After a weekend of Baroque at Salzburg in May-June, this past month seems to be devoted to the 20th Century with one brief excursion into the late 1800s. Just to be perverse I’ll start with the last first – yesterday’s trip up to the Festival of the Two Worlds in Spoleto.
This year’s Spoleto Festival continued with what seems to be a mini-theme: obscure French musical theatre. Last year is was Albert Roussel’s opera-ballet Padmâvatrî, and this year Reynaldo Hahn and Sasch Guitry’s boulevard musical Mozart. Created in 1925 by Guitry for his wife Yvonne Printemps, Mozart was chiefly an excuse for her to appear in travesti, gamine and winsome and display her vocal talents. Aside from two brief numbers for secondary characters the music is restricted to an energetic overture, a few pieces of background music and three arias for the title character. As with most Boulevard theatre the story line is rather flimsy and an excuse for bon mot and witty dialogue; the teenage Mozart returns to the home of Baron Grimm in Paris, the scene of his earlier triumphs as a child prodigy. He flirts with four woman in the household and has perhaps seduced ne of them, but we never find out who. He is sent packing before he can do any real damage but three men have been made aware of how important the women in their lives are to them. Perhaps Guitry was thinking of his own wife who was soon to leave him for the younger Pierre Fresnay.
Director-Designer Pier Luigi Pizzi set the action squarely in the period of the work’s creation, the 1920s. His art deco set in blacks, whites and grays enclosed the action perhaps too closely forcing some of the staging down onto the auditorium floor which made for some odd dynamics of sound as did the placement of the Orchestra J Futura. His costumes were marvels of period clothing – many reflecting the influence of Erté and other designers of the French Music Hall – with glorious splashes of color, purples, oranges and for the period clad Mozart pinks amongst the blacks and whites. My friend Simonetta knew she could carry off that daring first little number in black worn by Orianne Moretti as La Guimard, the ballerina – and if anyone I know could it would be her. The problem with Pizzi’s setting came mostly for the dance numbers – choreographed and danced by Gheorghe Jancu and Moretti they were awkward attempts to fit Charleston and 20s dance steps to pastiche 18th century music.
Of the actors the obvious standouts were Jean Morel (left), still handsome at 75, as Baron Grimm and Marie-Therese Keller as Madame d’Epinay – both seasoned performers with the lightness of touch to deliver Guitry’s slightly dated lines with grace and wit – Keller positively throbbing with passion as much when she received Mozart’s attention as when she avowed her love for the Baron. The rest of the supporting cast were fine but could have taken a few notes from their seniors. Boulevard theatre requires a style that most performer today lack.
But ultimately Mozart was written as a vehicle for a star like Printemps and as fine as Sophie Haudebourg was she didn’t have that “je ne sais quoi” that is need for the part. Perhaps it was Pizzi’s direction but she played the part on one, perhaps two, notes with too much boyish laughter. Her vocalizing was good if at times slightly wayward but again placement for her arias – on the auditorium floor for two – may have worked against her. And Mozart’s final exit with the bravado declaration that someday the world would recognize his genius went for little – something I’m sure Printemps as an actress and Guitry as a director would never have let pass.
At the end of the performance I chatted briefly with Alberto Testa, the renowned Italian dancer-choreographer-author – who has a fondness for the Paris of Printemps and Guitry. He remarked on how light and charming the work was and how captivating in its innocence and despite the drawbacks I’ve mentioned I must agree with him. Yes it is a period piece but as entertainment it works and though there aren’t stars like Printemps in our day to give it that final lift, it made for an enjoyable afternoon’s entertainment.
A violent thunderstorm that lasted almost 2 hours meant we had to forgo an after performance walk around Spoleto and forced us to sit on an umbrellaed terrace drinking aperitvo and consuming copious nibbles proffered by the thoughtful barrista – there are worse ways to spend a late Saturday afternoon.
One thing we did manage was pranzo at La Pecchiarda, my favorite restaurant in town. Sitting on the terrace in their garden (above) we were well looked after by a wonderful waitress – how can you not love someone who recommends a wine by saying that “ladies seem to develop a tenderness for it” – we tucked into a splendid menu of antipasti, secondi, desert, coffee and wine for four at half the price you would pay in Roma.
I had their wonderful take on Melanzane Parmigiana followed by real Chicken caccitore (we must talk about the abomination they serve under that name in Canada one day)along with wonderful roast potatoes; Simonetta favoured a thick and tasty bean soup and a local beef dish with grilled zucchini; Ben went for a truffled bruschetta and strangozzzi with porcini; and Laurent tried the truffle fritta (a creamy scrambled egg flecked with earthy truffles)and a beef dish with ruccola and shavings of Parmesan cheese. The only less than magnificent items were the rather ordinary pana cotta and semi-fredo that ended the meal. A really wonderful lunch made that much more enjoyable by the company.
And that wine that invoked such tenderness was a light, slightly fizzy white from Cantina Baldasarri in the region. If a lady could develop a tenderness for it I could see a few people developing an outright passion.
05 lulgio – Sant’Antonio Maria Zaccaria