La Fenice 2016-17 Review – Cefalo e Procri: Solid Production Concept & Team Revives Underdeveloped Work

(Credit: Michele Crosera)

For the final new production of the 2016-17 season, La Fenice presented Krenek’s chamber opera, “Cefalo e Procri,” consisting of a prologue and three scenes. Written in 1934, for the 3rd International Festival of Contemporary Music at the Venice Biennale and premiered at the Teatro Goldoni, to a libretto by Kuefferle, it received only a lukewarm reception and promptly disappeared from the stage. Even Krenek himself was apparently unimpressed by his own efforts and rarely mentioned his “brief and issueless flight into Italian opera” again. Alban Berg was, however, complimentary after having seen its twelve-tone score. The brevity of the work – it lasts only approximately 35 minutes – probably did little to help its cause.

Based loosely on the myth of “Cefalo e Procri” from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” it concerns the love between Cefalo and his wife, Procri, in which the themes of jealousy, fidelity, and deception are explored. In Ovid’s original story, Cefalo accidentally kills his wife, Procri, who because of her suspicions, is spying on her husband. Hearing a noise and suspecting danger he throws his javelin, which never misses its mark, towards the sound, and fatally wounds Procri. He is distraught and their lives together are cut short, both destroyed. The meaning behind the myth is clear: jealousy will extinguish love!

Messing With the Story

Krenek and his librettist, Kuefferle, however, changed the ending. Instead of killing Procri, the goddess Diana intervenes and preserves her life, and in the process destroyed the myth’s original message. Its dramatic ending is thus compromised – jealousy’s sting has no lasting impact! The underlying moral was deliberately reworked to reflect the sensibilities of the baroque period: extremes should be avoided and balance in all things promoted. Krenek pointedly referred to the work in 1934, a “moralità pseudo-classica.” Shorn of its original ending the work loses a lot of its dramatic force, which no doubt, partially accounts for the opera’s neglect.

Underpinning the work’s moral position, Krenek constructed the piece to reflect the musical structures of the baroque period, that is, arias separated by recitatives. Although essentially a dodecaphonic composition, it is not rigidly so and includes a wider variety of forms, which allows for greater accessibility. At the same time, it preserves the ability to penetrate the unconscious and psychological depths of a character (possibly the one great strength of serial music), especially when applied to characters experiencing severe emotional trauma as found in Berg’s operas, “Wozzeck” and “Lulu.” However, the brevity of “Cefalo e Procri” despite its concision, does not allow for too great an exploration, and thus does not make the most of this opportunity.

Solving a Huge Problem

The director, Valentino Villa, was therefore faced with a difficult task in bringing this work to the stage. The opera is very short, too short for a deep exploration of its themes, lacks a degree of dramatic impact and employs a musical language that most audiences find disconcerting, if not impossible.

The solution arrived at by Villa and the La Fenice Foundation was to present the opera alongside a newly commissioned work, “Eccessivo è il dolor quand’egli è muto” by the Italian composer Silvia Colasanti. The piece is based on the same myth but restricted to Procri’s lament for Cefalo, yet also hinting at Procri’s own forthcoming death. By using a common set, Villa presents the two works within a single contextual framework. Olympus is depicted as a mansion in which Cefalo and Procri entertain themselves by acting out “kaleidoscopic” versions of their lives, lives that are always subject to reinterpretation. We are privy to two such visions, one in which Procri will die, and another in which she will live. Yet, at all times they are controlled by an external force, playthings in hands of the gods who, as in the original Greek myths, are all too human, and also eternal pleasure seekers. The production, while focusing on the possible consequences jealousy can have on our lives, therefore, reintroduces tragedy into Krenek’s sanitized account. The pointless and mind-numbing search for pleasure as an end in itself is certainly a tragedy, and a message pertinent for the time in which we live.

The first work to be presented was “Eccessivo è il dolor quand’egli è muto.” It is not an opera, and may best be described as an extended aria with a musical introduction, and end piece. Nevertheless, it is an intensely dramatic work and well-suited the stage. The text is taken from Cavali’s “Lamento di Procri,” and explores the pain suffered by Procri, after having been tricked into betraying and, then subsequently, losing Cefalo. The musical introduction is composed in a modern style, and at a distinct distance from the baroque. It is a very unsettling piece, with a dynamic vibrancy and attack which was underscored by the interesting use of percussion, and alerted the listener to the distressing scene which was to follow. The subsequent extended aria was a poignant and evocative composition in which primacy was given to the voice. As Colasanti explained, “The vocal line being almost identical to the 17th century one,” but that “…I modified some of tempos, expanding some parts to make them more lyrical.” The newly composed orchestral accompaniment was perfectly matched, never blandly in unison or simply a dull continuo, but was a rich, colorful background that produced the necessary frisson to interest, and created an ideal emotional complement.

Dynamic Team on TV

The soprano, Silvia Frigato, produced a convincing and nuanced performance as Procri, bringing a real poignancy and sadness to the part. Her expressive voice seemed particularly well-suited, which she subtly modified through changes in intonation, dynamics, and coloring to characterize Procri’s disposition, whilst at the same time retaining the essential “bel canto” at the heart of the baroque.

Lasting around fifteen to twenty minutes, “Eccessivo è il dolor quand’egli è muto” proved to be a perfect companion piece to “Cefalo e Procri”. Both works are a pastiche of ancient myth, baroque sensibilities, and musical structures, as well as modern music. It is a beautiful and fascinating work, and one it would certainly be a delight to hear again, whether in a theatre or a concert hall.

With only the briefest of pauses for applause and slight set modifications “Eccessivo è il dolor quand’egli è muto” moved quickly into “Cefalo e Procri,” thereby reinforcing the connection between the works. The set, designed by Massimo Cecchetto, and used for both works, consisted of a background of white on black paneling, with a large flatscreen TV positioned in the center, in which the participants acted as their entertainments. In the main room of the mansion, the gods watched on, and the servants dressed as scientists brought in the relevant props for the ongoing experiment: a test, with Cefalo and Procri as guinea pigs, devised by Aurora and Diana to determine which is superior – ardor or judgment. The scenes on the TV, in which Cefalo and Procri act out their drama, are very picturesque, depicting mountainous and forest landscapes. The gods entered the room only when it served their own interests. At the end of the opera Crono delivers the verdict, balance is always preferable to any extreme.

The role of Procri required a greater degree of expression than in “Eccessivo è il dolor quand’egli è muto,” but Frigato put in another solid performance.

In the role of Cefalo, Leonardo Cortellazzi showed versatility, as he moved rapidly between a variety of emotional states. He possesses a clear, well-rounded tenor, strong across the range, and sang the part well.

Crono was undertaken by William Corrò, who made the most of the part. Dressed in a dark black suit he oozed authority. His voice has a pleasant well-balanced timbre, in which he emphasized its darker shades to successfully characterize the part.

Francesca Ascioti portrayed a dominant and authoritative Diana. She has a strong voice and displayed good technique, using the lower end of her range to elicit some beautiful colors.

Unfortunately, Cristina Baggio as Aurora, who was dressed in a flamboyant blue chiffon dress, was not on the best form. Her voice, although exhibiting strength and clarity, did not impress, and was seemingly under stress at times, tending to fray as she moved into her upper register.

The Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice under the baton of Tito Ceccherini performed to its usual high standards, bringing a vibrancy and energy, and highlighting in the process some interesting passages, to what are two largely unknown scores.

The production, which took place in the more intimate space of Teatro Malibran, was poorly attended on the opening night with, at a guess, no more than 30 percent of the seats being occupied. The production deserved better and did not reflect the quality of the works on offer. Anyone who has the opportunity to catch a performance should not let the chance escape.

Nevertheless, the whole evening lasting no more than an hour was a mixed experience. On the one hand, La Fenice must be applauded for having the courage to do what all serious top-class opera companies should be doing in unearthing rarities, such as “Cefalo e Procri,” and commissioning new works. On the other hand, one hour is too short for an evening’s entertainment.

One left the theatre feeling slightly underfed.

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