Thursday, November 26, 2009

Feeding the Soul in Palermo: “Rigoletto”

Tuesday 24 November 2009
[Some postings after the fact due to spotty Internet access.]

Is Mr. Guy ever any happier than when he is at the opera?

Probably not, and opera in Italy seems to push all the right buttons. The enthusiasm of the musicians, and of the audience, the almost embedded respect for the art form, and the attention to detail and care of execution of the designs of the productions – even if one doesn’t necessarily agree with the concept – all combine to make the experience a truly appropriate musical experience.

So perhaps there might be a slight reworking of Goethe’s comment. Perhaps instead of “…if you don’t see Sicily” the thought should be more along the lines of “If you come to Italy and don’t hear opera, you can’t know Italy.” Here in Palermo, a stone’s throw from the Teatro Bellini (and, yes, seeing “pasta alla Norma” on every menu makes me wonder what on earth the menus will say when I get to Catania, where Bellini was born!), I’m impressed with the offerings for Teatro Massimo’s opera season, both what is on for the remainder of this year and what’s on its way for an equally impressive stagione 2010.

The musical experience at Teatro Massimo is very special, even for people like us who hear so much opera. The performance we saw of “Rigoletto” was very well handled, and the new production – co-produced with Teatro Regio di Parma – was beautiful to look at, very traditional with lovely costumes and very handsome sets, full of rich golds and reds, especially in the scenes where there were many people on stage. Quite spectacular, indeed.

We had already been given a sense of the strength of the commitment when we visited the library of the Teatro Massimo. There we met with Biblioteca Giovanna Modico who had – when in another position with the Fondazione Teatro Massimo (the company’s proper name, using the “foundation” concept differently than we do, not to describe a philanthropic organization but to designate an organization structured for a particular purpose) –led the move to establish a research library to support the production and performance of opera. Coming into proper existence some 20 years ago, the library now not only serves those purposes (and includes company archives) but is open to scholars and – particularly – to students of design, theatre, musicology, and related subjects and has become a primary resource for scholars in these fields. Truly a specialized library in every imaginable concept of the term and truly a situation in which strategic knowledge is developed, captured, and shared for the benefit of the organization’s purpose, to bring music to the people of Sicily for their own pleasure and enjoyment.

Over in the opera house, the main attraction of the performance for me – aside from Mr. Verdi’s magnificent contribution which is always, with any of his operas, a listening experience to be savored – was the presence of the beloved Leo Nucci in the title role. Always a great fan, I was delighted to learn that he is still singing. He is getting on now (well, for an opera singer – in fact he’s only about 67 years old), and we don’t have him in America any more, but years ago – 20? 25? – I became a fan and so enjoyed his Figaro, a couple of other roles, and especially his Rigoletto (which I surely heard several times). And I was doubly blessed, for circumstances for one performance of Rigoletto found me with an invitation to visit him backstage after a performance at the Metropolitan Opera. I found him to be charming, interesting, and totally committed to his art and, not surprisingly, the performance in Palermo did not disappoint. He sang so beautifully throughout the entire opera, and in the second act, “Pieta, signori, pieta” was so moving and so touchingly performed, he had the audience cheering with enthusiasm for this obviously well loved singer. The applause went on and on, and he had to step out of character to move to the front of the stage to acknowledge the continuing ovation.

Our Gilda, Duke, and Sparafucile were unknown to me (Norah Amsellem, Francesco Meli, and Arutjun Kotchinian respectively), and our conductor was Keri-Lynn Wilson, also new to me. They were all so very good, with Amsellem in particular displaying a beautiful, wonderfully controlled instrument. She had the ability to do the old start-strong-stretch-out-with-a-delicate-diminuendo-then-bring-it-back-up-again technique that brought back memories of Montearrat Caballe in her glory days.

And when volume was called for, Amsellem had it. Indeed, she truly held her own in the duet with Nucci at the end of Act II. It was so well done, with her final notes sailing out over the orchestra and the full house – and Nucci right there with her all the way! The reaction was so great that – even though the scrim was brought down – the two of them stepped to the apron of the stage, and did it all over again! Of course it is all pre-arranged, but how does the conductor know the audience will like it this much? What a joy to hear and watch singers who so obviously love what they are doing! And who take so much pleasure in sharing their art with their public. Nucci and Amsellem were obviously loving every minute of their music-making. And what pleasure for the rest of us! Magnificent!

As for the building itself, the spectacular Teatro Massimo, begun by Giovanni Battista Basile in 1875 and completed by his son Ernesto in 1897 is well worth the visit, even if there isn’t a performance on. Much is said about the splendid l’art nouveau interior and I had been anticipating the visit, mainly (aside from the music) to satisfy my longing to learn more about the Sicilian version of my adored l’art nouveau. Here is referred to as stile-Liberty (yes, as in “Liberty of London”), and once again, I learned new things about l’art nouveau. There is no question but that the interior of the Teatro Massimo is as wonderful as its exterior, and the décor is beautiful to behold.

Yet I was surprised to see subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) differences, and just as Charles Rennie Macintosh with his straight lines and Louis Comfort Tiffany with his shimmering colors had created their own versions of l’art nouveau, so too does stile-Liberty have its own arrangement of detail. There is not, it would seem, that great devotion to the sinuous botanicals so often found in other versions of l’art nouveau (especially in Brussels, Antwerp, and Paris) and that disappoints a little, since that particular element of the design is so pleasing to me. Nor, in the Teatro Massimo, are there the molded curves in wood, so much a part of the rooms in the Musee d’Orsay or the recently installed room at the Metropolitan Museum. In Ernesto Basile’s version, there is a much closer connection with the neo-classical and while some of the iron balustrades and lamp supports display the graceful curves associated with l’art nouveau there isn’t much in the way of botanical references.

But such observations come dangerously close to the pedantic. Ernesto Basile has created a beautiful interior in the Teatro Massimo and it makes for much pleasure for the eye when one visits this splendid space.

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