Alfano is almost exclusively known today for completing “Turandot,” following Puccini’s untimely death in 1924, a commission he took reluctantly, and one which undoubtedly negatively affected his reputation as a composer in his own right. In fact, since Alfano’s death in 1954 almost all of his operas have disappeared from the stage, with the exception of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” which still enjoys an occasional outing. Wexford Festival Opera, however, decided to give a rare performance of “Risurrezione”, one of his earlier operas, written in 1904, and one that was very popular during the composer’s lifetime.
The soprano, Mary Garden, who created the role of Katiusha for its Chicago premiere, wrote in her memoirs that it “was one of the most satisfying experiences in my whole career… How I adored that opera!” However, since his death, Alfano’s work came in for some fierce criticism and his reputation suffered accordingly.
Today few people have heard of “Risurrezione,” let alone heard it. Wexford Festival Opera’s production, therefore, provides an ideal opportunity to reassess the work and to judge whether or not he has been fairly treated by posterity.
The narrative of “Risurrezione” is based loosely on Tolstoy’s final and often overlooked novel, “Resurrection.” It concerns the story of Katiusha, a young woman, who was taken in as an orphaned child to work as a servant in the wealthy Ivanovna household. She has fallen in love with Prince Dmitri, the heir to the estate, and when one day he is home on leave from the army he seduces Katiusha. As a result, she becomes pregnant and is thrown out of the house. Hearing of Dmitry’s return she goes to the railway station to meet him. He arrives with another woman and Katiusha flees, and takes up a life as a prostitute. The next time we see her, Katiusha is in a gaol in Siberia, having been falsely convicted of killing one of her clients. Prince Dimitri arrives to seek forgiveness for his betrayal and offers to marry her, but she refuses, instead choosing to marry Simonson, even though she is still deeply in love with him. However, she forgives Dimitri, and in doing so both characters find redemption. The story is thus typical for its time, and one could easily imagine it being set by Janacek or even Puccini, although in the latter’s case Katiusha would no doubt have met with an unpleasant end.
Much of the criticism of “Risurrezione” concerns the music, which many commentators see as being overblown and bombastic, and lacking a close connection with the drama. John Steane, for example, noted that “the score being attractive when it should not be,” citing Act three, set in a Siberian prison, as a case in point. In this production, however, this disconnect between the music and the drama was not obviously noticeable. In fact, the performance, as a whole, felt satisfyingly well-integrated, a gripping piece of well-crafted music theatre. The audience was dragged through an intense, brutal and ultimately life-affirming journey, in which the music allowed us to share Katiusha’s suffering, pain, despair, and hope. The extent to which the noted failings in the score are valid or were simply masked by the quality of the singing, the orchestra, and Rosetta Cucchi’s production is, on a single hearing difficult to say, so wonderfully did they all perform their roles.
Cold vs. Warmth
Cucchi, supported by Tiziano Santi (set designer) and Claudia Pernigotti (costume designer) produced a realistic reading, with a distinct set design for each act. Act one was set in Prince Dimitri’s red and blue coloured boudoir, creating a warm comfortable environment. A painting hanging on the back wall of “The Demon” by the symbolist painter Michail Aleksandrovic Vrubel watches over Dimitri’s seduction of Katiusha. Act two was set at the railway station on very cold night, with snow falling. A bleak, severe working space in a Siberian prison camp was cleverly designed for Act three, with benches in lines on which the prisoners work, the ice and snow clearly visible through the cracks in the wooden walls. Act four is set outside, snow covering the ground. The contrast between the warmth and safety of the house is, therefore, nicely contrasted with the harsh inhospitable environment of the other acts, highlighting the extent to which her life has been destroyed. Likewise the costumes reflected the changed circumstances, again emphasizing the cold and miserable circumstances into which Katiusha has fallen.
Throughout the performance Cucchi did not miss an opportunity to highlight the brutality and violence that underscored Katiusha’s new world. Outside the station she sits forlornly waiting for Dimiti’s train, when she is confronted by a violent fight that spills out of the waiting room. In Act three Katiusha has become mentally unstable, after having been abandoned by Dimitri, taken up life as a prostitute, lost Dimitri’s baby and has now been incarcerated for a crime she did not commit. She constantly haggles, provokes and argues with the other prisoners and guards, and receives a good beating for her troubles. Cucchi held little back, exposing the audience to the vicious routine that is now part of Katiusha’s life. The contrast with her former life plain to see. Moreover, Cucchi uses the opera’s all-pervading brutality and misery to produce a quite brilliant contrast with which to end the work. The back of the set is lowered, containing a cornfield on bright summer’s day. Katiusha’s younger self gamboling happily. A disheveled Katiusha walks out of the snow and joins her younger self, reunited with her lost innocence, and walks again in the sun. For anyone who enjoys sentimentality, and this audience certainly did, this was powerful stuff, and they responded by giving all involved a long ovation.
The role of Katiusha is a demanding one, requiring both formidable acting and singing skills, and the French soprano, Anne Sophie Duprels, has both. Her performance in the role was a real tour de force. Riding an emotional roller-coaster Duprels displayed her credential as a first-rate singing actress. Vulnerability, naivety desperation, vicious brutality, calm acceptance and beauty were just a few of the characteristics Duprels had to bring to the role, which she successfully delivered with commitment and intelligence, underlining the dramatic range of her art. Her voice displays power, agility and a colorful palette which she employs with a high degree of technical skill. Equally impressive was the sheer level of stamina she possesses; Duprels was on stage for almost the entire opera, and her levels of energy and emotional engagement never wavered. It was an all around riveting performance.
Prince Dimitri, played by the Australian tenor, Gerard Schneider also put in a strong performance. He has a sweet sounding tenor, with strong upper register. His essaying of the role perfectly matched Duprels’ Katiusha. His acting and expressive singing convincingly characterizing the arrogance of the aristocrat in the first act, and then his remorse in act three. His final duet with Duprels, in which they sing of their love for each other, followed by the chorus welcoming Christ’s rebirth, brought the drama to a wonderful conclusion, in which Katiusha and Dimitri are redeemed by each other’s love
In the relatively minor role of Simonson was the British baritone Charles Rice and he made a good impression. His aria at the beginning of Act four, in which sings of the brotherhood of man, was beautifully and intensely delivered, displaying a warm timbre with subtle shadings. The other minor roles were all well parted. In particular, Louise Innes as the heartless Sofia Ivanovna, Romina Tomasoni as Matrena Pavlovna, Katiusha’s friend and supporter, and the British bass, Henry Grant Kerswell, as Kritloff, gave notable performances.
The Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera under the direction of Francesco Cilluffo produced a wonderfully energetic and vibrant reading of the score, and gave strong support to the singers. Eliciting a wide variety of musical textures, his reading of the score seemed entirely in accord with the onstage drama, neither noticeably bombastic nor over-coloured. The chorus of the Wexford Festival Opera, under the direction of Errol Girdlestone, yet again gave a strong and dramatically persuasive performance
Judging by this splendid performance, the conclusion has to be that posterity has treated Alfano very badly indeed! Without doubt, the music certainly exhibits Puccini’s strong influence, but despite this, it has much to offer in its own right. From the opening bar of the first act to the last bar of the finale, this is a work that holds an audience’s attention. It is a dramatically tightly focused opera, with well-defined characters and an engaging narrative. Moreover, it is a multi-dimensional work that lends itself to nuanced interpretations: in this enthralling production Cucchi opts for a very sentimental conclusion, but it need not necessarily have been this way. Whether or not we accept the criticisms made of “Risurrezione,” its neglect has certainly been undeserved, and possesses enough quality and dramatic force to merit further revivals.