Wexford Festival Opera 2018 Review: ‘L’Oracolo’ & ‘La Mala Vita’
Leoni & Giordano’s Operas Work Well On Their Own, But Direction Falters In Double Bill CouplingBy Alan Neilson
The first thing that comes to mind when seeing that a “double bill” has been scheduled is often, “not another ‘Cav/Pag,’ not another example of lazy programming.” Luckily, however, this is the Wexford Festival and there is no chance of such a combination taking to the stage here, where innovative programming is the company’s raison d’etre.
Deciding on a pair of operas to present, of course, is not a simple task; to have credibility, a connection of some sort between the two works needs to be apparent, whether it is artistic, historical, intellectual or another factor, but there has to be something. Staging two detached works, totally dissociated from each other is simply a wasted opportunity; art in all forms is at its most powerful when it is given a context in which (positive and negative) connections can be forged, for in doing so it uncovers aspects that may have lain dormant or ignored. One work can elevate or exposes weaknesses in the other, or they may even combine to create something new. Moreover, performing two disconnected works is simply not satisfying for the spectator, who must banish all thoughts of the first work, before sitting down for the second, for the first will add nothing to our understanding of the second, yet certainly has the potential to distract.
Wexford Festival Opera chose to stage Franco Leoni’s “L’Oracolo” with Umberto Giordano’s “Mala Vita,” two operas which rarely receive performances. The two works are associated in numerous ways; both composers were Italian, were born and died within a few years of each other, and both composed works situated firmly within the verismo genre.
Moreover, both composers had their works overshadowed by the dominance of Puccini’s operas. “Mala Vita” premiered in 1892 and actually predates Puccini’s first success, “Manon Lescaut,” by a year, while “L’Oracolo” premiered in 1905, following the successes of Puccini’s “Tosca,” “La Bohème” and “Madama Butterfly.”
On paper, at least, they seem like a well-matched pairing.
The plot of Leoni’s “L’Oracolo” manages to tick all the boxes which define the work as a verismo piece. It is set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, in which the common and downtrodden people struggle to fashion an existence of sorts amongst its gambling, crime and opium dens.
It is Chinese New Year so the area is awash with local color, capped by a dragon procession. Emotions are excited by the abduction of a small child, who has been snatched by Cim-Fen, in an attempt to manipulate Hu-Tsin into giving him his niece, Ah-Joe, as a bride. Unsurprisingly, it all ends in tragedy as Cim-Fen murders Uin-San-Lui, who has discovered he had abducted the child, and is in turn, himself, brutally murdered by Uin-San-Lui’s father, Uin-Sci.
The set, designed by Cordelia Chisholm, was a marvelous depiction of a San Francisco tenement at the turn of the 20th century, which rotated to reveal different aspects of the neighborhood. It was an exceptionally versatile structure, which allowed the drama to move seamlessly from one situation to the next. It was also visually realistic and provided the perfect backdrop for the drama.
Paul Hackenmueller, the lightening engineer, bathed the sets in dark colors, which added to the threat of menace that hangs in the air. Chisholm was also responsible for the costume designs, which were traditionally fashioned, blending the Chinese with the American to create the cultural mix of Chinatown.
The director, Rodula Gaitanou, produced a straight reading of the work, in which he highlighted the endemic violence, criminal activity, and vibrancy which permeates the community, while allowing the work’s more sensitive moments to flourish, such as the love scene between Ah-Joe and Uin-San-Lui.
His masterful handling of the crowd scenes made for colorful interludes, full of balloons, Chinese umbrellas, markets stalls and, of course, the dragon procession, which acted as a pleasing counterbalance to the drama’s otherwise heavy atmosphere. However, Gaitanou did deviate from the libretto in the final scene; instead of having Uin-Sci strangle Cim-Fen to death with his pigtail, he cuts out his heart, raises it up and squeezes out the blood over his dead body.
The Players of L’Oracolo
Leon Kim played the role of the doctor, Uin-Sci, who is a wise man, to whom the community look towards for advice, and is the oracle named in the work’s title. Kim’s portrayal was thrillingly crafted. Initially calm and kind, Kim turned Uin-Sci into a killer, bent on vengeance and verging on insanity, in a marvelous, if somewhat deranged, piece of acting.
He has a strong, deeply colored baritone, which oozes authority. In his closing aria, having killed Cim-Fen, Kim’s measured and colorful phrasing, captured Uin-Sci’s emotional state as he moves swiftly between feelings of triumphalism over Cim-Fen’s death and the pain that is awaiting him in Hell, as well as his remorse for the loss of his own son. Moreover, he presented the aria with the moral authority of someone who believed they have done no wrong.
As Cim-Fen, Joo Won Kang, made an excellent impression. Both his acting and singing left no doubt as to his malevolent nature. Dressed as a typical low-grade gangster, he bullied and threatened and metered out violence to any who crossed him, be they men or women. Kang possesses a flexible baritone, and showed ability in crafting accented phrases which gave an evil veneer to his singing. It was a convincing performance, one which really caught the inherent danger of the character.
The soprano, Elisabetta Farris, playing the role of Ah-Joe put in an highly emotional and expressive performance. Following Uin-San-Lui’s murder, her desperation was clear; Farris infused her voice with real pain and heart-rendering sadness, which ended with her piercing voice ringing out, “Ritorna!” imploring him to return.
In the duet “Ah-Joe, uno sgormento improvviso m’invade” Farris’ beautiful singing blended passionately with Escobar’s Uin-San-Lui in a lyrically pleasing rendition, showing off her strong middle and upper registers.
In the role of Uin-San-Lui was the tenor, Sergio Escobar. His voice has an appealing timbre, which really shines in the more lyrical moments, and produced a passionate performance as Ah-Joe’s suitor, although his acting was not always subtle or convincing.
Ah-Joe’s uncle and guardian, Hi-Tsin, was parted by the baritone Benjamin Cho. He put in a solid performance in the not particularly notable role. Likewise, Louise Innes was effective in the relatively small role of Hua-Qui.
The plot of Umberto Giordano’s “Mala Vita” shares the same characteristics as “L’Oracolo” which define it as verismo. It deals with common people, who become involved in an emotionally fraught situation, which ultimately leads to a brutal conclusion, set against a background full of local color.
The setting on this occasion is among the poor of Naples. The morally bankrupt, Vito, is carrying on with a married woman, Amalia, but has sworn an oath to rescue Cristina, a prostitute, from her sinful life. After a number broken promises and confrontations, he chooses to stay with Amalia, and Cristina is cast aside, fainting at the brothel door that she thought she had left forever.
Instead of setting it in Naples, Gaitanou moved the setting to New York’s Little Italy, conveniently making use of the same set used for “L’Oracolo” with a few minor adjustments, such as the names on the shops.
Again the lighting was designed to intensify the drama’s dark atmosphere. Gaitanou emphasized the violent undercurrents of the work, and provided contrast through well-managed choral scenes. The exchanges between Vito, Amalia, and Cristina were expertly managed and perfectly highlighted their emotional reactions. Again, as in “L’Oracolo,” Gaitanou decided to alter the ending; rather than have Cristina, who in a fit of total despair, return to her life as a prostitute, she picks up a gun and blows her brains out.
The soprano, Francesca Tiburzi, essayed the role of the prostitute, Cristina, and put in a compelling performance. Her engagement with the character was intense, her acting and singing brutally honest. It was a truly passionate performance, one in which she emotionally rose and fell with her character. Her voice is strong and expressive, and every phrase was conveyed with sincerity, every word inflected with just the right amount of emphasis.
In the finale, just before she commits suicide she sings the aria, “Lascia quei cenci…” in which she showed off the fabulous agility of her voice; leaps were taken with ease, coloring subtly managed, the vocal line carefully accented, and when the voice was allowed to soar into the upper register, she delivered a succession of piercing high notes.
Amalia was parted by the mezzo-soprano, Dorothea Spilger. Like Tiburzi, she made an excellent impression and displayed skill and intelligence in crafting her character, producing an expressive and persuasive interpretation.
Her most notable contributions came in the duets with Tiburzi and with Escobar. The duet “Ebbene… …non ti nego” from the finale to Act two, in which Amalia succeeds in winning back Vito, showed off the splendid colors of her palette, and her ability to craft subtle phrases, full of dynamic nuances. The two singers sparred delightfully before finally coming together in a passionate climax.
The soprano, Anna Jeffers, in the minor role of Nunzia, acquitted herself well. She possesses a strong secure voice with a solid technique.
A number of the roles were undertaken by singers who performed in “L’Oracolo.” Sergio Escobar (Uin-San-Lui) was parted as Vito, the spineless seducer, who was at least consistent in following the path of least resistance. He has a strong, colorful voice, with an attractive tone, and sings with a great deal of freedom and passion. It was powerful display and very pleasing on the ear. However, it was achieved at the expense of a certain degree of nuance and subtlety. His acting reflected his singing; he had swagger and presence, but at the expense of detail.
Leon Kim (Uin-Sci) put in another captivating display, this time as Amalia’s, violent and drunken husband Annetiello, and produced a confident and expressive performance. Benjamin Cho (Hu-Tsin) again was solid in the minor role of Marco.
The Chorus Master, Errol Girdlestone, did a magnificent job, eliciting choral singing of the highest quality from the Chorus of the Festival Opera. The Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera, under the baton of Francesco Cilluffo, gave a sparkling, balanced performance, full of color, rich textures and wonderfully managed climaxes.
Individually these two works were undoubtedly a success, and as pair they sit very comfortably alongside each other. However, it is possible that they are just too comfortably paired, at least in this production, in which there was a lack of distinction between the works. To a certain degree, this was due to the fact the two operas possess a similar musical and dramatic dynamic.
Largely, however, it was a result of the direction and staging, in which Gaitanou deliberately drew attention to the works’ similar themes, going so far as to change their endings, so that they have a similarly brutal and bloody conclusion. Using the same set, with similar lighting was a mistake as it intensified their similarities. Maybe with different direction and sets, it would add a little friction, and create the necessary distinction between them for a successful pairing.