Teatro Real de Madrid 2020-21 Review: Viva la Mamma

Under Laurent Pelly’s Brilliant Director, Carlos Álvarez Delivers Hilarious & Surprising Turn in Donizetti’s Unique Comedy

By Mauricio Villa

It was in 1969 when “Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali,” by Gaetano Donizetti, was renamed “Viva la Mamma” for a series of performances in Munich— and since then, the name has stuck.

The opera premiered as a one-act farce in Naples in 1827 and obtained great success. Donizetti presented the two-act version in Milan in 1831. But the opera then disappeared from the repertoire for more than a century, to only be revived for the very first time in 1963 in Siena.

“Viva la Mamma” is rarely performed even now. Expectations for watching this opera, staged this year in Teatro Real, were accordingly high, and the result did not disappoint the audience of Madrid’s opera coliseum.

The score presents a young Donizetti deeply influenced by Rossini, as can be clearly seen in the buffo arias and the recitative secco. But it shows the musical and dramatic talent of composer from Bergamo would go on to write two of the best comic operas of all times: “L’elisir d’amore” and “Don Pasquale.” The music is fresh and lively, despite its apparent simplicity. The plot tells of how a provincial company rehearses an opera where the interpreters fight because of their egos to the despair of the impresario and musical director.

Laurent Pelly’s Brilliant Vision

Teatro Real premiered a production directed by the magnificent French stage auteur Laurent Pelly, in co-production with the Opéra National of Lyon and Grand Théâtre de Genève. There could be no better director to explore the comical music and plot of the opera, taken to levels of exuberant frenzy through rhythm and gags. Pelly is a master of staging comic operas, seen in his attention to detail in the construction of the personalities of the singers, which contrast so delightfully with the realistic characterizations of the music master, librettist, and impresario. Pelly’s trademark of creating choreography for soloists and chorus is evident. Their movements are perfectly connected with the music, reinforcing the fast rhythm and comical style of this composition.

Pelly’s comic productions are closer to musical theatre productions than what is generally done in opera. While many stage directors uses choreographers in operas which have no ballet, simply because they are unable to move the chorus effectively (we have had two examples this season in Norma and Peter Grimes), Pelly creates his own choreographies and really knows how to reinforce the comics through movement. He sets the first act in the underground garage of an old, abandoned opera house—with hyper-realistic sets by Chantal Thomas, his usual collaborator—and the second act is set inside the opera house itself. Pelly’s idea for the end is brilliant, as labourers enter with equipment and begin demolishing the theatre as the curtain goes down. But the highlight of the evening was the trio ‘Per me non trovo calma’ between the characters of the German tenor, Mamma Agata and the music director. As the tenor and Agata fight with each other at opposite ends of an upright piano on wheels, the piano turns around crazily and slides from side to side with the music director grabbing it desperately. The tenor and the baritone rehearse a trill, and while Xabier Anduaga emits a perfect trill, Carlos Álvarez sings in an impossible falsetto out of pitch, showing how terrible a singer Mamma Agata is. The whole performance is a nonstop laugh from beginning to end, and it was clear that both singers and audience were immensely entertained.

The opera is mostly choral, and though every principal singer has their own aria—which are shorter than they usually are in this repertoire — the different voices argue, intertwine and overlap constantly.

The Star of the Show

But it was clear that the star of the evening was Carlos Álvarez playing, in drag, the role of Mamma Agata. The use of Álvarez was comical in itself, as he has developed over time to become a great Verdi baritone. His voice has always been dark and voluminous since the beginning of his career, but through maturity, his timbre has deepened, and the dramatism has increased. He could therefore not be a less-appropriate singer for this role.

But it is precisely his big, dark voice, coming from a madame in her mid-fifties dressed in a tasteless gown and carrying her purse strongly under her arm, which was so amusing. I do not know how a singer with Álvarez’s qualities, and who is rehearsing Scarpia in Tosca while performing “Viva la mamma,” agreed to sing this role, but it was a wise choice. This role would usually be performed by a buffo baritone, a bass-baritone who does not require big volume but agility and flexibility in the voice to sing fast fragments with crazy lyrics, plus a multitude of resources to colour and detail the voice. Mamma Agata’s first aria,
“Mascalzoni! Sfaccendati!” is the best buffo aria example—clearly influenced by Rossini’s comic works—where the singer has to imitate several instruments in the orchestra and sing extremely fast parlato lines. This is not easy for a big dramatic voice such as Álvarez’s, but the Spanish baritone lightened his voice, omitted vibrato, and produced immaculate articulation to sing the parlato sections with a clear and understandable diction. And he still had breath to conclude with a long sustained high G.

Aside from the aforementioned trio, the second big moment for the baritone was his second act aria Asissa a’ pié” where Agata takes the place of the prima donna. Álvarez had to sing flat and out of pitch, deliver several sections in high falsetto, sung completely out of rhythm. The result was truly amusing. The vocal and dramatic characterization that Álvarez managed to achieve was astounding, and the audience delivered him the well-deserved greatest ovation of the evening.

Some Brilliant Inconsistency

Nino Machaizde embodied Daria, the arrogant prima donna. Her entrance aria “Ah! vicino è il bel momento” perfectly defined her vocal state. She is in possession of a beautiful voice with a sweet velvet timbre and modest volume, but her coloratura was extremely slow. To make matters worse, it was not exactly clean and some roulades and scales were blurred. She has a tendency to darken her middle-lower register, but the true nature of her voice comes when she goes above A, as the high notes have a crystalline quality and do not sound artificial or manufactured: for example, the last high C which ended the cabaletta of the aria. At least she is not pushing the sound, which will give her vocal longevity, although she tries to sound more lyrical than her voice really is. She is reduced to a very few roles which do not have extreme top notes and whose orchestration is not big. In my opinion, she is a truly lyrical leggera who should work her top register. I must add that her interpretation of the extravagant, arrogant prima donna, taking all the cliches to the extreme, was hilarious.

There were high expectations for the Teatro Real debut of the young Spanish tenor Xabier Anduaga, who became a sensation when he won the 2019 Operalia competition when he was just 24-years-old. He has now debuted in several theatres across Italy and also at Paris Opera. He has also just been recognized as “best young tenor” at the Opera Awards. As with the rest of the cast (with the exception of Mamma Agata), his role as Guglielmo is not a great role to show all the potential of his voice: he has just one solo aria while the rest is ensemble work. But his appearances, his depurated breathing technique and projection, give you a great idea of how beautiful his timbre is. His voice has the warm quality of the Latin voices. Being a lirico leggero, his sound is round with a dark heroic character and complete from low to high. He has extremely easy high notes, as demonstrated in the line Maestro,” which he repeated with nasty insistence due to the ignorance of the maestro de canto, and whose last Maestre” culminated in a brilliant high C. His second act aria Ah! tu mi Vuoihi” was his big lyrical moment, showing his expansive long lines, perfect control of the fiato, sparkling high B flats, and a vibrant conclusive high C. His character is a serious professional German tenor who despairs at the disaster of the company’s organization and the whims of the prima donna, and Anduaga embodied this perfectly. He had the added difficulty of singing with a German accent but, as with the whole cast, his composition was hilarious and funny.

Other Brilliant Cast Members

The Spanish baritone Borja Quiza incarnated Procolo, the prima donna’s husband. This character was an exaggerated, effeminate singer with mannerisms taken to the extreme, and that is where Quiza showed his best. He has mostly conducted his career in lyrical comic parts like Rossini’s Figaro, Dandini, Tadeo, or Belcore from “L’elisir d’amore.” He consequently moved easily through his vocal lines, full of different colors and dynamics.

Silvia Schwartz played Luigia, the second prima donna and daughter of Mamma Agata. Her solo interventions are very short and her character less exaggerated as she plays a timid, shy young soprano. She has the challenge to fake terrible singing by emitting plain and off-pitch notes.

The rest of the singers — Carol García, Enric Martinez Castignani, Piotr Micinski, and Luis Lopez Navarro – were relegated to a few spare lines but present throughout the whole opera. They perfectly followed Pelly’s detailed characterization of their roles and contributed wonderfully to heightening the farce. The efforts of the male section of Teatro Real’s chorus and the extras (for their comic disposition and the challenge of learning choreography and multiple movements in the music) are due mention as well.

Italian conductor Evelino Pidó, the bel canto specialist who received the Bellini d’oro award in 2012, was in charge of the orchestra of the Teatro Real. It is amazing how passionate he is while conducting, and you could see him jump and even dance in the pit as he guided the orchestra. His joy and energy permeated all the members of the pit. There are just a few rare recordings of this work and no tradition set about tempi or dynamics of the little-known score, but Pidó managed to express the comical and hilarious characteristics of this opera with frenzied tempi and big crescendos in ensemble numbers.

Overall this was an extremely hilarious work during which the audience did not stop laughing from beginning to end. Under director Laurent Pelly, this new production surprised the audience with its realism in contrast with the abstraction of an opera house.  A full cast wholeheartedly embracing the characterization of their roles and creating one of the funniest operas seen at Teatro Real.


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