Sunday, June 2, 2013

I've been Villi-fied

Jennifer Rowley
Photo credit:  Arielle Doneson
I've never made a secret of the fact I'm a big fan of lovely soprano Jennifer Rowley. Knowing a bit of her performance schedule for this year, I debated whether to travel to Finland to see her first Violetta at the Savonlinna Festival in July, or to Charleston to see her in Mr. Puccini's rarely performed Le Villi and Mr. Giordano's even more rarely performed Mese Mariano at the Spoleto Festival USA. Finances, the opportunity to combine a Charleston trip with a family visit in NC, and the fun of a road trip in my mid-life crisis new-ish BMW made the decision rather obvious. (By coincidence, this opera production was sponsored by BMW Manufacturing Co. They're not compensating me for this statement. I think that situation needs to be rectified.) I will indeed make it to Finland one day, but it was not to be this year.

Umberto Giordano's 1910 mess Mese Mariano, or Mary's Month (libretto by Salvatore di Giacomo, based on his own short story), is a short work with a rather unsatisfying story. Carmela visits the orphanage where she had been forced by her husband to place her illegitimate child. The nuns won't allow her to see the boy, inexplicably hiding from her the fact the child has just died, and she leaves in tears. While Carmela's music is gorgeous, especially when performed by a soprano voice as full and supple as that of Miss Rowley, the opera as a whole leaves one confused more than moved. Why did the nuns conceal the truth? When will they tell Carmela her child is dead? Why is this opera being resurrected at all?

One must make mention of the charming children's chorus, however, and its skillful preparation by Amanda Castellone. One must also commend director Stefano Vizioli, who made the most of children's comic moments in what one imagines was an effort to minimize the disjointed and incomplete story arc.

Jennifer Rowley and Dinyar Vania
Mr. Puccini's first opera, Le Villi (1884, libretto by Ferdinando Fontana) suffers for the opposite reason. Where Mese Mariano had more opera than story, Le Villi has more story than opera. Leaving his engagement celebration to collect a large inheritance, Roberto is seduced by sirens along the way and led astray. Anna, his betrothed, dies of madness and grief, as 19th century maidens were wont to do, and joins the Willis--the spirits of girls who have died of broken hearts, come back to seek revenge on the men who betrayed them. In spite of his (eventual) repentance and grief, Roberto is taunted to death by the Willis. Rather than scenes showing Roberto's seduction and fate thereafter, however, there is narration and an interlude. This was a mistake by Messrs. Fontana and Puccini, in the opinion of this humble blogger. Expanding the libretto into a full opera rather than three scenes and two interludes would have benefitted the story immeasurably. Given the beauty and inventiveness of the music we have, including the oft-excerpted soprano aria Se come voi piccina, there can be little doubt Mr. Puccini would have completed the score with just as much beauty and inventiveness.

Once again the lovely Miss Rowley was the star of the show, and deservedly so, but in this case was accompanied by very fine tenor Dinyar Vania as Roberto and equally fine baritone Levi Hernandez as Guglielmo, Anna's father. The three were joined by a flock of dancers from Dancefx Charleston, first at the celebration and then as the Willis, as well as the Westminster Choir as townspeople. Given the excellent but convulsive choreography by Pierluigi “Pigi” Vanelli and the updated setting in an insane asylum, one wanted to make jokes about seeing Willi[e]s flop about openly on stage, but one is too mature to write such things.

I don't understand the trend of updating stories from the remote past to another period in the past. The best reason I know for it is saving money on costumes, and low-budget companies do it all the time. The most frequently heard reason given by larger companies and high-profile directors is to make individual class distinctions and dynamics more clear, but I've never seen this work. It wasn't too distracting in Mese Mariano, especially once the school gymnasium backdrop was covered up by a projection screen. (I have other issues with that projection screen, most notably the scene behind the screen showing Carmela's recently deceased son.)

Updating was more disconcerting with Le Villi. I say that 19th-century (and earlier) maidens were especially prone to dying of broken hearts, but by 1962, I think they'd gotten past that. And one wonders just what kind of sirens young men had to deal with in 1962. While I understand the charm of updating to early 60s costuming--it was a wonderful time in women's clothing and styling--the look the designers wound up with didn't flatter everyone.  The change from forest to insane asylum also didn't work for me. It created some interesting visual effects and the opportunity for the aforementioned non-traditional choreography, but forced the director to change the actual story so that Anna and Roberto are really mad instead of dead. Or are they?

Reviews for Miss Rowley and for the production have been stellar.  Syndicated columnist Perry Tannenbaum writes, "Jennifer Rowley is the most powerful soprano voice to hit Spoleto Festival USA since Sondra Radvanovsky sang the title role of Verdi's Luisa Miller in 2000." Regular readers will not be surprised to learn this blogger prefers Jennifer Rowley's singing to Sondra Radvanovsky's! Adam Parker rhapsodizes in the SC Post and Courier, "Spoleto audiences are fortunate to get this chance to hear a star in the making." I couldn't agree more.

1 comment:

Lucy said...

Thanks for the review of these rarities. Speculation: are the early '60s being used because that historical moment was (arguably, at least) one in which many of the persistent ideas about femininity found in Le Villi were being publicly questioned/debunked? Are Anna and Roberto put in the asylum to punish them for sexual freedom? It could also, of course, be a lazy "ooh, pretty dresses" update (never more frustrating than when it could have been interesting, imho.)