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Teatro Alla Scala - The Opera Classics
MOZART Le Nozze di Figaro
DONIZETTI Maria Stuarda
VERDI Simon Boccanegra
Full details and timings at end of review
ARTHAUS MUSIK OPERA EDITION 107 535 [4 DVDs]

Mozart’s opera Le Nozze di Figaro is widely considered to be among the greatest ever penned. Designated an opera buffa, it is based on the second of Beaumarchais’s trilogy of plays set around Count Almaviva. It represents a superb marriage of Mozart and the librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, the character and life of the latter surely being unique in the annals of music. His skills secured him the position of Poet to the Imperial Theatresin Vienna. In this position he had ready access to the Emperor. This connection was important in securing agreement to the subject of the opera, which, although staged in more liberal Paris, was banned in Vienna.
 
The present performance is of a staging by Giorgio Strehler dating back to 1980 and is recreated here by Marina Bianchi. Strehler was one of Europe's most celebrated theatre directors. As an opera director he worked at all the major international opera houses. At the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, he was responsible for outstanding and memorable productions of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra (1971) and Macbeth (1975), both of which, conducted by Claudio Abbado, led to memorable and outstanding award-winning sound recordings issued by DG. 

The costumes by Franca Squarsciapino are in period and generally elegant, except that for Marcellina, and the tendency for the men’s hats to keep falling off, albeit rescued by the professionalism of the cast. Ezio Frigerio’s set for act one is a rather claustrophobic room with parts poorly lit. However it is easily adapted as the Countess’s bedroom for the act two shenanigans with Cherubino having to escape from the window to avoid the Count, who is suspicious of what is going on behind the locked door. The act three set is a long, picturesque and elegant gallery that is perfect for the wide variety of comings and goings. The act four garden scene, always problematic, is less successful than I have seen in allowing for a realistic representation of the plot activity and the confusion of who is who, all central to the finale.
 
This series of performances represented the La Scala debut of Diana Damrau as Susanna. What a delightful and superb interpretation, both sung and acted, she presents. Certainly she portrays a feisty young lass who would make a perfect wife for this revolutionary Figaro in the person of the tall and handsome Ildebrando D'Arcangelo. She would be a handful to any man, Count or otherwise, who thinks he will have first call on a virginal wife on their wedding night. All of D'Arcangelo’s vocal contributions, both in recit and aria (notably DVD 1 CH.8 and DVD 2 CH.27), are outstandingly sung and portrayed in his acting. Damrau’s qualities as singer and actress match his throughout with a beautifully placed and phrased Deh vieni (DVD 2 CH.35) in act four. Her sheer quality does tend to put into the shade the rather tentative and stiff Countess of Orsatti Talamanca whose Porgi amor (DVD 1 CH.24) and Dove Sono (DVD 2 CH.12) lack the emotion and legato of the truly great interpreters. Marcella Monica Bacelli as Cherubino looks somewhat too feminine whilst singing her two arias adequately (DVD 1 CHs.14 and 27). Oriana Kurteshi is a pert, pleasing and worldly-wise Barbarina. The vastly experienced Jeanette Fischer, somewhat like her costume, overplays her part. She sings her act four aria with conviction, however (DVD 2 CH.27).
 
Of the men, Pietro Spagnoli as Count Almaviva sings well but seems somewhat overwhelmed by the role. He is an excellent bravura Figaro in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia (see review) but should be more arrogantly forceful than he comes across here. His true baritone is easy on the ear but, as portrayed, I don’t think his Count really has much chance up against this Figaro. As it should be, Maurizio Muraro is vocally biting as Don Bartolo in La vendetta (DVD 1 CH.10) whilst Gregory Bonfatti is rather young-looking and less than effective as the scheming Basilio. He makes little of his act four aria (DVD 2 CH.31).
 
The film detail is good with the Video Director, Fausto Dall’Olio, contributing a nice balance of shots. On the rostrum Gérard Korsten is a little penny plain. There is, I suggest, more joie de vivre in Mozart’s music than he finds.
 
This Susanna and Figaro are among the very best, but overall the performance lacks the zip of the more evenly cast 2005 Covent Garden production by David McVicar and conducted by Pappano.
 
Donizetti had found fame with his Anna Bolena in Milan 1830, the first of his ‘Tudor Trilogy’. At the time of the composition of Maria Stuarda in 1834 he had embarked on the richest compositional period of his career. With the death of Bellini the previous year he was in a pre-eminent position among Italian opera composers. Of his previous forty-five or so operas at that date, nearly half had been composed for Naples. He had returned there early in 1834 with a contract to write one serious opera each year for the Royal Theatre, the San Carlo, as well as having an invitation from Rossini to write for the Théâtre Italien in Paris. Things looked up for him even more when, in June, by command of the King of Naples, he was appointed professor at the Royal College of Music in Naples.
 
When the renowned librettist Romani failed to come up with a libretto for his contracted opera Donizetti turned to a young student, Giuseppe Bardari, who converted Schiller’s play. During rehearsals there was a physical spat between the singers of Queens Mary and Elisabeth around a notorious line in the libretto when Mary refers to Elisabeth as the bastard daughter of Anne Boleyn. News must have reached the Royal Palace where Queen Christina, wife of King Ferdinand of Naples, and a descendant of Mary Stuart objected. The King acted as censor and banned the new opera. Donizetti composed some new music and titled the work Buondelmonte. Not unexpectedly it was not a resounding success. Donizetti withdrew it after its Naples performances, determined to have Maria Stuarda performed somewhere in the form he had originally planned. It finally reached the stage at La Scala in December 1835 where after a mere six performances it was also withdrawn on the instructions of the Milanese censors.
 
Maria Stuarda did not reach Naples in its original form until 1865 when both composer and Bourbon rulers were gone and after which it disappeared until revived in 1958 in Bergamo, Donizetti’s home-town. During the 1970s the likes of Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, Leyla Gencer and Beverley Sills took up the title role ensuring its future in opera houses in Italy and elsewhere. In the present day it is regularly revived and in January 2013 was featured in cinemas worldwide in a transmission from the Metropolitan Opera New York where Joyce DiDonato had a great success in the title role. The meeting between the two queens never took place historically and is an invention of Schiller’s for dramatic effect.
 
Whilst the manuscript of Maria Stuarda is lost, several non-autograph manuscripts exist as do ten pieces from Buondelmonte and ten from Milan of Maria Stuarda. This performance of Anders Wiklund’s Critical Edition, is given in two acts. The original act two, the Fotheringay Scene and the meeting between the Queens are given as scenes 6 (Chs 14-16), 7 (CHs. 17-19) and scene 8 (CHs. 20-23) of act one.
 
The essential set of Pizzi’s design highlights the prison theme, comprising vertical bars among which are horizontal walkways. There is also a central stepped dais. This prison motif is only broken for the start of the Fotheringay scene when the bars are replaced by an effective transformation into trees and parkland. The bars reappear as Elisabeth enters. Costumes are in period with Elisabeth in the first scene of act one regally dressed with long train and ornamental headgear. In the Fotheringay scene she wears a long cream coat and incongruous pearls over leathers and wields a whip for the meeting with her rival. She looks like an upmarket dominatrix as she strides the stage. Her lifting of Maria’s chin with the whip as the latter kneels in supplication is one stage to far for the Catholic Queen who vents her fury at Elisabeth (CH.22) with the fateful phrases spat out with the ultimate insult Profanato e il soglio inglese, vil bastards, dal tuo pie! (The English throne is profaned, despicable bastard, by your presence!). Mariella Devia may never have had the recognition of Sutherland and Sills in this repertoire, but here she shows what a fine actress and considerable bel-cantist she is, even at this autumn of her career. The poignancy of her singing and acting in the final scenes, dressed in red as historical record demands, is as good as it gets. She sings a superbly expressive confession (CH.31) and lament (CH.34) with carefully weighted tone and legato line. Her facial and body acting supplements the words as she asks that her blood redeem all and makes supplication for the life of Elisabeth who has condemned her. As the cannon shot is heard she then ascends to the block, where the executioner wielding his axe has appeared, for the final well-staged dramatic moments (CHs. 33-36).
 
The confrontation scene with Maria also brings out the best in Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Elisabeth. Not always as pure vocally as her rival queen, she can certainly act and spit fire. She further ups the emotional temperature as she plays on Leicester’s emotions (CHs.11-13). She matches Mariella Devia for vocal expression in the confrontation scene. As Leicester, loved by the Queen and in love with Maria, Francesco Meli is somewhat of a disappointment vocally. At this stage of his career he had not successfully managed the move from the high tessitura of the Rossini and Bellini opera seria roles. Simone Alberghini is a sonorous Talbot in need of more facial expression whilst Pietro Terranova is both vocally, and as an actor, wholly appropriate as Cecil. Paola Gardina sings appealingly as Anna. 
 
The whole performance is well held together by Antonino Fogliani in the pit. The chorus make a vibrant contribution and Pizzi’s direction is well caught by the video director. The sound cannot be faulted. At its original issue I gave this performance the imprimatur of Recording of the Month. I have no reason to doubt that judgement now. 

Having mentioned Giorgio Strehler’s virtues as an opera producer at La Scala and knowing something of the virtues of his production of Simon Boccanegra I had hopes that Domingo’s performance of the Doge would be a recreation of that production. However, when I learned that this was shared with the Berlin Staatsoper where it was seen in 2009 I knew it would be another production team; so it proved and not for the better.
 
Having sung his first Verdi baritone role, as Boccanegra, in this production in Berlin in 2009, Domingo appeared as the Doge at New York’s Metropolitan Opera and then at London’s Covent Garden before his return to the production at La Scala. Both of those other productions were filmed and preceded this release (see review of the Covent Garden production).
 
In my review I give the background to the failure of Verdi’s first, 1857, version of the opera and the revisions that made this second version a success at La Scala in 1881. The revision also set in motion the composer’s association with the composer and librettist Arrigo Boito. This later led to the composition of his last two great masterpieces, Otello and Falstaff. As far as Domingo’s three filmed interpretations of the Doge go, the bad news is that the limitations of this film and production puts it a poor third. This, whatever the histrionic and vocal strengths he brings to the role having really got under its skin at those other venues.
 
The set opens with a silhouette of a ship and its rigging with sailors scampering on the ropes. That can be clearly seen which is more than can be said about what follows as Boccanegra goes to Fiesco’s palace in the hope of seeing his beloved Maria, only to find her dead. Somewhere in the gloom - I hope it was better in the theatre - is a staircase down which Maria’s coffin is carried. The Council Chamber Scene, added by Boito for the 1881 revision is justifiably dominated by the Doge’s throne. For the rest visual mediocrity abounds with a change of period dress for the last act for no sensible reason I could discern.
 
Domingo himself is fully involved as an actor. He fails however, as he did in the other films to convince in the part of the Council Chamber Scene when he calls on the assembly Plebe! Patrizi! (CH.22). He simply lacks the ideal weight of baritonal colour. The flip side is his final Oh figlia as he leaves his newly discovered daughter. That phrase has defeated many baritones including Tito Gobbi.
 
As Boccanegra’s daughter, the tall and elegant Anja Harteros looks a little mature and sings with stronger tone than perhaps befits the role. That said, Amelia is no wimp as she escapes her abductors and enters the Council Chamber in session to describe her abduction (CH.21). I would have preferred her to be singing either of Verdi’s two Leonoras, that is those in Il Trovatore or La forza del destino,both ofwhich lean towards the spinto end of the soprano fach. As her lover Gabriele Adorno, Fabio Sartori is no match vocally or physically for the more elegant Joseph Calleja at Covent Garden. Ferruccio Furlanetto is likewise no match with his own greater sonority at the London venue, sounding distinctly raspier of tone (CH.5, 34-38). The Paolo of Massimo Cavaltetti would have passed muster if I had not seen the vastly experienced Jonathan Summers in the London performances.
 
Barenboim’s interpretation is, as one would expect, carefully considered and crafted but it lacks the fire and turn of the Verdian wrist of Pappano in London.
 
As to the whole, I finished my viewing more convinced as to the virtues of the Elijah Moshinsky production with Michael Yeargan’s sets at the London House.  

Robert J Farr

 


See also my reviews of the original releases of Figaro and Maria Stuarda
 
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Le Nozze Di Figaro - Opera buffa in four acts (1786)
Susanna, maid to the Countess - Diana Damrau (soprano); Figaro, manservant to the Count - Ildebrando D'Arcangelo (bass-baritone); Count Almaviva, Pietro Spagnoli (baritone); Countess Almaviva, Orsatti Talamanca (soprano); Cherubino, a young buck around the palace - Marcella Monica Bacelli (mezzo);
Marcellina, a mature lady owed a debt by Figaro - Jeannette Fischer (mezzo); Don Basilio, a music master and schemer - Gregory Bonfatti (tenor). Don Bartolo - Maurizio Muraro (bass); Barbarina - Oriana Kurteshi (soprano)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Alla Scala, Milan/Gérard Korsten
rec. live, Teatro Alla Scala, Milan, 2006
Original stage direction: Giorgio Strehler (1980). Revived by Marina Bianchi
Set Design: Ezio Frigerio
Costume Design: Franca Squarsciapino
Video Director: Fausto Dall’Olio
Sound Format: PCM Stereo, DD 5.1. Picture Format: 16:9. DVD Format NTSC 2 x DVD 9
Subtitle Languages: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Korean, Japanese
Also available separately as 101589 [2 DVDs: 187:00] 

Gaetano DONIZETTI
(1797-1848)
Maria Stuarda - Lyric tragedy in three acts (1834)
Performed in the Critical Edition by Anders Wiklund
Elisabetta, Elisabeth I of England - Anna Caterina Antonacci (mezzo); Maria Stuarda, Mary, Queen of Scots - Mariella Devia (soprano); Roberto, Count of Leicester - Francesco Meli (tenor); Giorgio Talbot - Simone Alberghini (bass-baritone); Lord Guglielmo Cecil - Pietro Terranova (baritone); Anna, Maria’s companion - Paola Gardina (soprano)
La Scala Chorus and Orchestra/Antonino Fogliani
Stage direction, set design and costumes: Pier Luigi Pizzi
rec. live, Teatro Alla Scala, Milan, January 2008
Bonus: Maria Stuarda backstage
Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Sound format: PCM Stereo/Dolby Digital 5.1
Region code: 0
Menu language: English
Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish, Italian
Also available separately as 101 361 [138:00 + 13:00 bonus]
 
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Simon Boccanegra - Melodrama in a Prologue and Three Acts(Revised 1881 version)
Simon Boccanegra, a sometime corsair and Doge of Genoa - Placido Domingo (baritone); Maria Boccanegra, Simon’s daughter known as Amelia Grimaldi - Anja Harteros (soprano); Jacopo Fiesco, a Genoese nobleman - Ferruccio Furlanetto (bass); Gabrielle Adorno, a Genoese gentleman in love with Maria - Fabio Sartori (tenor); Paolo Albiani, a courtier - Massimo Cavalletti (baritone); Pietro, another courtier - Ernesto Panariello (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala Milan/Daniel Barenboim
Stage Director: Federico Tiezzi
Set Designer: Pier Paolo Bisleri Costume Designer: Giovanna Buzzi
rec. live, Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 2010
Picture format: 16:9
Sound formats: LPCM Stereo. DD 5.1
Booklet essay and synopsis in English, French, German
Subtitles in Italian (sung language), English, German, French, Spanish, Korean
Also available separately as 101 595 [149:00]



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