musical standpoint both productions are presented unabridged – a real rarity. In 1909, at its première in Dresden, a few verses of the text (and the relevant music) were cut because their explicit sexual references were considered unbecoming. Indeed as late as 1968, in the Golden Encyclopedia of Music, Normal Lloyd calls even the 'abridged' text “too lurid.” Although the sense of what is or is not prude has changed over the decades, it was only two years ago in a small Austrian festival that Elektra was performed unabridged for the first time. Although the unabridged is far from lurid, its sexually explicit text is essential to fully understand the Freudian overtones of the tragedy and the dazzling excitement of musical forces that goes beyond Wagnerian lines.

Situating an orchestra much larger than the theatre’s pit was solved in imaginative manner in both cases. In the Bolzano-Ferrara-Modena-Piacenza production, under Gustav Kuhn's baton, two highly professional orchestras were amalgamated: the Haydn Orchestra of Trento and Bolzano and the Orchestra of Emilia-Romagna. With a strength of 115, the orchestra was not in the pit but on the stage, on the steps of a semi-circular auditorium (looking like a Greek theatre) with each element or group of elements visible to the audience; tragedy was staged right at the front of the stage on two levels: Elektra's claustrophobic room at the lower level and the empty Royal Palace at the upper level.

In the Catania production, under the baton of Will Humburg, the orchestra is also on the stage (the “Massimo Bellini” regular orchestra is strengthened by musicians on contract for this very opera in order to reach 114), but it is also in some of the boxes. The action is in the front stage, the orchestra pit and other boxes. In both productions, the audience has the feeling of being part of the plot.

Maestros Kuhn and Humburg have different temperaments – the former more passionate and the latter, tragically dryer. The cast of both productions is mostly German and young. Interestingly, in the Bolzano-Ferrara-Modena-Piacenza production, the role of Kytamnestra is sung, for the first time in history, by an Italia (Anna Maria Chiuri) and in Catania by Gabriele Schnaut who for several years had sang Elektra.

The Playbill

Elektra in Bolzano, Ferrara Modena, Piacenza

Elektra Anna Katharina Behnke, Elena Popovskaya
Klytamnestra Mihaela Binder Ungureanu, Anna Maria Chiuri
Chrysothemis Maida Hundeling, Michela Sburlati
Aegisth Richard Decker
Orest Thomas Gazheli, Wieland Satter
Der Pfleger des Orest, L`aio di Oreste Igor Bakan
Die Vertaute Elisa Maffi
Die Schlepptragerin L`ancella dello strascico Charlotte Soumiere
Ein Junger Diener Un giovane servo Arnold Bezuyen
Ein Alter Diener Vito Maria Brunetti
Die Auseherin La sorvegliante Martina Bortolotti
Magden: Jolena Bodrazic, Monika Wackerle , Anita Ahsef, Jae Hee Kim, Lara Martins

Stage direction Manfred Schweigkofler
Costumes Hans-Martin Scholder
Sets Michele Olcese
Lighting Andrej Hajdinjak
Chorus Master Corrado Casati
Orchestra Haydn of Bolzano and Trento
Orchestra of Emilia Romagna

ELEKTRA in Catania

Conductor WILL HUMBURG Stage Direction GABRIELE RECH
Sets and lighting Giuseppe Di Iorio
Costumes Sandra Meurer
Chorus Master Tiziana Carlini

KLYTÄEMNESTRA Gabriele Schnaut, Renèe Morloc

ELEKTRA Janice Baird, Jayne Casselman

CHRYSOTHEMIS Elena Nebera, Elizabeth Hagedorn

AEGISTH Roman Sadnik

OREST Stefan Adam


DIE VERTRAUTE Graziella Alessi
EIN JUNGER DIENER Mariano Brischetto
EIN ALTER DIENER Giuseppe Esposito
I MAGD Marlene Lichtenberg
II MAGD Monica Minarelli
III MAGD Antonella Fioretti
IV MAGD Vitalija Blinstrubyte
V MAGD Manuela Cucuccio

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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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Monday, December 7, 2009

La Scala Opens with the Rape of Carmen

By Giuseppe Pennisi

La Scala traditionally inaugurates its season on December 7th, St. Ambrose’s Day (Patron of Milan, where he was Bishop in the Third Century C.E). It is a national affairs attended by the Head of State, several Cabinet Ministers, many industrialists and financiers in black ties and ladies showing their best evening dress and jewels. This year, tickets are set at € 2,400 in the orchestra section or in the central part of the tiers of boxes. They are often paid by companies sponsoring the event as well as by a few tourists (Americans and Germans) flown to Milan by opera travel companies. The performance starts at 6 p.m. (not the usual 8 p.m.) to allow for lavish after-theatre dinners. The most important takes place in Palazzo Marino (Milan City Hall, just across the street from La Scala) where only 600 fortunate people can be invited for an elegant sit-down affair. To make the performance accessible to a larger audience, there was a preview for young people “under 30” on December 4th; some 180 journalists were invited. Also, the December 7th première is shown live on an international pay-tv channel and in 100 movie theatres all over Europe (and some other continents).

Whilst many Italian opera houses open their seasons with either a new or rarely performed opera, La Scala’s St. Ambrose tradition is to offer a new production of a well-known opera. The expectation is that the production would be “extraordinary” and “exemplary.” In short, the intention is that this should not be an “ordinary” production as can be seen and listened to in other theatres, but that it should set a standard.

This year, Bizet’s Carmen, one of the most frequently performed operas all over the world, was chosen for the event. It was offered in the Robert Didion’s critical edition –viz., with spoken parts not rearranged and set to music by Ernest Guiraut (as it has been the tradition for nearly a century). In short, the production was etymologically “extraordinary”, but not “exemplary” (as discussed below).

Stage direction was entrusted to Emma Dante, a whiz kid of Italian experimental theatre. The stage sets were the responsibility of the more seasoned Richard Peduzzi (the author of the 1976 fabulous Bayreuth Chéreau-Boulez Ring). The action is set in a town resembling today’s distressed districts of Palermo rather than 19th Century Seville: for instance, in the Second Act, Lilla Pastia’s tavern looks like Palermo’s remains of the Chiesa della Madonna dello Spasimo. There is a large number of extras (mimes, dancers). The stage is also crowed by religious symbols (priests, nuns, choir boys and crosses are nearly always in the midst of the action). Emma Dante sees Carmen not as a tragedy of passion, sex and dissolution, but as a tale of violence against women. In Act I, even pregnant women workers of the cigar factory are brutally beaten up by the police. In Act IV, Carmen is raped on stage by Don José whilst the always present crowd of choir boys, priests, nuns and simple city people stand still watching the action and waiting for the corrida to end. Rape seems to be the trademark of this La Scala season. Including Carmen, nine of the 12 operas in the program will involve rape. The outcome of this violent Carmen is a passionless and sexless production.

Musically, the performance is much better, thanks mostly to Maestro Daniel Barenboim and to La Scala’s magnificent orchestra. Maestro Barenboim stretches the tempos (the performance lasts four hours with two intermissions) making for a round sound from the orchestra and leaves room to the single instrumentalists – memorable the flute in the introduction to the Third Act. Maestro Barenboim’s Carmen has the right musical tinta of a mythical Spain as perceived by a foreign musician. Also, the singers are kept under tight check. Erwin Schrott and Jonas Kaufmann are both experienced Escamillo and Don José. Before the opening night, in an interview Kaufmann expressed his reservations about the production and called sick in the December 4th preview; his 2006 DVD with Caterina Antonacci, under the baton of Maestro Antonio Pappano and with the stage direction of Francesca Zambello, shows what he is able to do within an appropriate production. In Milan his Carmen is Anita Rachvelishvili, just graduated from the Accademia della Scala (the opera house’s music school). She is attractive and has great acting abilities, but needs more vocal maturity; in the “Habanera”, the alternation between D minor and D major were colorless. However, she improved as the performance went on.

Adriana Damata (Micaela) is a recent graduate too; she is a lyric soprano with a clear timbre but a small voice. She struggles in her Act III aria with La Scala’s huge auditorium and poor acoustics. The rest of the cast is good (especially Michèle Losier and Adriana Kučerová). The French pronunciation of most of the singers is acceptable.

A final comment, Kaufmann is covered by Riccardo Massi, another young graduate from Accademia della Scala and engaged to marry Rachvelishvili. He sang the Don José role on December 4th. Couldn’t La Scala find a more experienced “cover” for a repertory opera like Carmen? Mr. Massi was burned-out by such an early exposure to the audience; he has a poor timbre and had difficulties in nearly all his arias. He might have a good career with more study and experience in easier roles; let’s forget and forgive this poor start.

Performances are scheduled until December 23th and from October 29 to November 18, 2010. Most likely, the same production will be seen in Berlin, at the Staatsoper unter den Linden.


4*, 7, 10, 13, 15, 18, 20, 23 dicembre 2009


Opéra-comique in quattro atti


su libretto di Henri Meilhac e Ludovic Halévy
dalla novella di Prosper Mérimée

Prima rappresentazione: Parigi, Opéra-Comique, 3 marzo 1875

(Edizione critica di Robert Didion - Copyright e edizione Schott Musik, Mainz;
Sub-Editore per l’Italia Casa Musicale Sonzogno di Piero Ostali, Milano)

Nuova produzione Teatro alla Scala

Regia e costumi EMMA DANTE



Personaggi e interpreti principali

Don José Jonas Kaufmann (Riccardo Massi on Dec 4th)

Escamillo Erwin Schrott

Le Dancaïre Francis Dudziac

Le Remendado Rodolphe Briand

Moralès Mathias Hausmann

Zuniga Gabor Bretz

Carmen Anita Rachvelishvili

Micaëla Adriana Damato

Frasquita Michèle Losier

Mercédès Adriana Kučerová

Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala

Maestro del Coro BRUNO CASONI

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Thursday, December 3, 2009

Contemporary Music in Rome

By Giuseppe Pennisi

Not even Italians know if Rome can still claim to be the capital of melodrama or of other types of opera, but it can instead claim to be – along with Berlin and Paris – one of today’s capitals of contemporary music such as electro-acoustic and live electronics. In 2009, the hours of contemporary music performed in Roman concert halls and opera houses rivaled the number performed in Berlin. There would have been even more contemporary music in the Italian than the German Capital, if it were not for the Teatro dell’Opera’s financial crisis; now under direct special management by the City, the number of modern operas scheduled to be performed in the smaller Teatro Nazionale had to be deferred to the next season or cancelled altogether.

Secretary General of the Japan Electronic Keyboard Society Suguru Agata, one of the major international specialists of electronic music, made a special trip to Rome to analyze how electronic music is performed at the Piccolo Lirico. This is a small – only 150 seats – wholly private opera house where Tosca and Madama Butterfly are shown re-arranged for live electronics. Five electronic keyboards are played by five professional pianists to simulate the sound of 60 instruments; accompanying them are young singers, computerized sets and live electronics. This production of Tosca has had over 400 performances. Mr. Agata has brought his mission’s results to the Showa Music University with a view to include them in the Open Research Project of new techniques in electronic music and electro-acoustics.

In the last few weeks of 2009, there has been a fervor of contemporary music initiatives. In November, in the Sala di Via dei Greci dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia, the second EMUFest, a major International festival of electronic music and electro-acustics took place. It was a success for experimental composers from Italy (including Marcello Filotei and Nicola Sani), the USA (Larry Matthews Gaab), Argentinia (Jorge Luis Dad Levi) and many other countries. There was also an international ensemble, with a large American presence, performing at the essenzialmente Usa presenta of the Istituzione Universitaria dei Concerti in a program titled MEV (Musica Elettronica Viva / Live Electronic Music) – Grande Raccordo Anulare (the Beltway).

At the Parco della Musica – a complex of three concert halls and a Studio Theatre – an international jazz festival is coming to completion; in early December the world premiere of Philip Glass’ latest opera Le Streghe di Venezia (The witches of Venice) is planned; another world premiere is scheduled (again at the Parco della Musica) in January, the last composition by Hans Werner Henze, Immolazione (Immolation). Glass, now 72, needs no introduction to the North American music audience. Henze, 82, is known as the prolific composer who made dodecaphonic music accessible to large audiences through his 16 operas (to date), 10 Symphonies and several chamber music and ballet compositions. Glass and Henze are quite different but they are both recognized authorities in contemporary music.

In the cozy Sala Casella in the garden of the Palazzina Vagnuzzi (the headquarters of the Accademia Filarmonica Romana), three new chamber operas by Italian young- and middle aged-composers will be unveiled in mid-December: one of them is staged by the German El Cimarron ensemble and due for a tour of the Iberian Peninsula. Check back here later for my review of the performance.

The real major event, however, is the 46th Nuova Consonanza Festival. Nuova Consonanza is one of the most important contemporary music associations in Europe. Its annual Festival attracts musicians from the five continents to Rome. This year, the Festival started November 18th in the Grand Salon of Villa Medici – the Roman Headquarters of the Académie de France. The opening program was titled Après Boulez and featured the music of Luciano Berio, Gerard Grisey, Patrizio Esposito and Yann Robin. Its last concert will be on December 21st and will feature Portrait by Salvatore Sciarrino, an internationally well known Italian contemporary composer. On November 21st, there was the now traditional marathon of live elecytronics and eletrco-acustics, a series of concerts from 4:30 pm to midnight in the Villa Aurelia al Gianicolo, one of the Romen “homes” of the American Academy in Rome; as it is the guest house of the fellow artists, it is seldom opened to the public. An uninterrupted flow of young musicians were attracted by the admission of just €10, with an additional €8 providing them with a full dinner.

Where are the roots of contemporary music in Rome? In his book L’Orchestra del Duce, the historian Stefano Bigazzi states that they grew in Fascist times. Benito Mussolini was a patron of the then contemporary avant-guarde musicians. Malipiero, Casella, Pizzetti, Dallapiccola were in and out of Palazzo Venezia, where the Duce had his office. He supported the Venice Contemporary Music Festival as a counterpart to the stuffy Salzburg Festival. He even had Berg’s Wozzeck performed in Rome in 1942 even though both the composer and the opera were forbidden as “degenerate” by his German allies. No one less than Igor Stravinsky publicly was said to “venerate” the Italian dictator for what he was doing for modern and experimental music.

If you come to Rome, please try to discover a musical side very few tourists are aware of: contemporary and electronic music.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Budget Barber with a Sign of Fellini and the Marx Brothers

by Giuseppe Pennisi

Il Barbiere di Siviglia is the only Rossini opera which has always appeared on stage, even during the Romantiscism and Verismo periods when most of his productions had disappeared from the theatres of Europe and North America. The libretto is a lot of fun and the music sparkles like good, earthy Lambrusco wine, whereas Paisiello’s earlier Barbiere is sentimental and slightly larmoyant. The Rossini opera is not merely slapstick. It is more subtle than what it appears to be superficially. Dramatically and musically, Il Barbiere contrasts two parallel but quite distinct paths: that of Figaro – efficient, quick, someone who calls a spade a spade – and that of all the other characters, all left behind, fearful and yielding, verbose and bombastic. Even the good-looking and wealthy Almaviva is plaintive, although imbued with music of the highest elegance right from the start. But a mathematician or an economist would tell you from the start of the opera that according to game theory, the wit of Figaro and of Rosina would defeat all the others.

This subtlety was not at all taken into account in the two production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia staged at the Rossini Opera Festival (ROF) in Pesaro. The 1992 production had, as its main set, the Bologna Archiginnasio (a classroom for anatomy lessons in one of the most ancient European Universities). The 2005 production was staged in Bartolo’s house and looked like a prison. There can be little fun and even less subtlety in an anatomy class-room or a jail. Thus, even excellent singing was largely in vain.

Then came a 2005 production by the Fiesole School of Music, which has been revived by a number of Provincial theatres (Jesi, Fermo, Udine, Ravenna). the original was only staged for a few nights in an open-air Roman Theatre. The production was signed by Damiano Michelietto (then very young, now an enfant prodige collecting rewards in the European scene). The production requires, on the stage, only some 20 chairs, 12 umbrellas, a wooden staircase and a few balloons. The overture is in a second (or third class) compartment of a local train. The opera is a Fellini circus: Figaro is dressed like a Fox, Basilio like a Snake, Bartolo like a Dog. And Rosina is a preppy Ivy League Yankee. The pace of the show is swift; there are plenty of gags worthy of the Marx Brothers, and a lot of laughs from the audience. The ROF has been, nonetheless, quite useful: most of the young singers (a Korean, an American, a Russian, a few Italians) come were trained in its school (the Accademia Rossiniana of Pesaro). The stage direction rightly focuses on the contrast between Figaro and Rosina on the one hand, and the rest of the other characters on the other.

By Western European, and Italian, standards the production is a low cost operation: the full tour cost less than € 650.000 (8 performances – viz less than € 80.000 per performance, including rehearsal costs, soloists and orchestra).

Obviously, the latest ROF Barbiere lined up, in 2005 in Pesaro, an all-star cast: Juan Diego Florez, Bruno de Simone, Dalibor Janis, Natale De Carolis and Joyce Di Donato, guided by Daniele Gatti’s baton.

In the latest Barbiere, Giampaolo Maria Bisanti is conducting diligently. There are two casts for the three main roles. On November 13th performance, I saw the tenor Francesco Marsiglia emphasized the central register; he is a lyric tenor more in line with the vocal demands required for Puccini’s Rodolfo in Bohème than with Almaniva’s high Cs and E-flats; the demanding Cessa di più resistere aria was cut. I am told that his alter ego, Enea Scala, is better suited for the role. In the young international cast – a mini UN – there are three voices to note: the Korean Kim Jootaek (23 years old), just perfect (even in diction) as Figaro; the Russian Alexey Yakimov (24), a funny Don Basilio with impeccable grave tonalities; and especially Charlotte Doobs (nearly 20), an exquiste Rosina from Vermont (with a slight New England accent). Roberto Abbondanza also makes quite a good Don Bartolo.



Melodrama buffo in two acts - libretto by Cesare Sterbini from the homonym comedy
by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais
in collaboration with Accademia Rossiniana of Rossini Opera Festival 2009
and with La Scuola dell'Opera Italiana (Bologna)

characters and interpreters:

Il Conte d’Almaviva

director and set designer, DAMIANO MICHIELETTO
costume designer, CARLA TETI
conductor, David Crescenz

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