OPERA NEWS - L'Oracolo & Mala Vita, Dinner at Eight, Il Bravo
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In Review > International

L'Oracolo & Mala Vita, Dinner at Eight, Il Bravo 

Wexford Festival Opera

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The chorus of Wexford’s Mala Vita
© Clive Barda
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Joo Won Kang and Leon Kim in L’Oracolo at Wexford
© Clive Barda

THE WEXFORD FESTIVAL OPERA continues to lure those seeking the rare and the recondite to the southeast corner of Ireland. The sixty-seventh edition of the festival opened with a double bill of works from the verismo period, Franco Leoni’s Oracolo, from 1905, and Umberto Giordano’s Mala Vita, from 1892 (seen Oct, 19). The lesser-known of the two composers, Leoni (1864–1949) divided his career between his native Italy and England. In his output—half a dozen operas, much incidental music, some major choral works and numerous songs—L’Oracolo (The Oracle), which had its world premiere at Covent Garden in 1905, remains the most notable. Based on a play by American author Chester Bailey Fernald, L’Oracolo is set in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The meaty role of the sinister opium-den owner Cim-Fen was created by the great Italian baritone Antonio Scotti, who persuaded the management of the Metropolitan Opera to mount it for him in 1915; L’Oracolo held the stage at the Met and on tour until Scotti’s farewell, in 1933.

It would be easy to dismiss the opera as hokum, but its melodramatic tale of multiple murder and child abduction is skillfully told: Leoni’s powers of invention hold the audience’s attention in an hour-long blend of punchy vocal, choral and orchestral writing, lightly sprinkled with musical Chinoiserie amid the dark verismo passion. Part of L’Oracolo’s distinctive coloring comes from the plethora of baritones in the cast. All the baritone roles at Wexford were cast with Korean artists—Leon Kim as the local sage Uin-Sci, Benjamin Cho as wealthy merchant Hu-Tsin and Joo Won Kang as the dastardly Cim-Fen. Sergio Escobar provided ardent tenorial lyricism as San-Lui, Cim-Fen’s rival for the hand of Hu-Tsin’s niece Ah-Joe, who was innocence personified as delineated by the clean soprano of Elisabetta Farris.

Rodula Gaitanou’s production may have added more gore than stipulated to Camillo Zanoni’s blood-and-thunder libretto, but the result certainly fell within the spirit of the original. Set designer Cordelia Chisholm’s realistic tenement revolved to transfer us from Chinatown to Little Italy for Giordano’s Mala Vita—an opera once regarded as scandalous. It proved a worthwhile work: the elemental passion that fires up Andrea Chénier and Fedora is already evident in the score, which, as with the Leoni, was conducted with authority by Francesco Cilluffo. 

Escobar returned, once again vocally impressive if less convincing dramatically, as the tubercular cobbler Vito, who hopes for healing as a divine reward for saving a fallen woman, Cristina, by marrying her—until his married lover, Amalia, persuades him to stay with her. The no-holds-barred scene between soprano Francesca Tiburzi (Cristina) and mezzo Dorothea Spilger (Amalia) was explosive, the crowd scenes were magnificently voiced, and the overall impact was powerful.

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Dinner guests: Brenda Harris and Susannah Biller in

© Clive Barda

COMPOSER WILLIAM BOLCOM, now eighty, was present to hear the audience’s applause at the end of the first European performance of his opera Dinner at Eight on October 20. Bolcom’s fourth major opera was unveiled in Wexford in the same Tomer Zvulun production that launched it at Minnesota Opera in March 2017. Since his arrival in Wexford in 2005, artistic director David Agler has programmed American works frequently, with pieces by Samuel Barber, Carlisle Floyd, Conrad Susa, John Corigliano and Kevin Puts demonstrating in recent seasons that U.S. opera is vigorous, lively and stylistically independent of what is produced by contemporary European composers. 

Cineastes will be familiar with the classic 1933 movie Dinner at Eight,directed by George Cukor, which uses the eponymous Broadway play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber as its source, as does Mark Campbell’s libretto for Bolcom’s opera. Campbell’s text maintains clear characterizations and narrative, consistently aided by Bolcom’s skillful vocal writing and light-textured orchestration, which allows every word to be understood easily. 

Bolcom’s score, with a few choice quotations amid a general ambience of pastiche and parody, provides an apt, amusing background for this period drama about a group of well-heeled Depression-era Manhattanites whose lives are in genteel turmoil. The score’s limitation is a lack of identity; however technically adept or entertaining, little of the music is memorable. The brisk, tragicomic drama was well served in Zvulun’s sharp production, with smart, sassy sets by Alexander Dodge and natty costumes by Victoria Tzykun. 

Dinner at Eight is very much an ensemble piece, and all the performances were well defined. Each fit perfectly into the two-act, twelve-scene dramatic scheme, in which each character’s private sorrows are revealed (however wryly viewed) in the lead-up to the dinner party of the title, which begins in silhouette at the final curtain.

Soprano Mary Dunleavy rose pluckily and successfully to every one of the numerous high notes used to express the inner tension of Millicent Jordan, the hostess with the most disasters before her guests have even arrived. Baritone Stephen Powell played her husband, Oliver Jordan—phlegmatic in the face of serious health and financial problems—with admirable stoicism. Their emotionally compromised daughter, Paula Jordan, was touchingly realized by English soprano Gemma Summerfield. Bright-toned veteran Brenda Harris never went too far as thespian grande dame Carlotta Vance, Oliver’s old flame.

Baritone Craig Irvin and soprano Susannah Biller bitched and bickered as Dan and Kitty Packard, the mismatched nouveaux-riche couple, and bold tenor Richard Cox trod the via dolorosa of Paula Jordan’s lover, the failed alcoholic actor Larry Renault. The story’s other unhappy couple—duplicitous medic Joseph Talbot and his frequently betrayed wife, Lucy—achieved some sort of modus vivendi courtesy of Brett Polegato’s persuasive baritone and Sharon Carty’s stern mezzo.

As in Minnesota, the conductor was David Agler, who maintained a light but firm control over the finely realized music.

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Il Bravo at Wexford, with Yasko Sato and Ekaterina Bakanova
© Clive Barda

SAVERIO MERCADANTE'S  Bravo (seen Oct. 21) is the sixth of the composer’s works to be revived at the Wexford Festival. Given its premiere at La Scala in 1839, Il Bravo has a libretto credited to Gaetano Rossi and Marco Marcello. It is based on La Vénitienne, a play by Auguste Anicet-Bourgeois, derived from The Bravo (1831), by American novelist James Fenimore Cooper, who became fascinated by Venice on his trip to Italy in 1829–30. 

Reducing a three-volume novel to a viable libretto is tricky: one of the major problems of Mercadante’s piece, set in La Serenissima in the sixteenth century, is that the true identities and real relationships of some of the central characters are withheld until almost the final curtain. Keeping the level of potential confusion high, one of the chief participants—the exiled patrician Pisani, rival to the more powerful Foscari for the affections of the supposed orphan Violetta—spends much of the opera in disguise as the Bravo (or state-sponsored assassin) of the title. 

The score is rewarding. Mercadante enjoyed a long career whose final decades were impacted by blindness. By the time of his death in 1870, Mercadante’s music had largely been superseded by that of the much younger Verdi, whom he clearly influenced: Il Bravo was staged before any of Verdi’s operas but clearly points to their chief stylistic derivation.

Wexford’s impressive cast met the score’s significant vocal demands with aplomb, none more so than Russian soprano Ekaterina Bakanova, an exceptional Violetta with a full technical armory (including a splendid trill). Japanese soprano Yasko Sato proved equally accomplished as Violetta’s recently discovered mother, Teodora (whose real name, confusingly, is also Violetta).

Italian tenor Rubens Pelizzari brought a sterling spinto-quality instrument and potent expression to the Rigoletto-like character of the Bravo, who is locked into his ghastly contract by the Council of Ten, which holds his father hostage. A second Italian tenor, Alessandro Luciano—more lyrical and (once over a throaty start) more mellifluous than Pelizzari—gave the character of Pisani a warmer disposition. Venezuelan baritone Gustavo Castillo brought status and swagger to the high-handed patrician Foscari.

The production by the director–designer team of Renaud Doucet and André Barbe was a self-consciously mixed affair. The bulk of it was traditionally conceived, with resplendent period costumes, if somewhat stiffly acted. Interspersed with this old-fashioned magnificence were presentations of sun-hatted, selfie-stick-holding modern tourists in contemporary Venice, apparently intended as a wider warning about the damage to the ancient fabric of the city caused by visiting cruise ships and tourists. These scenes looked ridiculous. Jonathan Brandani nevertheless conducted a performance that revealed much of the dramatic potency of a score that deserves to be better known to modern audiences. —George Hall 

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