Every day up to 25,000 people disembark from the expanded cruise terminal in Venice and pour into the city’s narrow streets.
Thousands more arrive by train and car. The water buses are so crowded that it would be preferable to walk, if it were not for the fact that the streets have become equally unbearable; so much so in fact, that the Venice authorities have installed gates to control access to certain areas, forcing tourists into other parts of the city.
The queues outside the St Mark’s Cathedral and other attractions lengthen each year, so that now visitors spend most of the time lining up. The local shops have been forced out by the big chain stores – there are even rumors that Starbucks wants to open a branch in St Mark’s Square.
The city is also suffering a severe population decline, as the residents leave, so they can rent out their apartments, courtesy of Airbnb. The cruise ships sail slowly through the Venetian lagoon, so that it is now possible to admire an enormous liner, full of waving tourists, sailing within a few meters of the grand palazzi and churches. It is claimed that this causes no damage to the city, which is delicately perched on wooden piles driven into the lagoon’s mud flats centuries ago.
If you are interested in seeing the damage caused by mass tourism, then Venice is the place to go!
Tourists Ignoring History
You may be wondering what all this has to do with Wexford Festival Opera’s new production of Mercadante’s “Il Bravo,” a drama about spies, assassins, love, and murder, set in 16th century Venice.
The answer, under normal circumstances, would be nothing at all. However, the director, Renaud Doucet, had other ideas. While this was essentially a traditional presentation of the work, he decided to use it as a vehicle to attack the excesses of mass tourism, and even to attack tourists themselves. Throughout the production, 21st-century tourists would invade the stage at regular intervals. During the overture, two tourists struggle with their cases while looking for their hotel.
In the middle of the first act, the grand procession of the doge was overwhelmed by tourists, much to the delight of the Doge himself, who posed for photographs. Tourists could be seen posing for selfies, asking for directions or unconcernedly bumping into residents going about their daily business.
During the intervals, the curtain would picture a 16th-century scene, with a gauche image superimposed onto it, such as a cruise ship or street vendors selling their shoddy souvenirs. The idea was clear; tourists come to Venice, which is built upon a rich history, but with which the tourists interact, if at all, only on a superficial level, moving past the historical drama which is unfolding around them, without the slightest interest, concerned only with preserving their own experiences, captured on their cell phones or through the purchase of a fridge magnet.
Moreover, the decaying buildings in the sets are a testament to the damage they help to create. It is an issue that certainly needs addressing, and Doucet did well in drawing attention to some of the issues involved, even going so far as to have residents demonstrating against the cruise ships.
Unfortunately, however, all this has absolutely nothing to do with this opera, and simply detracted from the main drama, which itself is overly complicated and intricate.
A Complicated & Intricate Plot
In its essence, the plot revolves around the assassin, Il Bravo, who has been conscripted to work for the Council of Ten. He swaps his identity with Pisani for two days. Il Bravo is the father of Violetta, but they are both unaware of the fact, and also by chance she just happens to be in love with Pisani, who is now disguised as Il Bravo. The mother, Teodora, is a woman of dubious morality and has lost touch with her daughter.
And so it continues. In the end, after a grand family reconciliation, II Bravo is commanded by the Council to kill Teodora, as she offended the powerful patrician, Foscari. Teodora spares Il Bravo the pain of killing the woman he now loves by committing suicide. Pisani and Violetta escape together, having been blessed by her parents. It was all so hysterical, heavy-handed and overblown, that it was probably more satisfying to sit back, enjoy the spectacle and the music, and forget about the plot.
For this was, indeed, a real spectacle. It would be difficult to overstate the brilliance of the sets and costumes in its best scenes. The scenographer and costume designer, André Barbe, varied the settings so that the high-impact scenes truly dazzled, most notably in the feast scene set in Teodora’s house. It was sensational. The extravagant costumes were based on contemporary dress, using a fabulous array of colors. Two of the ladies were even wearing very high red platform shoes. This may seem a little surprising, but they were, in fact, very popular in the city at the time; so much so that the government had to pass a law restricting the height of shoes. It was the strongest part of the staging.
Throughout the production, however, Doucet failed to successfully address the weakness of the narrative. The lopsided direction and choreography, which highlighted the brilliance of the choral scenes and the irrelevant exploration of mass tourism, were at the expense of the drama itself, which simply failed to engage with audience. Insufficient attention seemed to have been given to the acting and interaction of the soloists, which had mixed results; while some singers emerged with great credit, others were over-reliant on stock gestures. The direction just did not have the necessary focus to make the plot come alive.
Il Bravo & Friends
Rubens Pelizzari made a good show in essaying the role of Il Bravo. He sang with a great deal of freedom, and made a convincing assassin-come-hero, adding the necessary vocal and physical swagger to the portrayal. He has a strong Italianate voice, with a warm coating. He clearly enjoyed singing the big arching lines, which he filled with great emotion and passion, although he was not too concerned with exploring the vocal nuances. However, if it was not exactly a subtle portrayal, it was certainly a successful one which was pleasing on the ear.
Alessandro Luciano playing the role of Pisani has a lighter sounding tenor than Pelizzari. Although he sang reasonably well, his delivery was occasionally labored, and the voice sometimes uneven. He made a convincing counterpart to Il Bravo, the vocal colors of the two tenors suitably distinct, which made their interactions musically satisfying.
Ekaterina Bakanova produced an absolutely sparkling performance in the role of Violetta. Her singing and acting were simply excellent, successfully bringing out the different aspects of the character, in which she was fully immersed. Her voice is wonderfully agile, able to spin out long enticing lines, exquisitely embellished. She has a beautiful coloratura, with ringing top notes. Her phrasing is founded upon an excellent control of dynamics and the ability to manipulate the shadings of the voice. It was a truly expressive performance, one that blended subtlety with power, and delivered a fully fleshed out portrait of a young woman subject to some severe emotional situations.
The soprano, Yasko Sato, as Teodora did not fully convince in the role. Certainly, she displayed a good technique, which she used to bring a degree of expressivity to the part. Her voice has pleasing timbre, and her legato, when singing piano, was a joy to listen to. However, she never really engaged fully with the character, her phrasing often appearing too mannered, even unemotional, at times. Moreover, she did not articulate the text very clearly, which also compromised the vocal line. A similar criticism can also be made of the acting, which also came over as emotionally too detached.
The baritone, Gustavo Castillo was a very impressive Foscari; both his singing and acting were carefully crafted, his sinister presence thrillingly brought to life. His singing displayed skill, intelligence, and beauty. Each phrase was meticulously measured, the vocal line full of subtle accents, dynamic and colored nuances. It was a detailed and gloriously refined performance in which he perfectly captured the dark nature of Foscari. The only criticism to be made is that he was unable to project his voice with enough strength to impose himself in the ensemble and choral scenes.
The minor roles were all strongly parted. The young Polish bass, Simon Mechlinski, made an excellent impression as Foscari’s servant, Luigi. The tenor, José de Eca, in the role of the patrician, Cappello, the talented bass, Toni Nezic as Marco, the gondolier, and the Irish tenor, Richard Shaffrey, as a messenger all displayed quality. Ioana Constatin-Piplea as Teodora’s maid showed off her pleasing soprano to good effect.
A Transitional Work
Mercadante’s score is a transitional work, lying between bel canto and Verdi, with imaginative orchestration, and interesting music, although no arias or ensemble pieces stand out as particularly memorable. Yet, under the conducting of Jonathan Brandani, the Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera produced an engrossing reading, in which the score’s rich textures and subtle expressivity were fully explored. This made the opera as a whole, a memorable musical experience. Brandani held the orchestra, chorus and soloists together in a wonderfully balanced performance, allowing Mercadante’s music the space to convince.
The chorus master, Errol Gridlestone, did an excellent job and had the Chorus of Wexford Festival Opera deliver a powerful performance. In the crowded scenes, which literally filled the stage, there was breathtaking wall of sound, in which none of the subtleties were lost. In the smaller choral parts, the effect was equally impressive, the chorus capturing the score’s pleasing vocal textures.
This was a production in which the best advice to a potential audience member would have been to forget about the drama completely, not to bother about making sense of 21st tourists milling around 16th century Venice, but simply to enjoy the music and marvellous singing and allow themselves to be overwhelmed by the opulence of the choral scenes.