Viva Criminalità, Viva Italia

Strange. I don’t feel like a criminal. But Mark Twain, in his newly released Autobiography (published, as he wished, a century after his death), says, “I believe that the trade of critic, in literature, music, and the drama, is the most degraded of all trades, and that it has no real value.” Well, there goes 28 years worth of work as a classical music critic — down the drain to degradation. But Twain softens as he realizes that, “I seem to have been drifting into criticism myself. But that is nothing. At the worst, criticism is nothing more than a crime, and I am not unused to that.” Ah, I feel much better. Besides, as a hardened criminal, I can’t stop now. So, here I go again on another crime spree of reviews of new CDs and an opera, all from Italy.

The restoration of 20th-century Italian non-operatic music continues apace, with the Naxos release of Franco Alfano’s Cello Sonata and the Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano (8.570928). This is gorgeous chamber music, full-throated, declamatory, characterful, and moving. The Concerto is supposed to be more neoclassical than the romantic Cello Sonata, but it is so imbued with felling that it does not strike me as neoclassical at all. This release makes me eager to hear Alfano’s three String Quartets and his Quintet for Piano and Strings.

 

Alfano was also a major opera composer, though today he is largely known for having finished Puccini’s Turandot, left incomplete at Puccini’s death. Imagine my delight when, earlier this month, I was able to attend a San Francisco Opera performance of Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac, an early 20th-century work about the illusions of love and the dramatic displacements that they can cause for those seized by them. Cyrano teaches that real love can be prevented by these illusions, the very illusions that may attract us to love in the first place.

Since I was a mere lad, I have been enraptured by Edmund Rostand’s brilliant Cyrano play about the consummate swordsman with an enormous proboscis. I was delighted at the opportunity of hearing this operatic treatment, with Placido Domingo in the title role. It was a production of real panache, easily worth the journey from Washington, D.C.

Cyrano is an Errol Flynn-type of work, and the Théâtre du Châtelet (which originated this creation) gave it a Michael Curtiz-style treatment. In this respect, director-designer Petrika Ionesco was the star of the evening. I have seldom — perhaps never — seen anything as sumptuously set forth in the opera house as was this work. The level of stagecraft was breathtaking. The sets and costumes were sheer eye candy. I think only of the opening scene in which we are placed upstage of the action, looking over the shoulders, as it were, of the actors/singers in the play within the play, to see Cyrano emerge out of the 17th-century theater and audience (which is seated in the real upstage location).

It is often the case today that operas are temporally and geographically dislocated — The Ring set in a subway system or in the Wild West, for instance — for the sake of novelty, or stripped to a level of abstraction that sense of time and place is lost altogether. Too infrequently does a production embrace what an opera is as fully as does Ionesco’s work with Cyrano. Ionesco fully trusted in the vision of the composer and librettist. This is how it should be done, I kept thinking; this is embracing the illusion and making it real. This is great theater.

 

But is it great opera? Alfano’s music is almost more a film score than what one usually expects from Italian opera (in fact, it sounds more French than Italian). It is mostly measured recitative or parlando in a verisimo style, if not subject matter. Alfano’s score is continuous, harmonically rich, and orchestrally gorgeous, but without set numbers or arias, properly speaking. The music seldom calls attention to itself. It more often effectively enhances the action. How many films does one come away from humming the tunes of the film score? Likewise, one may wonder what is musically memorable here.

Cyrano‘s impact is from the total dramatic experience. Does this lessen Alfano’s musical achievement? Since returning from San Francisco, I have been sampling the DVD version of Cyrano, featuring the Orchestre de Montpellier. Listening to the music for the second time has increased my appreciation of its quality and of the level of Alfano’s achievement, which is no less than that of a Korngold film score. There was not a moment of this great play to which Alfano’s music was not equal. And it excelled in the balcony scene, at the battlements of Arras, and in the unforgettable death scene at the end.

Now in his late 60s, Domingo is no Errol Flynn. His dueling as Cyrano was kept to a highly stylized minimum, but his level of maturity actually added a keen poignancy. Vocally, Domingo (and most others) got buried on occasion by what seemed an overly loud orchestra, especially in the beginning. (I wonder why the balance was not better this far into the run, the next-to-last night.) He came gloriously into his own in the balcony scene with its highly lyrical music and in his death scene at the end.

The performance of the evening, however, was delivered by another Spaniard, soprano Ainhoa Arteta, whose physical and vocal beauty made her an ideal Roxane. She was one member of the cast who was able to project over the orchestra throughout. Her acting was as brilliant as her singing: She could play the petulant teen love for the handsome Christian (sung very well by Thiago Arancam), whose physical beauty dazzled and blinded her, and then capture the tragic realization that it had been Cyrano’s soul she had loved from the beginning. In love with love until suffering refined her, Roxane loses Cyrano at the very moment he finally has the courage to reveal himself as her real soul mate.

The rest of the cast excelled; the chorus was superb; the orchestra and conductor Patrick Fournillier were excellent, except for the balance problem mentioned earlier. Production values could not have been better. I think director Ionesco pushed a bit too far by bringing on 17th-century spotlights (candles backed by silver dishes) to emphasize and comment on the artifice of several moments — as when Cyrano and Christian plot their scheme of the one writing letters to Roxane for the other. But this was a minor blemish. In short, this was one of the most theatrically thrilling evenings I have spent at the opera, or anywhere else. If this production surfaces somewhere else (as surely it will), do not miss this coup de théâtre.

 

More Italian revelations deserving your attention come from Naxos, which has already issued recordings of two of Alfredo Casella’s three engaging symphonies. A new release offers his rhythmically driven, highly energetic, but melodically lyrical Cello Concerto, accompanied by the sheerly delightful Scarlattiana for piano and orchestra, based upon melodies from Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas. While this budget CD (8.572416) has some stiff competition from much more expensive Chandos releases, it also contains the world-premiere recording of the magical Notte de maggio (A Night in May) for voice and orchestra, deliciously drenched in atmospheric mystery. Casella predicted, “You’ll love the poetic effect,” and indeed I do. Call it Italian impressionism (Casella was a friend of Debussy). The same forces, the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma, under conductor Francesco La Vecchia, used in the traversal of the symphonies, deliver the goods here in very compelling performances. Cellist Andrea Noferini gives a tour de force rendition in the Cello Concerto. These three works from 1913 (Notte), 1926 (Scarlattiana), and 1935 (the Concerto) are different stylistically, but are all highly attractive in their own ways.

If you like Shakespeare and music, I have an unalloyed treat for you. Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968), one of whose mentors was Alfredo Casella, wrote overtures to eleven of Shakespeare’s plays: Julius Caesar, The Taming of the Shrew, Antony and Cleopatra, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, King John, and The Winter’s Tale. These are highly imaginative, invariably attractive, though not explicitly descriptive tone poems (some more than 15 minutes long) that aim at capturing the general atmosphere of each play.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco fled Italy to escape Mussolini’s anti-Jewish Manifesto of Race in 1938 and landed in Hollywood, where he was very successful composing film scores. (He also taught composers John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, and Andre Previn.) You can hear why in these very colorful, exuberant, immensely enjoyable works. Naxos delivers them in two volumes (8.572500 and 8.872501), vivaciously performed by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, under the very capable Andrew Penny.

I close with the great good news that Naxos is issuing the complete piano music of Giorgio Federico Ghedini (1892-1965), perhaps the single most neglected genius of Italian music in the 20th century. Volume one (8.572329) is full of charming music composed between 1908 and 1916. These world-premiere recordings use scores given by the composer’s daughter, Maria Grazia Ghedini, who writes, “As I listened to these pieces being played by Massimo Giuseppe Bianchi, I was reminded of something my father once said: ‘This is my credo: music is not a passing fashion, it is everlasting . . . . As society becomes ever more technical, there is a great need for genuine sentiment, which is why music too must be animated, at its core, by a dramatic, romantic impulse . . . only thus can all its magic be conveyed.'” I hope this is a sign that his chamber and orchestral music will also be recorded. Wait till you hear the autumnal glories in this man’s outpouring of poignant melodies in his music for cello and orchestra.

Viva musica!

Image: Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle

Robert R. Reilly

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Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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