Giorgio Battistelli is Italy’s most prolific living opera composer, with a catalogue of more than 30 compositions for the stage. In 2005, his opera, “Richard III,” received its world premiere at the De Vlaamse Opera, Belgium, to considerable acclaim and was followed by revivals in Düsseldorf and Geneva. Now, after more than 13 years, it has received its Italian premier at Venice’s La Fenice, in a reprise of Robert Carsen’s original production. And it was certainly worth the wait! “Richard III” is a dark, compelling and tightly constructed work, underpinned by a score that seamlessly connects and elevates the onstage drama, with a wonderfully fashioned depiction of Richard III himself, who dominates the work.
Unsurprisingly, it is an opera based on Shakespeare’s history play of the same name. The librettist, Ian Burton, stuck closely to the structure of the play but, for logistical reasons, streamlined its plot and eliminated numerous minor characters, and in the process reduced it to two acts.
The first act deals with Richard’s capture of the English throne through his single-minded determination to have power at any cost, and in the process kills off anyone who stands in his way. The act ends with Richard feigning reluctance in accepting the Crown at the behest of the people.
In the second act Richard continues his killing spree, in an attempt to hold on to power, but has now isolated himself, and at the battle of Bosworth is killed, and Henry Tudor ascends to the throne. Burton removed all extraneous action from the work so that it created a sharply focused psychological portrayal of Richard III, with the other characters disappearing to a greater or lesser extent into the background. Rather than competing with Shakespeare, Burton sensibly and successfully chose to incorporate large parts of the original text, including its most memorable lines, “A horse, a horse, a kingdom for a horse,” “I am not in the giving vein today” and so on, and of course starting with Richard’s famous soliloquy “Now is the winter of our discontent,” but simplifying, redistributing and adding his own lines where necessary.
Battistelli’s score uses a wide variety of musical forms, styles and instruments. It would, in fact, be easy to describe the score as an eclectic mix, but Battistelli, in the program notes, absolutely rejects such a notion, preferring the adjective “heterogeneity,” explaining that the “compositions take root… that penetrate the ground in depth and go in different directions” and that this requires effort on the part of the listener to “find a way to harmonize the heterogenous dimension.” If it sounds a rather dry and intellectual exercise, be assured this was not the case, for Batistelli’s music was so well integrated into the fabric of the work that the focus always remained on the drama. Although generally eschewing traditional set forms, and relying to a large extent on interesting orchestrated accompanied recitatives, there is the occasional set number, for example the arioso “The tyrannous act is done,” in which Tyrrel, carrying the dead bodies of the two young princes in a wheelbarrow, recounts how his hired assassins killed them. Another example is the Act two trio for Lady Anne, Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York. Moreover, there is a large part for the chorus, which performs a variety of roles, including the soldiers, the monks, and the citizenry who plead for Richard to take the Crown at the end of Act one. It also performs a significant role as a means of enhancing the atmosphere in a number of scenes, such as in Henry’s coronation scene, in which an offstage chorus sings a warning to would-be traitors and to those who would disturb the future peace of the land. It is sung with hope and positivity, rather than aggression, for it is the dawn of the Tudor period, a period which saw the end of the civil wars that had tormented England for decades. Although it was demanding role, the Coro del Teatro La Fenice, under Claudio Marino Moretti, was in scintillating form and produced a first class performance.
In fact, Battistelli’s attention to creating and defining the atmosphere of the work was also successfully seen in his choice of instrumentation. Favoring dark colors in which he gave a prominent role to the percussion section to conjure up a feeling of unremitting gloom. Screams from the brass section further intensified the mood of menace and violence that weighed heavily over the drama, which he punctuated with ironic humour, most notably through the use of woodwind and percussion, suggestive of a subversive cabaret. Moreover, Battistelli frequently overlaid the constant darkness with a seductive quality, which not only added a superficial attraction to the unfolding horrors, but also helped to define Richard as a magnetic, if psychotic personality. This was an intriguing score, which was brought to life by an energetic and thrilling performance from the Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice under the baton of Tito Ceccherini.
The very nature of the work means that any director will have to focus on the character of Richard III. There is no choice in this matter, owing to the fact that his character is rarely off the stage, and when present dictates events. Nevertheless, Robert Carsen produced an insightful and interesting reading of the work, one which highlighted the fact that tyrants, such as Richard, often emerge from the faceless mass of the population, using their seductive charm and ruthless ambition, to force their way to the top, their beguiling nature allowing them to deceive the naively trusting populace whilst eliminating any opponents in the process. Thus, it was that all the characters, with very few exceptions, were costumed in indistinguishable dark suits, including Richard himself. The result was that each character blurred into the others. It was a world in which someone like Richard could easily take advantage, the dullness and stupidity of people meant they were unable to identify the threat he posed, let alone stop him.
Carsen was aided by the scenographer, Radu Boruzescu, who produced an imaginative and effective set, in the form of a circus ring, with the seats raked in a semi-circle behind, and three entrances positioned between the seats. Everything was colored black, which intensified the work’s dark atmosphere, the only exception being the red sand covering the ring, which occasionally gave the impression that the actors were walking through blood. The chorus, dressed as stereotypical bureaucrats, with black suits, bowler hats and umbrellas mostly stood or were seated on the raked area, and watched on as the main drama unfolded within the ring, with Richard performing the role of the circus master.
One of the crucial scenes of the opera is the battle of Bosworth, in which Richard and Henry Tudor fight for the throne. Integrating a battle scene into a staged work is no easy matter, but Carsen managed to incorporate it in a stylized, yet convincing manner, one which fitted well with the overall presentation: Richard enters from the left side the stage, high up on the raked set, whilst Henry Tudor entered from the right, and slowly both killed off the soldiers as they descended down to the ring, where they met in a short fight in which Richard is killed. It was a gripping piece of theatre, far removed from the many awfully choreographed battle scenes that can be often be found in theaters.
Hail the King
Clearly, the success or failure of any production of this work will depend, to a large extent, on the performance of the singer essaying the central character, Richard III. For this production the role fell to the baritone, Gidon Saks, and it would be difficult to imagine how anyone could improve upon his wonderfully acted and brilliantly sung performance. From his very first line, he commanded the audience’s attention with his magnetic portrayal of the diabolical tyrant. He was by turn amusing, vicious, unstable, even charming. Strutting the stage with scant regard for the faceless, spineless and witless characters with whom he came into contact, his contempt was tangible. Moreover, he also brought the audience directly into his games, so that they became his unwilling, or maybe not so unwilling, allies, privy to his private thoughts and scheming; alone on the stage he would face the audience, free himself of any deformity and address them with a smile or a snarl, but as soon as someone else arrived on stage he would drop one shoulder, tilt his head and become the deformed hunchback once more. Vocally, Saks delivered a finely crafted and multilayered performance, each line, each word was delivered with thought, so that Richard’s various personality traits were clearly highlighted, yet at the same time integrated within the overall character. Recitatives, either in the standard accompanied form or as in the form sprechstimme were masterfully sung, sharply accented, full of dynamic and colorful shadings. Certainly, there was a Brechtian quality to this production and to the work as a whole, and Saks’ essaying of Richard made use of the fact to create a psychologically realistic portrayal of the pathologically power hungry seducer.
Drifting In & Out Splendidly
In comparison to Richard, the other characters, of which there are many, have relatively minor roles; they drift in and out of the drama, and their actions and utterances always relate to Richard. All performed well, and no one created a poor impression. Nevertheless, there were a number of standout performances.
Urban Malmberg played the part of Richard’s ally, Buckingham, as a cowardly bureaucrat, always prepared to do Richard’s bidding, that is up to the point at which things became a little too hot for him, where he then bolted and was subsequently killed by Richard’s henchmen. So successful was Malmberg’s portrayal that Buckingham was far more dislikable than Richard himself. He has pleasing bass-baritone with pleasing timbre, and sang with suitable timidity.
The three female members of the cast all acquitted themselves with style. Lady Anne, who eventually marries Richard, after he had killed her husband, whom she actually loved, was played by Annalena Persson, and produced a well-defined reading of the role. Lady Anne’s mental condition always suspect, given that she marries the man who murdered her husband, was clearly displayed as her voice was pushed to its upper reaches, underpinned by the palpable stress of her situation. Sara Fulgoni, who played the part of Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, put in a feisty and sympathetic performance. Her confrontation with Richard, in which they traded insults, during act two was heavyweight affair, in which the Duchess of York temporarily brings Richard to his knees. The warm colors of Fulgoni’s mezzo and Saks’ baritone made for an engaging encounter. Edward IV’s wife, Queen Elizabeth was essayed by Christina Daletska, and made an excellent impression. Her voice has a warm attractive timbre. Although not a native English speaker she enunciated the text without any problems, her words were clear, and exhibited only a slight trace of an accent.
The tenor Christopher Lemmings was double parted as Richard’s brother, Clarence, and the hired assassin, Tyrrel. Lemmings has a bright and engaging voice, and showed considerable skill and versatility in convincingly portraying, both vocally and as an actor, the widely differing roles.
Overall, “Richard III” is a marvelous piece of theatre. It is a opera that deals with the unrestrained pursuit of power, which Carsen has presented as an issue as relevant for today as it has ever been, and in which cruelty is its inevitable outcome. It is also an opera that draws a wonderful multi-dimensional psychological portrait of its main protagonist, Richard III, one that is not afraid to expose the contradictions at the heart of his character. Although this is an opera, with an excellent score, it is first and foremost theatre, and as such may also appeal to non-opera goers.