Wexford Festival Opera 2017 Review – Margherita: Strong Production Makes Case that Foroni Could Have Challenged Verdi For Mantle of Italy’s Top Composer

(Credit: Wexford Festival Opera)

Following Donizetti’s death in 1848 the mantle of Italian opera eventually passed onto Verdi, something that today appears to have been a natural and uncontested succession. Yet, this was not so certain a transition as it now seems. A number of other composer also vied for the accolade, including a now almost unknown composer from Verona, called Jacopo Foroni. Hailing from a family of well-known musicians, Foroni was establishing himself as a composer and conductor, when disillusioned with Italy, he undertook a prolonged trip to Sweden in 1848, where unfortunately, after having produced number of works for the theatre, he succumbed to an attack of cholera in 1858 and died. His legacy, like his grave in a northern Stockholm cemetery, are now largely forgotten. Before abandoning Italy, however, he did compose an opera semi-seria called “Margherita” for the Teatro Re in Milan in 1848, which although generating a great deal of favorable criticism at the time, and notwithstanding occasional further performances, including an 1880 production in his home town of Verona, subsequently disappeared from the stage. This year’s Wexford Festival Opera’s presentation of the work is, therefore, the first time in well over 100 years that the opera is being heard, and builds upon the company’s successful 2013 unearthing of another of Foroni’s operas, “Cristina, regina di Svezia.”

A Well-Crafted Work

The first thing to note about “Margherita” is what a well-crafted opera it is. The libretto, by Giorgio Giachetti, combines serious drama with comedy in a delicate balance, in which neither element is highlighted at the expense of the other. The underlying poignancy of Margherita, Ernesto, and Giustina’s plight is beautifully managed so that there are numerous opportunities for the characters to express their intense sufferings, yet at the same time, the comedic overlay, which in particular defines Ser Matteo’s role, is wonderfully drawn, and elicited a great deal of laughter from the audience. Although the narrative is typical of the genre, containing nothing out of the ordinary, it is well-paced, and engages with immediacy and directness. Foroni’s score displays quality throughout, containing a wide use of rhythmic, tonal, harmonic and dynamic variations, which are used to accentuate and highlight the onstage drama, and even if it lacks a defining or immediately memorable tune it has a wonderful melodious consistency that is always engrossing. His skill in composing music for scenes of a deeply emotional nature and for scenes of a light comedic nature were both in evidence, his quick-fire patter exchanges between Ser Matteo and Roberto being a fine example of the latter. Moreover, Foroni’s score displays his skill in solo, ensemble, and choral writing, and the ability to incorporate such pieces seamlessly, without too many interruptions to the dramatic flow. Although “Margherita” is lightly orchestrated, a result of the small theatre for which it was originally composed, Foroni, nevertheless, created some wonderful sounds and musical textures.

Not So Daring Production

The narrative concerns life in a small Italian town, in which two men want to marry the same woman, Margherita. She is in love with Ernesto, a soldier, and they plan to marry. Roberto, the nephew of the mayor, however, has other plans, and wants to marry Margherita as way of solving his financial problems. The despicable Roberto engineers a situation so that Ernesto is charged with a serious crime, and Margherita, in an attempt to save her lover, agrees to marry Roberto if he can secure Ernesto’s release. Needless to say everything turns out well, and Margherita and Ernesto are reunited, whilst Roberto is carted off to gaol, thanks to the intervention of Count Rodolfo.

The director, Michael Sturm, assisted by the set and costume designer, Stefan Riekhoff, decided to set the opera in 1940s Italy, presumably just after the second World War. The set was made up of dark bomb damaged buildings, among which the residents of the town continued with their normal lives. Washing strung between the buildings from the windows successfully depicting the daily routine which continued despite the chaos. It was a simple device and one that worked well. The set also allowed for the easy movement of the cast, who were able to enter and exit the stage along the roads between the buildings. Unfortunately, however, the set proved to be fairly rigid and did not readily adapt to the demands of the drama. There are a number of scenes that are situated indoors, and attempts to create them were not always successful, such as a wallpapered room, along with furniture, placed between the buildings, which was as incongruous as it was aesthetically displeasing and irritatingly unconvincing. Nevertheless, there were many other scenes that did work well, such as the gallows that was brought on to hang Ernesto, and then Roberto. Its ominous presence dominated the town. Sturm stuck very closely to the spirit of the text and under his direction the opera moved swiftly along, successfully managing the serious and comedic elements of the work in an entertaining production.

Powerful Women

In the title role was the Italian mezzo Alessandra Volpe. She has a strong and attractive stage presence and presented a multi-layered Margherita, convincingly portraying her dignified suffering at the hands of the manipulative Roberto, and the love she feels for Ernesto, as well as displaying an ability to act out the comedic elements of the role in a carefree and amusing manner. Her voice has a dark sumptuous color, that brightens radiantly as she moves up the scale, which she used with intelligence and subtlety to characterize Margherita’s emotional turmoil. Although it is undoubtedly a powerful instrument, it occasionally proved to be too powerful for her Ernesto, who was sometimes overwhelmed in the ensemble pieces. However, she was able to keep the vocal dynamics in check when appropriate, as in the reflective act two duet with Giustina, in which they both showed a softer and more gentle side to their singing.

As Ernesto’s sister, Giustina, was the Italian Giuliana Gianfaldoni. She possesses a beautifully clear and brilliant soprano with a bell-like sound, displaying exquisite phrasing and a fine coloratura, although there was a noticeable harshness that crept into her higher register on occasions. Like Volpe, Gianfaldoni possesses a powerful voice, which made their ensemble pieces wonderfully energetic and captivating affairs. Moreover, her acting was also to a high standard, in both the comic and serious parts of the role.

Not Quite Right

Unfortunately, Giustina’s brother and Margherita’s lover, Ernesto, played by the American tenor Andrew Stenson, gave a very uneven performance. Throughout most of the opera he was noticeably vocally ill-equipped to deal with Volpe and Gianfaldoni’s powerful voices in the ensembles, and his phrasing did not really do enough to bring sufficient depth to the character. This was further compounded by some wooden acting, in which he evinced little spontaneity, relying instead on stock gestures. Having said all this, Stenson is not without quality and his performance was not all bad. His final aria in Act two, in which he reflected on his miserable position as a criminal who has committed no crime, was delivered with a great deal of skill and feeling, in which his nuanced singing beautifully reflected his situation.

Magnificent Laughter

Matteo d’Apolito as the lazy Ser Matteo played the part for laughs, and did so magnificently. His every movement and facial expression were perfectly timed to bring out every ounce of humor: d’Apolito clearly has a natural talent for this type of role. Vocally, too, he put in an excellent performance, using his wide palette of vocal colors to bring out the various aspects of Ser Matteo’s flawed, yet not dislikable character. If there is one minor negative criticism to make, it is that at times his voice lacked a little heft, which was most notable in the ensemble pieces.

Delicious Villainy

The real villain of the opera is Roberto, a penniless, unscrupulous rogue who wants to exploit Margherita for his own gain and who will stop at nothing to achieve his goal. The role fell to the Italian baritone Filippo Fontana, and he made full use of the opportunity, displaying an impressive degree of vocal flexibility. He subtly varied his vocal intonation, colouring and phrasing to produce a nuanced, yet powerful portrayal of the vicious Roberto, which he backed up with a fine acting display. So successful was he, in fact, that he was roundly booed at the end of the performance, and deservedly so!

The Other Side of the Triangle

Count Rodolfo, Ernesto’s superior officer, was played by the Ukrainian baritone Yuriy Yurchuk. He cut an imposing figure with an authoritative swagger that matched his role perfectly. Moreover, his voice had an authoritative edge, which he complemented with refined and beautiful phrasing, and produced a solid reading of the role. His Act one entrance aria was the highlight of his performance, producing an array of warm vocal colours and dynamic shadings.

Special credit must also be given to the chorus, which under the direction of Errol Girdlestone, produced a superb performance, singing with an enthusiasm and passion which brought a contagious vibrancy to the stage. Moreover, this was supported by some brilliantly choreographed scenes, as for example, when the citizens of the town attempt to intimidate, but are equally intimidated by, the mayor, creating a scene that was simultaneously dark and humorous.

Under the direction of Timothy Myers, the Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera produced a wonderfully nuanced, yet energetic reading, which highlighted the delicate colouring and textures of the work. Moreover, the score’s rhythmic and dynamic contrasts were beautifully accentuated, giving the piece a real feeling of depth and vitality. Myers always had the orchestra and singers under his control, maintaining a good balance throughout the afternoon, which was particularly noticeable and welcome, during the numerous, yet fabulously crafted choral scenes.

The Challenger

Certainly, on the evidence of this opera, and on “Cristina, Regina di Svezia,” Foroni may have challenged Verdi for the mantle of Italy’s premier composer in the second half of the 19th century, had he not met with a premature death. Verdi became a national hero, Foroni was forgotten. For sure, it is impossible to know how Foroni would have developed his art had he survived, but there are pointers contained in “Margherita” that suggest he had the ability to create great music-drama. The scene in Act two in which Margherita and Roberto confront each other over Ernesto’s fate is one of the opera’s most dramatic moments, and displays the quality of Foroni’s craftsmanship. The music is beautifully matched to the onstage action, the voice parts cleverly written to maximize the emotional impact, creating in the process a gripping scene of real dramatic strength. Moreover, it should be remembered that Foroni wrote “Margherita” at the age of only 23, four years younger than Verdi when he wrote “Nabucco.”

Wexford Festival Opera has allowed us a glimpse into the work of a truly forgotten composer, and on the strength of this production alone, forces us to consider another of opera’s what-might-have-beens.

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