Teatro dell’Opera di Roma 2017-18 Review – I Masnadieri: Roberta Mantegna, Artur Rucinski Dominate in Brilliant But Bleak Production By Massimo Popolizio

By Alan Neilson

It is always interesting to come across a performance of one of Verdi’s lesser known works, although you cannot always be certain of what you will get. Normally, these works are rarely performed for a reason – namely because they are not particularly strong. “Un Giorno di Regno” immediately springs to mind. But sometimes there seems to be no apparent reason for their neglect: Opera North’s impressive 1990 production of “Jerusalem” has long retained a place in the memory. This impression of such undeserved wanton neglect was recently confirmed by a recent production at Parma’s 2017 Verdi Festival.

Opera Roma’s production of “I Masnadieri” presents us with a welcome and rare opportunity to take a fresh look at another of Verdi’s lesser known works, one of the the works he casually dismissed as being from his “galley years,” and to which he made very few references, even claiming not really to remember much about it.

The work is based on Schiller’s Sturm und Drang play “Die Rauber” with its focus on the unbridled expression of extreme emotional states, couched in a grim narrative which includes, amongst its themes fratricide and parricide, treachery and betrayal, accompanied by a doomed love interest. Enough material, one would think, to inspire any composer, especially one of Verdi’s stature, yet the opera has consistently failed to secure any long-lasting interest. Certainly, one of the reasons for its neglect is the poor quality of the libretto, to which numerous musicologists have drawn attention. However, the unremitting gloom that hangs over the work may also be partly responsible; apart from a love duet in Act three in which Carlo and Amalia are briefly reunited, the drama has nothing to lighten the atmosphere, as it moves forward from one violent situation to the next, ending with Carlo demanding his father be put to death and then killing Amalia, so that he can face the justice and punishment he deserves and expiate his wrongdoings. However, probably more damaging is the failure of Verdi to marry the music closely enough to the text, or to exploit dramatic situations successfully. In fact, occasionally the music can feel totally at variance with the drama.

Embracing the Darkness

In this production for Opera Roma, the Director, Massimo Popolizio, took the decision to emphasize the dark nature of the work, and remove from it any suggestion that the life of a bandit is a romantic one, something Verdi treated with more ambiguity, evidenced by his rousing choruses extolling the camaraderie and life to be found “on the road” as a bandit. Carlo’s opening aria, in which he muses over the freedom and bravery of the ancients and his decision to embrace a bandit’s life in pursuit of such freedom, is shown to be a completely misguided choice. This is no Robin Hood with a band of Merry Men. His men are brutal, vicious and unforgiving. Popolizio makes this clear and unambiguous. His men are seen raping semi-naked women in scenes which made for very uncomfortable viewing. There is no chivalry here! Violence is dispatched in an easy-handed manner. There is no self-reflection, nor positive actions to compensate. Francesco is portrayed as an Iago-type figure, always scheming, always intent on evil, although without Iago’s intelligence or superficial charm. Carlo is not a sympathetic character, rather he is self-indulgent and egocentric, in love with himself as much as Amalia. Massimiliano and Amalia are their victims, and although embodying positive sentiments, they are dwarfed by the malevolence that surrounds them. This is a dark production of a dark work, in which every possible opportunity to highlight the evil side of human nature is taken – and it worked splendidly!

Popolizio was aided by Sergio Tramonti as scenographer, Silvia Aymonino as costume designer and Roberto Venturi as lighting designer. They all combined to create a simple, sparse, yet effective staging, that reflected the essence of the work. The sets were almost uniformly black and shaded in dark light. Props were at a minimum. Projected above the stage on a thin large horizontal screen were the dark storm clouds that raged throughout the evening. Occasionally a pair of blinking eyes, looked outwards. A claustrophobic menacing atmosphere dominated the drama. The costumes magnified the effect further. The bandits were muscular, replete with array of weaponry and clothed in aggressive attire. Francesco, in particular, had a diabolical demeanor, his arm deformed and clamped, extending outwards from his side, and so aggressively dressed it left no room for debate as to his malefic nature. The overall effect was so successful that the all-pervading, heavy and oppressive malevolence that hung over the work compensated to a large degree for Verdi’s decision to provide uplifting and sentimental music for the chorus of bandits, and thus left no room for the suggestion that there is anything glorious in such a life.

A Star on the Rise

The role of Amalia was undertaken by Roberta Mantegna, a recent graduate from Opera Roma’s “Fabbrica” Young Artist Program, and it does appear they have nurtured a real star in the making. From her very first note, her voice sparkled. Showing no signs of being overawed in the part, she sang with freedom and flair throughout the evening. Strong across the range with a seamless passaggio, possessing vocal strength and flexibility Mantegna used her formidable technique to dominate the role. Her phrasing was subtle and nuanced, and intelligently employed, allowing her to convincingly portray Amalia as multi-layered character. Coloratura and fioritura passages were despatched with confidence, although maybe a shade too conservatively which compromised the overall effect. During her duets with the three other main characters, Massimiliano, Carlo and Francesco, Mantegna underlined her genuine quality, in more than matching the performances of the more experienced singers. Martegna is a singer we are guaranteed to hear a lot more of in the future!

Inconsistency Personified

As Stefano Secco, who played the part of Carlo Moor, stepped onto the stage at the end of the evening he was met with a wave of enthusiastic applause – surprisingly so, because this was far from a faultless, or even a workaday performance. Then a few boos were heard – unjustifiably so, as there was also much to admire about his singing. Secco’s problem was one of consistency. For almost an hour, during Acts one and two, he was vocally at sea. His voice sounded thin and frayed in the upper register and his transitioning between registers labored and lacked in confidence. He also struggled to maintain the vocal line.

Following the interval it was a different Secco, a vocal transformation had taken place. There was a now a confident swagger in his voice, the upper register was more secure and his phrasing became more supple and nuanced, although, it must be added, never truly convinced. The inconsistency also extended to his acting, which at times was awkward and flat, such as in the opening act when he reluctantly accepts to become the leader of the bandits. He was pushed by a fearsome-looking warrior, his nervous reaction appearing to be the result of fear rather than moral rectitude, and certainly not the demeanor of a man capable of leading a band of vicious murderous thugs. In the final scene, however, Secco was thoroughly convincing as a man who could no longer live with his actions.
The fact Secco decided to face down the negative reaction from sections of the audience certainly added to the entertainment.

Evil Personified

Artur Rucinski was perfectly parted as Francesco. His whole being exuded malevolence. He was a man without scruples, bent on evil, someone literally prepared to kill his own father. Rucniski convincingly acted out the role, his every gesture, every action neatly placed to convey his vicious intent. This was supported by a mesmerizing vocal performance, in which his insightful, intelligent phrasing brought real depth to the character, his words almost dripping in their own venom. The Act four narrative aria “Pareami che sorto da lauto convito,” in which Francesco describes his vision of The Day of Judgement before then railing against its judgement was delivered with gripping intensity. His Act two confrontation with Amalia, in which he attempts force his broken body upon her, was a well crafted scene, enabling both Rucinski and Martegna to engage in a high powered and captivating vocal duel, in which both came out as winners.

As Carlo and Francesco’s father, Massimiliano, was Riccardo Zanellato. His strong sonorous voice brought gravitas and authority to the slowly dying man – although this, of course, counted for nothing to the patricidal Francesco. Both his acting and singing displayed all the signs of an accomplished and experienced singer. He employed an array vocal colors, and successfully produced a deeply sympathetic portrayal.

Arminio, Francesco’s steward, was played by the tenor Saverio Fiore. Although not a large part, Fiore produced a sympathetic and nuanced reading of the role. His voice has a pleasing timbre and he displayed a solid technique. Unsurprisingly, he was continually abused throughout the evening by Francesco. Pastor Moser was played by Dario Russo. Russo has a warm resonant bass, and played the part convincingly as an ascetic, hermit-like character. Rolla, one of Carlo’s henchmen, was played by Pietro Picone, and although his voice had a pleasing texture he lacked the necessary projection.

The Chorus Master, Roberto Gabbiani, can be very proud indeed of the performance he coached from what was essentially all-male chorus. They attacked their lines with force and energy, generating a marvelous backcloth upon which the action took place. Furthermore, their casual indulgence in the most willful acts of vicious cruelty was superbly well-choreographed, adding to the all-pervading darkness that hung over the drama.

In contrast to the darkness that dominated the stage, however, the Orchestra del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, under the direction of Roberto Abbado, produced a fresh and colorful reading of the score. Abbado created a refined and nuanced sound that highlighted its many passages of beauty. Moreover, he was very attentive to the singers’ needs, allowing the emergence of an almost bel canto quality to develop, taking advantage of the sections of the score that quite clearly showed the influence of Bellini.

Opera Roma’s production of “I Masnadieri” thus shows the extent to which a well thought through production can, in fact, compensate for weaknesses contained within a work itself. Verdi, the consummate opera composer, by his own admission, was not completely satisfied with the work and actually recommended that cuts should be made, particularly in Acts one and two. Popolizio overrode the failings by magnifying certain aspects of the work so that others did not interfere, and consequently detract from the dramatic dynamic. The choruses are case in point; both Maffei’s libretto and Verdi’s music do suggest there is a romantic aspect to the camaraderie of a life spent “on the road” as a bandit. Popolizio’s solution was as simple as it was effective, that is to exaggerate the reality of banditry and throw it into the faces of the audience. A further weakness was the failure of Verdi and Maffei, to maintain the tension at crucial points in the drama. Again this was dealt with through clever directing on the part of Popolizio by bringing an extra level of violence and brutality to the proceedings, so that the audience was constantly uncomfortably engaged.

Overall, Popolizio’s successful directing concentrated the focus of the drama, and at the same time allowed the audience to experience Verdi’s wonderful music without becoming distracted by the failings contained within the work.


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