I Compagnacci and Il Re, Teatro Grattacielo

This year they came up with a comic
double-bill of works from the 1920s, a symbolic moment for Italian
opera—Puccini’s Turandot, premiered in 1926, is generally
regarded as the last Italian work to enter the operatic repertory, either local
or international, after more than three hundred years of Italian centrality to
the creation of opera, an Italian invention. Primo Riccitelli, whose name is
obscure even among Verismo composers, was represented by his first opera, I
, a work controversial in its day (1922) as, according to which
critic was writing, an inventive new voice or far too dependent on Mascagni and
Puccini for any novel inspiration. Umberto Giordano, fondly remembered for
Andrea Chenier and Fedora, drew an American premiere on this
occasion for his last opera, Il Re (1929), which, at its first run,
was considered far too reminiscent of … Umberto Giordano. Italian
critics in the twenties had a rough time, which they eagerly passed along: They
did not wish to seem so nationalistic as to be provincial or old-fashioned, but
to be too enamored of new manners of making music might easily lead to
admiration for such deplorable foreign trends as impressionism, atonality or
even jazz. One is reminded of the Monty Python sketch: No one wanted to admit
the bird was dead, but it wouldn’t be flying anywhere.

Ninety years later, both these works can be seen for what they are, not
merely as part of a particular fashion—or as not part of a fashion. I
, which had a brief career at the Met, demonstrated a talent
for orchestration and an ease in vocal writing and did indeed remind listeners
of Puccini, in this case Gianni Schicchi. As in the latter opera
(premiered in New York only four years earlier, remember), the story is set in
historic Florence where matters of money are in conflict with love. But where
Puccini and his librettist put their Dante-derived tale in full view of their
audience, to savor every outrageous detail of their commedia
characters, Riccitelli’s plot hinges, fatally, on offstage events and he
has no “O mio babbino caro” up his sleeve to provide us with a
memorable personality to care about.

We are in Florence in the time of the friar-dictator Savonarola, celebrated
for his “bonfire of the vanities” in the reaction to the cultivated
Medici tyranny. Savonarola was eventually burned by his disgusted people (at
the command of the cultivated Borgia pope), but some weeks before that event,
as the tension reaches its height, two friars, one favoring Savonarola’s
holiness, the other denouncing it, offered to walk through a bonfire in proof.
God would be on the side of the one unburned. Bernardo, a greedy admirer of the
dictator, is trying to force his niece, Anna Maria, into a loveless marriage
with his protÈgÈ. Her truelove, Baldo, who leads a more luxurious faction, I
Compagnacci, offers to sign over the family chateau if the monks actually dare
to walk through the flames—as long as he can win Anna Maria if they
don’t. (What would happen if one did and the other did not? No one
mentions this possibility.) As Baldo guesses, neither friar dares risk the
ordeal, and the Florentines rejoice in the triumph of art, vanity and love. The
trouble is that we miss the climax—it takes place out the window, in the
piazza, by the bonfire—visible from the windows but not visible to us.
Another problem is that rich as the orchestration is, the melodic meat of the
score shows little personality, and the personalities of the drama have none
either. The orchestra makes an impression for skill not for music. It is a
drama without substance, comic, dramatic or romantic.

The casting at Teatro Grattacielo is often remarkable, surprisingly so
considering the vocal energy required in Verismo scores and the fact that young
singers often appear. Gerard Powers and Jessica Klein sang Riccitelli’s
generic lovers; their performances were not perfunctory but their musical
emotions were, and these operas do not work if we do not care whether the
lovers get together or not. Peter Castaldi was far more effective, sonorous and
droll, as Anna Maria’s superstitious uncle, Lawrence Long an impressive
foil as his confidant, and Joseph Gaines, as the unattractive and rejected
suitor, had an amusing delivery of the most memorable tune in the opera.

In sharp contrast, Giordano’s Il Re was clearly a
composer’s last opera not his first: All the parts worked, achieving just
what they were intended to achieve, the characters musically as interesting as
they needed to be for a silly fable (highly character-full performances fleshed
them out, but that is what they were written for), and the elegant
orchestration had real persons and real tunes to build on. The opera is as busy
as Chenier without the emptiness of Fedora. The
heroine’s role is a major coloratura vehicle, immensely satisfying
because the resources of traditional Italian opera (trills, runs, ornaments)
are on display, though in a style more like Richard Strauss than Donizetti, to
give us Rosalina’s imaginative feather brain. The other characters are
straight out of commedia dell’ arte, suitable to all levels of
mugging. The melodies owe a little something to Strauss and Rimsky-Korsakov and
Stravinsky but mostly, as the first critics said, to Giordani. The
orchestration is something else again, witty and wild and all over the map,
full of coloristic touches and humorous pratfalls. When the king is told that
the lovely Rosalina has fallen in love with his beauty, he preens through harp
to flutes to bassoons to brass—and does it again—and again. (John
Maynard, singing the role, though deprived of the proper costume and looking
glass of a fully staged performance, played it to the hilt without them.) The
chorus sings “chorus stuff,” predictable but archly done, even, at
one point, “tum-tum” guitar strums from the men while the women
sing a silly serenade. Not one of the characters is as colorless as, well,
everyone was in I Compagnacci; each lives up to the clichÈs suggested
by tradition interpreted by Giordano’s knowing modern scoring.

The fable of Il Re concerns a miller’s daughter, Rosalina,
who, on the eve of her wedding to a whiny miller boy (with her parents’
encouragement), sees the king pass through the forest and is overcome with love
of his magnificence. He is, she is convinced, her destiny. The chickadees
concur. Her parents and the faithful Columbello, having consulted a lawyer, a
priest and an astrologer, go in desperation (with bribes) to the King.
He invites Rosalina to the palace. In his bedroom, he tells her that her
passion has touched him—then removes his royal robes, his corsets, his
wig, his makeup and so on. (His voice, too, becomes decades more antique with
the transformation.) Rosalina, aghast, returns to her boyfriend, and off they
go to church.

Joanna Mongiardo, who has a voice of impressive size and warmth, as well as
a technique with ornament that should give her Lucia, Philine and Zerbinetta to
choose from, also has a putty face, capable of expressing several emotions at
once and of making fun of herself while expressing them. Rosalina is a star
role in the glorious line and Mongiardo brought the hall to its feet. If she is
a good girl and doesn’t sing Norma or the Ernani Elvira too
soon, I foresee a great future for her—and for Il Re, if she
cares to remember it. (It’s a star vehicle if you’ve got the star.)
She was ably, hilariously supported not only by her peerless monarch, Mr.
Maynard, but also by Lawrence Long and Eugenie Greenwald as her distraught
parents. The one weak performer was James Price, whose thin, watery tenor made
Rosalina’s lack of romantic interest perfectly comprehensible.

David Wroe and the Westfield Symphony Orchestra, having made a shimmering
hour of I Compagnacci, really sank their teeth into the sly excesses
of Il Re, the work of a master determined at the end of his life to
show off everything he had learned—and to laugh as he did so. It was a
delight to make this score’s acquaintance in such circumstances.

John Yohalem

image_description=Love Won – Love Lost – an Operatic Double Bill [[Image courtesy of Teatro Grattacielo]
product_title=Primo Riccitelli: I Compagnacci; Umberto Giordano: Il Re
product_by=I Compagnacci: Bernardo: Peter Castaldi; Anna Maria: Jessica Klein; Baldo: Gerard Powers; Venanzio: Lawrence Long; Noferi: Joseph Gaines.

Il Re: Il Re: John Maynard; Rosalina: Joanna Mongiardo; Colombello: James Price; Mugnaio: Lawrence Long; Moglie del Mugnaio: Eugenie Grunewald.

Westfield Symphony Orchestra and Cantori New York Chorus, conducted by David Wroe. Teatro Grattacielo at the Frederick Rose Theater, May 24.
product_id=Above: Love Won – Love Lost – an Operatic Double Bill [[Image courtesy of Teatro Grattacielo]