Spoleto Festival of the Two Worlds 2019 Review: Proserpine
Colasanti’s New Opera Celebrates the FeminineBy Alan Neilson
(Photo: Maria Laura Antonelli/AGF)
This summer, Spoleto’s Festival of the Two Worlds, now in its 62nd year, premiered “Proserpine” a new opera by the Italian composer, Silvia Colasanti.
The work is a rendering of a well-known Greek myth, in which Proserpine is abducted by Pluto and taken down into the Underworld. Over the centuries it has had many retellings and representations, notably in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting of a long, red-haired pre-Raphaelite Proserpine eating a pomegranate.
However, it was Mary Shelley’s 1820 play which acted as the inspiration for Colasanti’s reading, and provided the text for the libretto. Shelley’s interpretation is an understandable choice, resonating as it does with today’s focus on identity, on the feminine perspective and experience, of the position of women and their common bond vis-à-vis an exploitative patriarchy. However, it is far more nuanced and balanced, and thus more human, than the blunt, simplistic viewpoint forwarded by the agenda of identity politics, and arguably more relevant to early 19th century society.
The Feminine Perspective
The myth relates Pluto’s obsession with his niece, Proserpine, who he brutally abducts, drags down into the underworld and rapes. Her mother, the Goddess of fertility, Ceres, appeals to Jove to return her to the world. However, because Proserpine has eaten pomegranate seeds, she is forbidden to do so. Ceres is so overcome with grief she neglects the fields, and famine ravages the earth. Jove is thus forced to take the matter more seriously; as a compromise Proserpine will be allowed to return to the world for six months of the year, but for the other six months she must remain in the Underworld, and must also agree to marry Pluto. Ceres is happy once again, and the fecundity of the fields returns.
However, when Proserpine descends back into the Underworld, Ceres grief returns, and the fields once more lie dormant. And so it was that the seasons were born. Shelley, however, invites us to view the story from a female perspective, specifically from Ceres’ viewpoint, focusing on the relationship between mother and daughter, and on the support network offered through a community of women. In fact, Ascalaphus, Pluto’s messenger, is the only male to appear on stage, and then only briefly.
Although Shelley makes it clear that it is the women who are the victims of male aggression and violence, it is something which is kept in the background, and no violence or aggression is staged; it does, however, pervade the narrative, it is an ever-present. The focus is thus clearly and unambiguously on the female. Yet, it is not a piece of crude feminist propaganda, or a rant. On the contrary, Proserpine brings balance; there is no call for vengeance, no hatred, no rage, her suffering at the hands of Pluto has made her wise; she is able to comfort her mother, and move forward. Her victory is one that rises above base emotions, and celebrates the female.
Capturing The Shifting Emotional States
Colasanti produced an evocative and atmospheric score which successfully captured the changing emotional states of the characters, and the dramatic context in which they moved, which for the most part was one of dark foreboding, although it also contained lighter moments such as the brief pastoral idyll from Act one and the resolution at the opera’s finale.
An intermezzo divided Acts one and two, in which the brooding and rumbling music conjured up the prospect of famine and failing harvests, and intensified the sense of dread. Her orchestration was particularly well developed, the interaction between xylophone and harp produced interesting contrasts, while the frequent use of drums to interrupt rising strings created a disconcerting and disturbing effect. However, it was Colasanti’s writing for the voice which demanded most attention, in which she readily exploited the possibilities of the voice types of the six female protagonists, complementing and contrasting them to flesh out their characters, emotions and relationships. Often the orchestra was given a subsidiary role allowing the voices to define the scene, although not exclusively so.
Overall, it was a confident and well constructed score, which successfully helped create and promote the drama. It was also accessible, and for the most part, melodic. If there was one criticism to be made it was that the whole piece was too slick, at times maybe too easy, and gave the impression that the composer was operating well within her comfort zone, and would have benefited from a little more risk-taking.
Pierre-André Valade, conducting the Orchestra Giovanile Italiana, did a fine job in bringing the score alive, maintaining a vibrant momentum and balance, and providing the singers with the necessary support.
Simple, But Effective
The director, Giorgio Ferrara, took a simple, but effective approach: the cast were presented as Roman statues, so that their movements were kept to a minimum, their gestures were eloquent, exaggerated and slow moving. In order to focus attention on the relationship between Ceres and Proserpine they tended to be positioned centrally, when on stage, with other members of the cast standing to one side or behind them. What made the staging so pleasing on the eye, however, were the fabulous costumes, designed by Vincent Darré, which were generally dark in color, and of a classically inspired form, but with stunning headdresses, each one of which was different.
The one disappointing area was the cheap looking flats, painted with flowing drapes in red, blue and green, created by Sandro Chia, although his relatively bare stage containing just three benches in Act one, and a simple raised area in Act two offered the necessary space for the statuesque cast to claim attention.
Fortunately, the lighting designed by Fiammetta Baldiserri, brought greater depth and definition to the otherwise crudely crafted flats, to the extent that the mise-en-scene were at times simply brilliant. The fact that the staging was relatively static gave the staging an elegance, which actually benefited the drama. Moreover, the occasional animated scenes became all the more powerful, such as in Proserpine’s abduction, in which she is encircled by shades, dressed in black, who close in and move around her, and guide her off the stage and down into the Underworld.
Vocal Agility & Nuance
In the title role of Poeserpine was the Icelandic soprano, Disella Larusdottir. Proserpine’s experience takes her on a journey in which she moves from a state of adolescent naïveté to reflective wisdom, a journey which Larusdottir portrayed successfully. Singing clearly and brightly, she gave an expressive, convincing performance. She has a sharp edge to her voice, but the defining characteristic is her vocal agility, which was most clearly seen in her attractive coloratura and neatly constructed phrasing.
In the role of Ceres was the Irish mezzo-soprano, Sharon Carty. She gave an excellent performance, bringing substance and depth to her character. As Carty herself admitted, the role requires a higher tessitura than to which she is used to, but she need not have worried: her singing was strong, colorful and articulated with clarity. In fact, the higher tessitura added a new dimension to the voice; not only was she able to extend her upper register with apparent ease, without any loss of vocal integrity, but it brought a greater degree of contrast to her singing, and highlighted the versatility of her technique.
At the end of Act one she delivers the monologue, “Oh, careless nymphs,” in which she gives voice to her anxiety about the loss of Proserpine; opening up her voice with power, taking leaps in her stride, and navigating the dynamics and higher tessitura with skill, she crafted a strong portrait of a mother in a state of extreme distress over the loss of her daughter. Throughout her performance Carty was always attentive to Ceres’ emotional state, and skillfully, captured her inner anxieties.
Near to the end of the opera, Ceres and Proserpine engage in the duet “Oh, fairest child” in which they say goodbye to each other for six months, and in which Proserpine uses her newly acquired wisdom to comfort her mother. In a well-crafted piece, Larusdottir and Carty’s voices combined beautifully, their contrasting emotions clearly wrought, before dissolving into a mutual farewell embrace.
The two nymphs, Ino and Eunoe, encharged by Ceres to keep watch over Proserpine, were played by the soprano, Anna Patalong, and mezzo-soprano, Silvia Regazzo. Both impressed in their roles. Patalong gave an energetic and expressive performance.
She possesses a colorful voice and a solid technique, which she used to good purpose in her opening monologue, “Arethusa arose,” in which her phrasing was well-focused and neatly developed. Eunoe is a slightly smaller role, and she is generally more reflective in nature. Regazzo’s darker voice suited the role well, producing an expressive and well-paced performance.
Katarzyna Otczyk essayed the role of Arethusa, who witnesses Pluto’s abduction of Proserpine, and relates the events to Ceres: “Sit Goddess upon this mossy bank.” Although her only real contribution to the opera she discharged it with skill. Her mezzo-soprano is a clear bright instrument, although it occasionally lacked variety.
The mezzo-soprano, Gaia Petrone, gave a good account of herself in the role of Isis, the messenger of the gods. Her voice has a pleasing timbre, with a warm palette of colours, her singing was clear and nuanced.
The bass baritone, Lorenzo Grante, played Ascalaphus, Pluto’s messenger, the only male in the cast. It is only a small role, and therefore difficult for an singer to make much of an impression. Nevertheless he acquitted himself well, although given his powerful physique, his voice carried less authority than expected.
The opera closes with a female chorus in which they bid Proserpine farewell as she departs for her six months in the Underworld. It was short, but attractively moulded, the voices combining in a colorful collage, bringing an end to what was refined, yet musically dramatic work, and one deserving of further stagings. At around 70 minutes in length it would be ideal as part of a double bill.