Martina Franca, situated in Puglia in south east Italy, is home to the annual Festival della Valle d’Itria, which is largely, although not exclusively, devoted to the presentation of obscure, neglected, and rarely-performed operas. Its stated mission is “dedicated to researching and deepening our knowledge of Italian bel canto,” and it is in this light that it selects operas and other musical offerings for performance. Venues are scattered throughout the town, with the courtyard of the Palazzo Ducale playing host to the main events. One of the highlights of this year’s festival is the opera semiseria “Margherita d’Anjou,” by Meyerbeer, written in 1820 during his seven-year sojourn in Italy.
Meyerbeer is famous today for having been one of the most prominent composers of his age, but who is now largely neglected. His reputation has never really recovered from Wagner’s withering criticisms, who whilst admitting Meyerbeer’s qualities as a composer and as a musician, basically, dismissed his music as artifice, “effects without causes,” pleasant on the ear, but lacking the deep insights required for great art. Today, notwithstanding the occasional, but low profile, presentations of his “grand operas,” composed for L’Opéra in Paris, Meyerbeer’s operas are rarely if ever, heard. “Margherita d’Anjou” exemplifies this trend; although initially successful, it has since been almost entirely ignored, and restricted to a single, (but, high quality) recording by Opera Rara. Even recorded excerpts are rare. The recent CD of scenes from Meyerbeer’s operas by Diana Damrau, (highly praised in Operawire’s CD review), although containing excerpts from his Italian operas, also failed to include a single contribution from Margherita d’Anjou. Thus, this presentation by the Festival della Valle d’Itria provides us with a rare and welcome opportunity to reassess one of Meyerbeer’s almost forgotten operas.
From War to Celebrity TV
The director, Alessandro Talevi, concerned that opera semiseria, with its comic and serious components, can feel very uncomfortable for modern audiences, decided to discard the original narrative, set against the background of the Wars of the Roses in 15th century England, in favor of a modern day setting of celebrity television, social media and fashion house culture. And given the ridiculous plot of the original drama, with its unbelievable cross-dressing and mistaken identities, not to mention the confusion that switching between the comic and serious scenes can cause, it proved to be a good decision. Moving the drama to a semi-fantasy world opens up many new possibilities, in which such behavior becomes readily believable, as the characters jump, by turn, from absurd play-acting to facing their inner tensions and real sufferings, and then back again. Moreover, rather than compromising the central themes – of a mother’s love for her child, the conflict between the private and public personae, and the attraction people feel towards iconic personalities – the shift in setting actually highlighted them, bringing dramatic clarity to what is, otherwise, widely regarded as a muddled narrative.
Talevi was aided in his task by some excellent work from the choreographer, Riccardo Olivier, and the set and costume designer, Madeleine Boyd, who combined to create some inspired mise-en-scene, of which the finale to Act 1 was probably the most gripping. Instead of a dense forest, the scene was set at a disco during London fashion week, in which the cast was dressed in a colorful array of punk style costumes, with a Scottish theme. Standing front of stage and filling its entire length, they engaged in some hi-octane dancing as the orchestra pounded out a military rhythm with the chorus singing a rousing rallying cry for the coming struggle, the soloists soaring above the melee. Not only did it all look and sound good, but by placing the scene at a disco it creatively sidesteps any suggestion that a military conflict is actually taking place. Of course, there were moments in which Talevi’s reading sat awkwardly with the original drama, but that counted for little, given the tightening effect to the narrative, sharper focus on the themes and the better balance that was achieved as a result.
From Reality TV Host to Chef to Social Media Star
Central to Talevi’s reading was the comic role of Michele. It was essential to have a comic actor who could dominate the scenes, and not just when present on stage, and who could essay his role in a believable way, allowing the lines between the serious and the comic to blur. To this end Michele was assigned the role of a TV celebrity, producer, and social media star, who has lost all contact with reality, whilst, nevertheless working in reality TV programs. In the first act he appears as a producer of a ‘lonely hearts’ reality TV show, simultaneously exploiting and advising Isaura, who is desperate to reconcile with her estranged husband, Lavarenne, who has become obsessed with Margherita. Michele tracks her through her travails, a cameraman filming everything. In the second act, he reappears as a celebrity chef, serving the guests at a spa hotel.
It fell to Marco Filippo Romano to perform the role, and a magnificent job he did. Romano has the perfect physique and voice for a buffo role, and his acting abilities were equally assured, hamming it up at every turn. His voice strong and flexible, he varied the tone, intonation, and dynamics beautifully, and brought real depth and energy to the role. During the second act trio “Pensa e guarda, amico, all’erta!” for three basses he stood out as the more accomplished, without, however, overshadowing either Glocester or Carlo. In an inspired piece of theatre, Talevi had Michele incapacitate Glocester, not as in the original drama, by physically disarming him, but by taking a photo of him threatening to kill the child, and posting it on social media. It worked superbly, melding the serious and the comedic elements perfectly.
In the title role of Margherita, queen and diva of a successful London fashion house, and involved in a custody battle with her ex-husband, Glocester, for the their son, Edward, was the Italian soprano Giulia de Blasis. In the first scene she strides the catwalk, reeking of superficiality, her adoring fans waving and singing in adulation. As the drama progresses and her private situation becomes increasingly perilous, her personality evolves and her attention turns towards her son, her superficial side evaporating as reality imposes itself on her life. During the first Act, de Blasis produced a somewhat lukewarm performance, casting off her opening cavatina “Miei fedeli” and the following cabaletta “O speme d’un regno” without sufficient feeling, and lacked a certain degree of power in the finale. However, the same cannot be said about her performance in Act 2, in which she produced a deeper, more nuanced and overall more powerful performance. Her presentation of the three-part aria “Dolci alberghi di pace” was delivered with real skill and feeling, and proved to be one of the evening’s highlights. Her phrasing was subtle and delicate, caressing the words with real feeling, as she sang about the Scottish idyll to which she had escaped, which changed noticeably as her fears returned, her voice deliberately hardening to characterize her increasing anxiety. The aria is notable as it could equally be classed as a duet with a solo violin; de Blasis and the violinist complemented each other delightfully, producing a wonderfully pleasing sound as the two voices blended and intertwined on the evening breeze. Nor was de Blasis overpowered in the ensemble scenes, as her voice soared beautifully above the chorus and orchestra. At the end of the evening, Margherita is with a personal trainer, going through some breathing exercises, reality has once again been forgotten; she has, after all her suffering, learnt nothing!
From Opera Star to Pop Star
The role of Lavarenne, played by Anton Rositskiy, was portrayed as Margherita’s pop star ne’er-do-well boyfriend. Another character totally divorced from reality. It takes a lot to believe that this character is eventually reconciled with Isaura, so gross was his behavior up to that point. Rositskiy put in a strong acting performance and certainly convinced in the role. His singing, although flawed in parts, was generally of a pleasing quality. He has light tenor voice with an attractive timbre. His lower and middle registers were secure, but there was an occasional tendency to lose focus and dynamic control as he moved into the higher register. He clearly put in a lot of thought into his phrasing, which yielded good results, both in his arias and in his well executed recitatives. His first act three part aria “Regina, al nostro oprar, e ai sacri dritti,” was performed in his persona as a pop star, the third part of which was sung with a great deal of energy, microphone in hand pointed towards the audience, a là Robbie Williams. This also again illustrated Talevi’s ability to control the narrative, portraying an aria about serving his queen as a pop song.
The Exploited One
Gaia Petrone, as Isaura, gave a compelling performance as the naïve abandoned wife of Lavarenne, whose trusting nature was exploited by both her husband and the TV producer, Michele. Her acting and singing were of a consistently high quality throughout the evening. She brought laughter to comic scenes, such as in Act 1 when she is persuaded by Michele to dress as a male model and join the catwalk, and was at a complete loss on how to behave, her random movements at odds with the slick, stylized posing of the other models. She engendered sympathy when she was asked, by Lavarenne, to deliver a letter to Margherita, her rival. Yet, it was her singing that really impressed; her aria in the second act, “Mio pianto rasciugo,” in which she hopes, against hope, that her husband will return to her was sung with intense longing. Her phrasing was delicate and dripping with sadness, the lines beautifully decorated, the dynamics controlled. Obviously, even the emotionally retarded Lavarenne was unable to resist.
A Confused Designer
Carlo, who in the original drama has, to say the least, a confused role as he shifts alliances, found himself in the same position here. Played by the bass Laurence Meikle, Carlo is another top designer, who resents the way he has been treated by Margherita and vows revenge, before changing his mind and siding with her against Glocester. Looking suitably ridiculous with a red Mohican haircut and yellow and black kilt, he cut an amusing figure, rather than a fierce warrior, which fitted well with his role as a fashion guru. Meikle put in a solid performance and sang well, if a little underpowered at times.
Unleash the Paparazzi
Glocester, portrayed as a media magnate, who unleashes a mob of paparazzi to harass and intimidate Margherita at every twist and turn, in order to smear her reputation as a mother, was played by Bastian Thomas Kohl. Although a relatively minor role, he plays a significant part in the unfolding events, and certainly made a good impression. Physically, he is a big man, and this added to his intimating portrayal of Glocester. He possesses a strong resonant bass, which he used to good effect, especially in the Act 2 trio.
The musical side of the production was under the direction of Fabio Luisi. Always in full control of the forces under his command, he produced a delightful sound from the Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia, eliciting a variety of textural and dynamic shadings, and maintained an excellent balance between the orchestral sections of the orchestra, producing an fully integrated and lively sound, which supported and enhanced the onstage drama.
A special mention must be given to Coro Del Teatro Municipale di Piacenza who provided the chorus. Clearly, well rehearsed by the chorus master Corrado Casato, they produced singing of the highest quality, whether in the opening brindisi “Birra forte, vino schietto,” sung with energy and drive or in the hushed chorus of the highlanders “Zitto ditto… la Regina,” sung pianissimo or the Act 1 stretta “Ma più d’appresso,” during which they produced a refined, clean and nuanced sound, subtle textures and dynamic shadings. It is was real pleasure to listen to bel canto choral singing at its best.
Whether or not this production of “Margherita d’Anjou” by the Festival della Valle d’Itria will manage to restore its reputation is difficult to say. Certainly, it was a well-performed showcase, containing some beautiful musical episodes. However, it is difficult imagine it being performed in its original state; the comical episodes set alongside the violence of warfare do not sit well together, and there are some sections that are dramatically weak. However, with an imaginative director, like Alessandro Talevi, who is prepared to deconstruct the narrative, occasional outings would certainly be a worthwhile enterprise.