Bayreuth Baroque Festival 2021 Review: Carlo il Calvo

Max Cencic Directs & Stars In First Class Staging

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Falk von Traubenberg)

Very occasionally we are fortunate enough to experience an opera production that leaves an indelible imprint on our memories; a never-forgotten experience in which adjectives such as ‘brilliant,’ ‘breath-taking’ or ‘stunning’ come to mind and can be used without any sense of exaggeration. Such was the case with Bayreuth Baroque Festival’s performance of Nicolà Porpora’s opera “Carlo il Calvo.” It had everything! The cast was of the highest quality, with even the minor roles strongly parted, and the musical director was none other than baroque specialist George Petrou. The staging was imaginative, dramatic, strong, and insightful, and it would be difficult to find a better venue anywhere than the city’s 18th century, recently restored, baroque architectural masterpiece: the Markgräfliches Opernhaus.

Premiered last year as the opening work for the festival’s inaugural season, “Carlo il Calvo” received a lavish presentation and was received with the highest critical acclaim. Its return for this year’s festival was, therefore, very-much welcomed, especially as the same star-studded cast had been retained.

Cencic’s Expert Direction

The guiding hand behind the production was undoubtedly Max Cencic, its stage director and the festival’s artistic director. In an insightfully conceived presentation, he reset Porpora’s opera in 1920s Cuba, and turned it into a family feud, fighting over inheritance and family leadership, in which Carlo and Lottario both have claims. Francesco Salvini’s original libretto sets the drama in the early Middle Ages and depicted the dynastic feud between rivals for the throne of the Holy Roman Empire. Cencic dispenses with the paraphernalia of the Middle Ages, the empire, and the throne, and in doing so successfully shines a light directly onto the motivations and dynamics which propel the drama forward, specifically a family at war with itself over money and power.

Cencic further focuses the attention on the family by providing a richer and more detailed context than provided by the libretto. The family is given a definite form and character in which a wider pattern of internal and external relationships can be immediately understood. The family is of Latin heritage, which was enlarged to create a close-knit extended network over which the patriarchal figure of Lottario rules. The family eats and socializes together, and the stage continuously bears witness to their comings and goings. Carlo’s mother is a stereotypical Latin mother who fiercely defends her son’s interests. Even the definition of family is widened to include others with whom they are closely involved; the impression of mafia and organized crime is always bubbling just beneath the surface with Lottario in the role of Il Padrone.

The area in which Cencic’s direction really excelled, however, was in his detailed crafting of characters. His treatment of Lottario’s relationship with his bodyguard Asprando, for example, was subtly and intelligently developed to give it just a hint of homoeroticism. There was nothing obvious to make one draw any conclusions, however, so that when they started kissing each other late into the drama, it was unexpected, but not a surprise.

Likewise, his ability to bring scenes to life had the sure touch of an expert. He used supernumeraries to add movement and interest to scenes which could have easily come across as somewhat lifeless. This was exhibited, for example, by having a nurse chastise the young Carlo for a minor misdemeanor, instead of simply leaving the singer alone on stage to present an aria or a passage of recitative. He also injected comedy into the drama in a naturalistic way. It did not jar with the spirit of the production, there was nothing heavy-handed or slapstick about it, but it made the audience chuckle. A memorable example was when Giuditta, helping to feed the elderly, wheelchair-bound relative, just shoved the food somewhere near to her mouth without even looking at her, before eventually throwing the spoon onto her lap as she waltzed off. Everything was so intelligently constructed, nothing was superfluous to the drama, yet periods of possible stagnation were never allowed to develop.

An Excellent Design Team

The scenographer Giorgina Germanou’s designs evoked the declining wealth, decadence, and heat of the island with its slightly rundown rooms, decorated in a Spanish colonial style. The placing of a metal grill at the back of the room which opened into a garden added to the sense of tropical heat with its humid atmosphere. At the beginning of Act three, she cleverly confirmed the status of the family by having a smart-looking car, which looked as if it were straight out of a gangster movie, parked in the courtyard, suggesting that the family was certainly not without wealth while also hinting at its criminal connections.

Maria Zorba, responsible for costume design, did a fine job creating an array of colorful 1920s outfits, neatly attuned to the individual characters, which added in no small measure to the power of the staging.

Thunderous Applause Greets an Unexpected Dance Scene

As the performance progressed, it did cross my mind to wonder why Cencic chose to update the opera specifically to Cuba of the 1920s, as opposed to other possible periods. This became clear in the final part of Act three when the entire cast filled the stage and danced the Charleston, which was brilliantly choreographed by Dimitra Antonaki. It was lively, energetic and so unexpected that it stunned the audience, which exploded into thunderous applause at its conclusion.

Three High-Quality Countertenors

The cast included three high-profile countertenors, each with their own very distinctive voice. Franco Fagioli was parted as Adalgiso and Bruno da Sà as Berardo, while Max Cencic cast himself in the role of Lottario.

Cencic’s reading of the aging Lottario was carefully rendered to bring out his volatile, violent nature. Secure in his authority, he was often aloof and behaved with the expectation of one used to be being obeyed. Yet, he was also infirm and needed a stick to get about, which added a contrasting weakness to the portrait. It was his eye for detail, however, which made his character so believable. Facial expression, the speed of his reactions, and his movements when not directly involved were always dramatically appropriate and employed with precision. His singing was equally secure, there was never even a hint of strain in the voice, and his ability to craft free-flowing lines, full of vitality, was impressive. Arias were pleasingly embellished, full of detail from which coloraturas emerged with ease. His Act three aria, against the background of a raging storm, displayed his vocal agility at its best, wherein which he undertook leaps and complex coloraturas.

It was a very different, but equally successful, performance from Fagioli in the role of Adalgiso, Lottario’s son. For most of the evening Fagioli played him as a real wimp, frightened of everything and anything that moved, particularly his father, and he was very convincing. Indeed, his transformation, when he finally stood up to his father, was a little difficult to believe. Vocally, Fagioli is always prepared to open up the throttle and give it everything, as he pushes his voice to its limits with explosive, long coloraturas and complex embellishments, full of colorful and dynamic accents. Certainly, there are those who do not appreciate his approach, but it is impossible not to admire his vocal agility and willingness to take risks. Yet, for parts of the opera, he was restrained, in line with his character, and took a calmer, more dignified approach, with only the occasional explosive outburst, which highlighted the subtlety of his singing. He also brought a great deal of humor to his performance, and not just with his excessive cowardice. In the marvelously sung aria “Saggio Nocchier che vede,” he used a prop paper bag, from which he took deep breaths in-between coloraturas, as he struggled to deal with his asthma.

De Sà played the gun-toting family lawyer Berardo and cut a most unpleasant figure as he opportunistically shifted his amorous attentions from mother to daughter. He has a high lying, bright, appealing countertenor which has the quality and sound of a natural soprano. His arias were rendered with confidence and an effortless agility, pouring out delicate lines, interspersed with brilliant coloraturas that seemed to move forever upwards. Yet, his performance was more than vocal pyrotechnics: he also brought depth and nuance to his character with carefully developed recitatives, molded to project their full meaning and arias which he crafted to capture the full extent of his emotions, as in his Act three aria “Su la fatal arena” in which he inflected his voice with a threatening menace as he accused Asprando of treachery.

Lezhneva Produces the Outstanding Performance  

With such quality on display, it is difficult to say that soprano Julia Lezhneva produced the standout performance in the role of Gildippe, but that is exactly what she did. Her portrait of a woman torn between her love for Adalgiso and her loyalty to her mother was certainly compelling, but it was her versatile vocal technique, that she demonstrated in a series of bravura arias, which really gripped ones’ attention. She skated easily up and down the scale with complex coloratura displays, took leaps in her stride, and crafted beautifully adorned lines without ever appearing to be under any strain. Such was her confidence that she also indulged in a bit of fun, playing with her coloratura in the aria “Sento, che in sen turbato,” much to the delight of the audience. In the aria “Se nell’amico nido,” in which she likened her sadness to a dove who returns to the nest only to find its mate has disappeared, she mimicked the sound of the bird with fluttering lines and trills in a neatly presented piece of word-painting, while carrying the melody and supported by only a light orchestral accompaniment, before giving voice to her agitation with an expressively delivered, unaccompanied, coloratura.

In scene four of Act three, Adalgiso and Gildippe are reconciled and sing the duet “Dimmi, che m’ami, o cara.” Fagioli’s and Lezhneva’s voices combined in a performance of exquisite sensitivity which displayed their ability to respond to each other’s subtle inflections as their voices combined seamlessly. It also reciprocated their deep feelings for each other. It was beautifully staged, successfully accentuating their love in physical form.

Giuditta sits in the middle of a complex web of family relationships. She is Carlo’s mother and Lottario’s stepmother, as well as Eduige and Gildippe’s mother from a previous marriage, and she is determined to preserve Carlo’s inheritance. The part was played by soprano Suzanne Jerosme who put in an exceptional performance, capturing Giuditta’s feisty, protective nature, as well as her anxieties and distress. In the aria “Vorresti me sul ciglio” she raged at Lottario’s treachery, in which she used her colorful pallet to inflect the vocal line with emotional force and displayed fine vocal control with a rapid and intricate coloratura. Then in the final act, she descends into a state of near-madness and, while believing that she has lost her son, demands Berardo kill Asprando, unleashing the aria; “Tu m’ingannasti, oh Dio.” In this Jerosme captured Giuditta’s desperate rage in an intensely emotional presentation, before collapsing onto the floor. Her powerful vocal presentation was backed by an excellent acting performance.

Tenor Petr Nekoranec played the part of the deceitful and treacherous Asprando, who is always on the lookout to advance his position. He successfully portrayed his character as a psychopath who happily strangled a prisoner to death with a belt while singing the aria “Temer della sorte.” His opening aria allowed him to establish his quality with a strong performance which showed off his vocal flexibility, clearly defined phrasing and pleasing timbre. It was a role that required a high degree of versatility, as his character veered between arrogance and fear, loyalty and concern, all the way through to sadism and unexpected romance. Nekoranec combined them all convincingly in an excellent presentation, which he carried off with a confident swagger.

Mezzo-soprano Nian Wang had few opportunities to show off her talents as Guiditta’s daughter, but she made the most of them with a strong performance in the role. Her aria “Il provido Cultore,” in which she muses on the possible problems of marriage, was skilfully and beautifully sung. Her phrasing was graceful and nuanced. She crafted well-placed and pleasing ornamentations and exhibited a delicate coloratura. Recitatives were suitably expressive.

Excellent Musical Direction

Musical Director George Petrou set out his stall in the overture with a lively, animated reading from the Armonia Atenea while Louis, the old head of the family, dies on stage during a family celebration, much to the amusement of the old woman, who cackles madly in her wheelchair. Petrou’s reading was a delight. It was a clearly defined performance that exhibited textural clarity, rhythmic vitality, and attentiveness to the dramatic shifts of the narrative. His connection to the singers was excellent, producing an evenly balanced sound, but one which allowed the singer to dominate where appropriate.

As the opera’s final bars play out, Lottario collapses and dies during a family celebration, much to the all-too-familiar amusement of the old woman, who cackles in her wheelchair once again, bringing the exquisitely crafted visual narrative of the opera full circle.

For many members of the audience, this was their first experience of an opera by the Neapolitan composer, and it would have done nothing to dissuade them from attending another, for “Carlo il Calvo” is a lively work, full of beautiful melodies and opportunities for vocal displays. Moreover, it was presented by singers who knew exactly how to make the most of its potential, both musically and dramatically. It was production in which everything was just right, and for which much of the praise must go to Cencic, whose direction showed a sure touch and abundant intelligence.


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