This observation – I won’t call it a review because I am becoming more and more aware of my limitations as a reviewer – of the December 9th performance of this season’s opening work at the Opera here is long overdue. But finally here it is.
Perhaps it is no mistake that Riccardo Muti has found his way to a city known for its churches and priestly population. More and more in the past few years he has taken on an almost priest-like aura as he mounts the podium in opera houses and concert halls in Salzburg, Ravenna, New York or Chicago. Going to a Muti performance seems to have become an almost religious experience for his followers. A hush falls about the hall as he enters the pit and god help the person that interrupts the mysteries with unnecessary movements, coughing or applause before the final note has sounded – they are liable to be silenced by the horrified reaction of the devout or even worse a glare from the high priest himself.
Now I am a Muti follower and devotee myself – I have been since I first saw him conduct Don Pasquale in 1971 at Salzburg – what a year that was! Abbado with Rossini, Karajan Verdi, Boehm Berg and Mozart and Muti Donizetti! One of the great joys of the past few years is having the opportunity to see performances he has conducted both in Salzburg and here in Roma. However I am starting to question how far we can go with the hero worship and reverence – we are after all in the opera house or the concert hall not a church or a temple. Music was meant to be responded to and unless its Ambrosian Chant was not meant to be heard in a sepulchred vacuum.
Take in point last month’s Muti-led season opener at the Teatro dell’Opera: Moïse et Pharaon. This was Rossini’s reworking for the Parisian audience of his earlier Neapolitan work Mosé in Egitto. Many of the big numbers were carried over from the earlier work and others added to meet the requirements of the Opéra for spectacle, dance and the talents of the resident singers. Yes the subject is of a religious nature – though librettists Balocchi and de Jouy somehow work the Burning Bush into the Plagues on Egypt!!!! – but it also has good old fashioned operatic situations woven into the story. Oh sure Moses keeps saying “let my people go” and Pharaoh says “yes, no, maybe” but there’s also the forbidden love of Aménophis, Pharaoh’s son, for Anaï, Moses’ niece, and the conversion of Sinaïde, Pharaoh’s wife, to the faith of the Hebrews thrown in for good measure. It pretty much ends according to C. B. deMille – the Hebrews escape through the Red Sea and Pharaoh and the forces of Egypt are drowned but there’s a fair bit of digression along the way.
|This photo doesn’t half catch the brilliant effect of the final scene as the sea parted and Moïse and the Children of Israel made their way through the cascading waters to the other side.|
There are quite a few ensembles, chorale moments and the incredibly beautiful Des cieux où tu résides quartet with chorus – but a great deal of the music is Rossini writing for star singers to show off their vocal chops. The very beautifully produced programme – I really must do a posting on the remarkable programmes published here one day – included pictures of all the principle singers, both in costume and civilian dress, who sang at the primiére but search as I might I found no picture of the conductor nor even a mention of his name.
Such was not the case here in Roma in December, the name foremost on the posters was Muti. Though there was “names” among the singers they were secondary to the maestro and were not the reason we were making the journey to Piazza Beniamino Gigli. Not that the maestro in anyway failed us. This is the third time he has led this particular work and his love and familiarity showed. The forces in Roma may not have been as first rate as those at La Scala or Salzburg but the orchestra is constantly showing what can be achieved when working with a demanding taskmaster. However I am starting to wonder – given both that evening’s performance and the next evening at La Scala – if all Italian orchestras have problems with their brass sections? Riccardo Zanellato’s chorus did some of the finest work I’ve heard from them in the past four years – and Moïse is one of those works where the chorus is as important as the soloists.
Muti’s soloists were a variable and in one a case a questionable choice. Ildar Abdrazakov (above left) has sung Moïse in Muti’s two previous productions and his is a powerful, if not dominating, performance and in Nicola Alaimo’s Pharaon he had a worthy opponent.
I was expecting much of Sonia Ganassi (right) as Sinaïde but have noticed in the past few performances I’ve experience that her voice has taken on a very uncharacteristic harshness. Her duet with the equally rough sounding Eric Cutler (Aménophis) almost became a shouting match. Though it should be noted that Ganassi was cheered to the rafters while Cutler received a few jeers from the normally timid galleriste. Juan Francisco Gatell (Éliézer) and Barbara Di Castri (Maria) offered strong support in their few solo passages and to the ensembles. The one miscalculation was Anna Kasyan in the role of Anaï – her is a pleasant but thin voice and she seemed to lack both the breath control and the technique for her big scene. This music was written originally for the great Colbran and adapted for the equally admired Cinti-Damoreau, and no matter how brilliant the conductor requires a singer of equal brilliance.
|Director/Designer Pier’Alli’s design for the opening of the Red Sea – a spectacular use of projections, lighting and a semi-permanent architectural set. The entire production was the best example I’ve seen of using modern technology as scenography.|
I am not an admirer of Pier’Alli as a director and have yet to see anything staged by him where there has been any real solid characterizations or emotional core but this time I was overwhelmed with admiration for his designs – his use of architectural elements, lights and multiple projections were exceptional. For the first time in my opera going experience I saw modern technology used effectively and seamlessly to enhance and illuminate a production – as a sidebar it made the sloppy projections in the La Scala Die Walküre the following evening look like the work of amateurs. Highest praise to Alli for his designs, Guido Levi for his exceptional lighting and the technical staff at the Teatro for putting it all together.
|Shen Wei’s modern choreography was an remarkable match for the extended dance sequences Rossini wrote for the original production in Paris.|
Equally as praise worthy was the choreography of Shen Wei for the extended dance sequences that make up most of the third act of the opera. Dance was a must for any production at the Opéra in those days and Rossini met the requirement with 20 minutes of pleasant, highly dancable, if not memorable, music. I had read much about Wei in the translations I had done for Ballet2000 but wasn’t expecting the simple beauty of his dance patterns and movements. Like Alli’s designs his choreography reflected an innate sense of musicality.
And that might well be the watchword for the entire evening – musicality. That sensitivity to, knowledge of, and talent for music that is the mark of a Muti performance. But what was lacking, and frankly seems to now elude the maestro, was any feeling of spontaneity; less a feeling of awed worshipping at the altar of art and more of feeling of joyful participation in the art itself would have made a good evening more than that.
To celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Unification of Italy Maestro Muti will be giving us Nabucco in March – another work with a religious theme and the added strong patriotic subtext. It is early Verdi, raw and a little rough around the edges a bit like the Risorgimento itself. I can only hope that the Maestro will give us more of the rough and raw and a little less of the religious.
Photos: Falsini for the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma
17 gennaio – Santa Nadia