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Ensemble

A New Dimension

GIUSEPPE PENNISI reports that
chamber opera is alive and well

 

Chamber opera is a return to the origins of opera, because, at the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries, opera started out as a private musical entertainment, to be performed in the large hall of a palace for the enjoyment of a limited number of friends and guests. Thus, it was chamber opera in the most literal sense.

There are several determinants at the roots of the return. Firstly, chamber opera requires a light budget with few soloists, an instrumental ensemble and simple sets and costumes; also, the production is generally suitable for touring and the costs can be shared. Secondly, it attracts a new and younger audience, partly because it charges lower ticket prices than a regular opera performance. Thirdly, and perhaps more significantly, chamber opera fits crisis times. In his Minima Moralia, Theodor A Adorno considers Stravinsky's chamber opera A Soldier's Tale as one of the best expressions of World War I: the chamber group battered by shocks whose dreamlike compulsiveness simultaneously expresses real and symbolic destruction. This explains also Benjamin Britten's emphasis on chamber opera in the years immediately after World War II.

The young boy with the witches in 'Le Streghe di Venezia'. Photo © 2009 Musacchio & Ianniello
The young boy with the witches in 'Le Streghe di Venezia'. Photo © 2009 Musacchio & Ianniello

An interesting feature of the return of chamber opera is the tendency to be addressed to an international audience. This is a new dimension: even Britten's chamber operas were thought of primarily for an Anglo-Saxon public (although one of his masterpieces was premièred at La Fenice opera house in Venice). Last Summer, two 'international' chamber operas had their premières in Italy with plans for extensive European tours: Le Malentendu by Matteo D'Amico (in Macerata), L'imbalsamatore of Giorgio Battistelli (in Siena), and Kafka Fragments by György Kurtág (in Rimini). Only one of these three operas is in Italian; the other two have their libretti in French and in German respectively. All three have been entrusted to an international cast.

Travelling towards Venice - a scene from 'Le Streghe di Venezia'. Photo © 2009 Musacchio & Ianniello
Travelling towards Venice - a scene from 'Le Streghe di Venezia'. Photo © 2009 Musacchio & Ianniello

In mid-December, three chamber operas had their premières in Rome. For one of them (Le Streghe di Venezia by Philip Glass, seen 7 December 2009) this was a world première. For the other two operas [seen 15 December 2009], it was the Italian première. Mémoirs of Eliogabalus by Stefano Taglietti had its début in 2007 at the Ingolstadt Festival, where it was presented in concert form -- thus, the Rome stage production is almost a world première, and La Storia di Giona by Luca Lombardi had its début on 8 December 2009 in Hallein, near Salzburg, less than a week before reaching the cozy Sala Casella in Rome.

The crowning ceremony from 'Le Streghe di Venezia'. Photo © 2009 Musacchio & Ianniello
The crowning ceremony from 'Le Streghe di Venezia'. Photo © 2009 Musacchio & Ianniello

Le Streghe di Venezia is based on short novel by Beni Montresor, for several years a key figure of the New York City Opera. An opera-ballet version was presented at La Scala in December 1995, but the original composition was largely modified and not in line with Glass' intentions. The Rome version is produced by Musica per Roma in the Parco della Musica and mirrors very closely what Glass wanted. The text can be read in several ways: an initiation process of two children to end up on Venice's throne (eg a modern Mozart's Magic Flute), a Christmas tale (such as Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors), the fatigue of an old king (like in Berio's Un Re in Ascolto) in a rapidly changing world, the intrigues of both the political and the performing arts' environment (as in Strauss' Capriccio). The final aria, by the chamber maid, is sad ('La vita è difficile') but with glimmers of hope ('un pò di vino rosso fa cantar'): in short, life is difficult but a little red wine makes you sing happily. Le Streghe is quite interesting musically: Glass' minimalism includes also quotations from Mozart and Rossini as well as bit of live electronics.

A scene from 'Le Streghe di Venezia'. Photo © 2009 Musacchio & Ianniello
A scene from 'Le Streghe di Venezia'. Photo © 2009 Musacchio & Ianniello

The Rome production is also a joy for the eyes: in a small theatre for seven hundred seats, computerized projections, mimes, acrobats and glittering costume colors make the audience feel that a feast is going on. The stage direction (Giorgio Barberio Corsetti) is fast: although the performance starts at 9pm and ends at nearly 11pm, the many children in the audience followed the plot with interest and enjoyed the show. Among the voices, it's worth mentioning Carmen Romeu, Anna Goryacheva and two children: Matteo Graziani and Francesco Passaretti alternate in the role of the boy, and Maria Luisa Paglione and Daniela Sbrigoli in that of the girl. The Contemporanea Ensemble del Parco della Musica is of high quality. Le Streghe will also be seen in Verona and Ravenna and, maybe, abroad.

The Emperor chanting about his own power in 'Memoirs of Elagabalus'. Photo: El Cimarron Ensemble
The Emperor chanting about his own power in 'Memoirs of Elagabalus'. Photo: El Cimarron Ensemble

The Mémoirs of Eliogabalus is a full one act opera in five scenes. Each scene is an aria : it is a new and original view of the Roman dissolute Emperor, already the protagonist of a Baroque opera by Francesco Cavalli (a major hit last Summer at the Grange Festival) and more recently of a Hans Werner Henze opera. In Stefano Taglietti's work, the Emperor has, at the center of his philosophy, his own tension between creative power and divine vision. The five scenes are a path towards a delirium involving not only Eliogabalus but the decaying Roman Empire as well. The Storia di Giona is a modern reading of the Bible. Both operas have the imprint of Henze's chamber opera: a small ensemble and only a voice, a baritone, like in El Cimarron. It is not mere chance that the ensemble staging them is named El Cimarron after Henze's well known masterpiece.

The Emperor dreaming about his past loves and lovers in 'Memoirs of Elagabalus'. Photo: El Cimarron Ensemble
The Emperor dreaming about his past loves and lovers in 'Memoirs of Elagabalus'. Photo: El Cimarron Ensemble

They are quite different. Vocally, Eliogabalus is more elaborate than Giona because it mirrors a complex psychological development within a rich historical setting. Also Lombardi's vocal writing, though elaborate, hinges upon declamation whereas Taglietti's is definitely cut in specific arias. The orchestration is excellent in both works, with a very economic ensemble: percussion, guitar and flute, and atmosphere and psychology are fully rendered. There's effective stage direction by Michael Kerstan. Robert Koeller deserves special praise both as a baritone and as an actor. He is a velvet baritone who can reach high acute tonalities and stay put on them. He also has a marvelous legato. On stage he's a perfect actor.

Copyright © 20 December 2009 Giuseppe Pennisi,
Rome, Italy

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The double bill Memoirs of Eliogabalus / La Storia di Giona, performed by El Cimarron and soloist R Koeller, with stage direction by Michael Kerstan, is on its way to Kiev and Prague.

Le Streghe di Venezia is performed by C Romeo, A Goraycheva, G Bocchino, S Alberti, M Graziani, F Passaretti, M L Paglione, D Sbrigoli, with the Parco della Musica Contemporanea Ensemble conducted by Tonino Battista, stage direction and sets by Giorgio Barberio Corsetti, costumes: Marina Schindler, lighting: Gianluca Cappelletti, choreography: Julien Lambert, video: Angelo Longo, the Cantori del Coro Arcobaleno dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, libretto by Beni Montresor, and acrobats: J Lambert, E Bettin, D Sorisi and L Trefiletti.

PHILIP GLASS

OPERA

ROME

ITALY

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