Notes and Editorial Reviews
Gianna Fratta, cond; Giuseppe Altomare (
); Fabio Andreotti (
); Patrizia Cigna (
); Francesco Facini (
); Maria Scogna (
); Isabella Amati (
); Salvatore Gaias (
); Simone Piazzola (
); Capitanata SO & Ch
BONGIOVANNI 20014 (DVD: 75:00) Live: Foggia 1/2006
If an opera’s success on the operatic stage were a true measure of its quality,
would be regarded as inferior to
would fade rapidly in luster before the genius of
and, for that matter, all critics would abandon the operas of Monteverdi, Handel, and Rameau to lay wreaths upon the score of
. But we know this isn’t the case. An opera’s international popularity is due to a variety of circumstances. So why should we conclude that just because Umberto Giordano’s stage career hit its apogee with
(1896), the rest of his works are feeble attempts to rehash it? True, he attempted the
theatrical formula several times again with moderate success, notably in
(1898—its premiere also featured a barely known young tenor, Enrico Caruso) and
(1903). However, by the 1920s, the composer had evolved a brilliant, complex, multifaceted style based in part on close study of Verdi’s
. The result in
La cena delle beffe
(1924) was not merely his greatest opera, but also a superb piece of theater that desperately deserves a modern, first-rate production.
Giordano’s final completed work,
of 1929, isn’t far behind it in quality, though more genial in tone. Giovacchino Forzano drew upon fabliaux for his libretto about a young miller’s daughter who sees the King in royal procession days before her marriage to a young man, Colombello. Rosalina falls in love with the monarch; and when an astrologer, priest, and lawyer can come to no agreement for treatment, her parents take the matter before the King himself. He promises to help, but makes it conditional on her spending one night with him. This occurs over the parents’ objections; and the King is moved at Rosalina’s declaration of rapt love in his bedchambers. Then he disrobes behind a divider, and appears divested of his finery: old, bald, skinny, and tottering, laughing at the girl. Having cured Rosalina of her fantasy, the King proceeds to turn her over to her long-suffering Colombello.
Giordano’s score is invariably fleet-footed, and often ironical. Make no mistake, there are passionate lyrical moments every bit as good as “Un dì, all’azzurro spazio,” “Come un bel di di maggio,” and “Amor ti vieta” in this work: Rosalina’s “Questa è la veste bianca,” in particular, and her “Cosi coi fior d’arancio,” but much also is to be found in brief lines or double lines of text that occur outside any aria framework. Overall, though, the writing is expertly double-edged: are we meant to be entranced at the wordless chorus using a Debussyian whole tone scale when we first observe the King’s beautiful bedchambers, while the royal manservant opens the jewel chests for Rosalina’s inspection? Or are we meant to regard it with detachment as a tongue-in-cheek musical cliché, deployed expertly? The answer is probably
to both questions. Then there’s the Intermezzo between the first and second scenes, vigorous strings leading to a floridly decadent, Chopin-like theme for solo piano, joined eventually by the violin, then the cello, in perfect Palm Court style—before the orchestra interrupts, changing the tempo and meter. Suddenly, we recognize the same theme as a dashing, gallant motif with all the blood of
in it, and we realize we’ve been had. Rosalina will be taken in, too, for this is the theme associated with the King, or rather, his courtly appearance.
Alas, while there’s much to enjoy in this production, there’s just as much to lament. The camerawork is often good, using medium and moderately long shots to emphasize action rather than play “Who’s singing right now?” Occasionally, however, it’s arty in a way that detracts from the content—such as filming the conductor in action facing from the stage out, at what was clearly a completely different time than the actual performance, the quality and direction of the lights being the giveaway.
Everything is clearly done on a very limited budget; and while the sparse Art Deco set and lighting in the King’s bedchamber are very atmospheric—especially the recessed gold lights inside mirrored chests, an old but durable trick that Cocteau used to great effect in his 1946 fantasy film,
La belle et la bête
—the underwhelming brick-and-gear cutout backdrop in the mill loses points simply because it never animates after Rosalina enters “the building” in the first scene to start it up. Costumes are uniformly good, but the stage direction creates more problems than it solves. Having the priest, lawyer, and astrologer ignore everything around themselves and just sing facing over the footlights makes their efforts seem ritualistic, which clashes with the domestic comedy—as though Goldoni were being treated like his contemporary and rival, the more abstract Gozzi. The children’s dance sequence at the start of the throne room scene, choreographed by Claudio Conti, is frankly a mess, with the kiddies chaotically doing whatever they want, whenever they want. Putting the King at the back of the stage looking forward also means that the miller, his wife, and Colombello have to face him and sing if they want to make their petition believable. Singing while facing upstage is never something that works very well, even with microphones to help out.
In this production, the Colombello doesn’t even try. Theatrically speaking, he appears to have stepped out of a time warp from a period when singers simply planted their feet on the stage, faced the audience, and sang. This happens repeatedly, and he only turns to anyone else on stage when he is silent for lengthy periods. His voice is a curious mix of some of Gigli’s latter-day faults—dropped phrase endings, lifting the voice to notes, detaching soft notes from the rest, and crooning—with an attractive lyric tenor that distantly resembles Gigli’s. The rest of the cast is significantly better. The miller and his wife act and sing their parts decently, as do the three “helpful” professionals in the first scene, despite the lawyer singing out so loudly without regard to the astrologer and priest as to over-balance them severely. Altomare makes a physically stately and vocally effective King, though the final revelation is rendered less effective than it might have been, by altering his appearance only through the addition of a plain nightgown and patently false bald wig. (To be fair, that bald wig might have seemed real to those seated in the audience, but this isn’t the filmed impression.)
But this is very much Cigna’s show. She’s been a secondary presence on primary Italian stages for some time, appearing in big-name performances of Rossini, Verdi, and the like as confidants, maids, nurses, etc. Here she gets a chance to shine, and all the work she puts into the part, both vocally and as an actress, is apparent. The original Rosalina was Toti dal Monte, the possessor of a beautiful, high-lying lyric voice with a glorious extension and moderate coloratura. Giordano took advantage of the extension in
, all the way to in E
, as well as giving her trills. Cigna manages the former competently, if perilously, and the latter with an ease that doesn’t preclude phrasing and shading of a high order. The voice above the passaggio possesses a distinct beat when she puts pressure on it, but in all respects she shows herself a disciplined and intelligent artist.
Sound formats are stereo PCM, and Dobly Digital 5.1, while subtitles are offered in Italian and English. The picture format is 4: 3. The unusually thorough liner notes spend much of their effort on interesting details of the first few performances, which took place under Toscanini. Since those initial performances, featuring the likes of dal Monte, Tancredi Pasero as the Miller, and Armand Crabbé as the King, the opera has never received the kind of performance that lets one appreciate it directly, without hearing and viewing it through a gauze of badly flawed singers and orchestras. It dearly deserves it; but until that happens, this is the best vocal version around, easily surpassing Biondi/Foggia (1971) in particular and Palumbo/O Intl d’Italia (1998). It is also the only visual recording of the work, and possesses more than sufficient energy (with fine, idiomatic conducting from Fratta) and skill to suggest just what
could be in the right hands.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
Works on This Recording
Il re by Umberto Giordano
Giuseppe Altomare (Bass Baritone),
Fabio Andreotti (Tenor),
Maria Scogna (Mezzo Soprano),
Francesco Facini (Bass),
Patrizia Cigna (Soprano)
Capitanata Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1928; Italy
Date of Recording: 01/2006
Venue: Teatro Umberto Giordano di Foggia
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