Teatro Grattacielo 2021 Review: ‘Cristoforo Colombo’

Teatro Grattacielo Makes Compelling Case for Rare Franchetti Opera

By Logan Martell

On October 16, 2021, Teatro Grattacielo presented a concert of highlights from Alberto Franchetti’s opera “Cristoforo Colombo.”

Originally commissioned by the city of Genoa, Columbus’ birthplace, it premiered in 1892 to mark the 400th anniversary of his voyage to America. Well-received by Italian audiences, this opera is one that is seldom performed in American theaters. Saturday’s concert marked the first time the work had been performed in New York, introducing the music in an intimate but immersive setting at the Columbus Citizens Foundation.

Stellar Artists

The evening’s program was opened with remarks and historical context provided by Teatro Grattacielo’s General and Artistic Director, Stefanos Koroneos. Accompanying the artists was pianist and music director Filippo Ciabatti.

The first number was Don Ximenes’ “Dormon l’agli prore… Aria del Mostro” performed by bass Carlos Adrian Hernandez. The languid measures of the introduction was met with a rich yet dire opening from Hernandez, as his character related their take on the dangers of the seafaring journey, likening it to a fearsome monster. As the mood built with frantic power, the audience was quickly submerged within the drama of this opening number, finely setting the mood for the rest of the concert. Hernandez displayed a wide range of expression through the aria’s alternating moods, utilizing a softer, hushed dynamic to draw in the audience, while not lacking for the sheer power needed to later wash over them with a massive vocal outpouring.

The following number was the duet between baritone Bryan Murray, as Cristoforo, and soprano Sarah Rose Johnson as Queen Isabella of Aragon. As Isabella laid out her vision of what the voyage could lead to, this saw expression through the sonorous, extended phrases delivered by Johnson, accented all the more by the shimmering, repeating figures of the accompaniment. While Johnson spent much of this number in a higher, excited texture, she was still able to take it to more fervent heights as she implored Cristoforo for an answer with strong repetitions of “rispondi” before he finally joined in the duet. Here, Murray’s grounded phrases provided a warm undercurrent for Johnson’s soaring vocality, with the two ending in a tight unison.

Interesting Ensembles

Next was a duet from mezzo-soprano Shanley Horvitz, as the Native princess Anacoana, and Murray providing the few lines from the old chieftain, Bobita. Expressing the grief of the princess, who has lost her husband, the previous chieftain, the light feeling of the accompaniment was quickly cut by a massive, ruinous cry from Horvitz as their ensuing sections alternated between sorrow, and a desire for revenge filled with power and backed by lush, driving tones. The piece saw Horvitz utilize a soaring vocality, interspersed with measures where she displayed biting phrases, which did not lack for a more reflective sentiment as she mixed and flowed between these frantic emotional states towards a bitter dirge-like ending.

After this was the sextet, a number from the original four-act version of the opera, which went through a number of cuts and revisions after its premiere in 1892, due to length. This powerful number was opened by tenor Hyunho Cho as Don Fernando Guevara, who employed a refined yet passionate approach in his entreatment to Iguamota, daughter of Anacoana, sung by Johnson. As the other soloists started joining the piece, they maintained a rich and coherent musical texture despite the conflicting emotions and differing level of involvement; a density which made its way to a captivating conclusion and great applause.

The next duet was between Johnson as Iguamota, and Cho as Guevara. The initial, dissonant figures gave way to a tender crooning from Cho. After the two exchanged romantic, lyrical phrases, it built to a more fervent rhythm which made use of uneasy tremolo, dense lower chords, and rolling arpeggios to accentuate this strange passion. These numerous devices ultimately led to silence as the music faded and Cho delivered a strong, unaccompanied close.

These last two numbers were the epilogue, between Cristoforo and Guevara as the former mourns at the grave of Queen Isabella and readies for his own fade into death. Here, Murray displayed a hushed, despondent quality, punctuated by vocal leaps which spoke to his character’s remaining ardor. Cho’s Guevara attempted to console his friend, at first using a more compassionate approach, while also able to meet him in the depths of his anguish as Murray and Cho exchanged phrases. As Cristoforo reached the end of his own journey, Murray and Ciabatti brought the concert to a close with a showcase of technical and dramatic skill.

Contentious Yet Compelling

While only a concert of highlights, Saturday’s program made for a fascinating and deeply touching introduction to this overlooked work. The literally epic nature of the source material is certainly the stuff operas are made of, and Franchetti’s composition treats it with style that has been likened to the works of Wagner, Meyerbeer, and Boito. Between the vast orchestration, grand opera structure, and wealth of motivic representation, there is much for listeners to enjoy.

The history itself, however, is one that in modern times has come under great scrutiny and criticism, and there are naturally many who would be reticent, if not outright opposed, to seeing a figure like Christopher Columbus given heroic treatment through such a spectacular opera. Perhaps this is one contributing factor to why American theaters have been less receptive than those in Italy, apart from the 1913 North American premiere by the Philadelphia-Chicago Grand Opera Company.

Despite these problematic elements, the concert enjoyed a great reception from the audience, with the artists lauded for their compelling performance. I personally would be very interested in seeing “Cristoforo Colombo” in a complete production, where the grand nature of the work could be fleshed out in its entirety. In Teatro Grattacielo’s mission to present seldom-performed works, they have no doubt found one that can captivate as well as challenge even the audiences of today.


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