Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Courtyard Opera

Most people with an education have probably heard a tune by the nineteenth-century Italian opera composer, Gioacchino Rossini. Probably "Largo al Factotum" from Il Barbiere di Siviglia, where Figaro comically repeats at tongue-twister speed "Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, Figaro..." Or maybe the overture from Guillaume Tell, which I think used to play in a jewelry commercial. But few people have heard any of his serious operas written for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, which set the standard of Italian operatic style for the nineteenth-century. Even fewer have heard his early farces, which Rossini wrote between the ages of 18 and 20 for the Venetian Teatro San Moisè, a smaller and far less demanding opera house than the Teatro La Fenice or Milan's La Scala. These works were shorter, one-act operas, that rarely circulated nineteenth-century Italy after their premiere. They were the perfect unassuming medium for young composers. Nothing seems to have changed today in contemporary society, when young, unknown and energetic artists exhibit their work in Brooklyn warehouses, some of whom later end up showing their work at MOMA.
So these were Rossini's first operas. They show plenty of life and energy, yet never get too serious. The subject here is a performance in Geneve last night of perhaps his best known farce, La Scala di Seta, written in 1812 at the age of 20.
Since 1966, the Opéra de Chambre de Genève has produced rare operas, works that are often times overshadowed by a composer's more mature works, or operas by composers like Cimarosa or Piccinni who most people haven't even heard of. It's a great platform for a low budget company. By not performing repertoire standards, critics are less likely to ridicule you for being unorthodox. Even cooler, you get a chance to perform rare music. However, performing operas with little modern performance history while working within the confines of a low budget are no excuse for a stale production devoid of artistic originality.
The production last night of La Scala di Seta was held in the outdoor courtyard of a classical stone building, Cour De L'Hôtel De Ville, in the old town of Geneva. It's a perfect summer idea, (even though there was absolutely no breeze). The acoustics were also surprisingly resonant, vivaciously vibrating. The Orchestre de Chambre de Genève played cleanly and sprightly for the most part, especially during the overture. Their attentive conductor, Franco Trinca held the cast and orchestra together unnoticeably, and always seemed to be in comfortable control. Everything started off well with the overture. The interplay between solo oboe and orchestra were a reminder of how exciting lock-step tonality can be. This is the type of music that brings a listener back into their center after a hectic day. It actually subconsciously makes you breath deeper.
Unfortunately, the overture was the end of my honeymoon. There is nothing more boring in an opera production than a set comprised of four doors/walls aligned along the circumference of the stage, a table and chairs as the principle props, and nineteenth-century-style costumes, with plenty of neck ruffles. Just because the work is a farce does not mean it should become a joke, a parody of itself. In La Scala di Seta there is a character (Dorvil) who repeatedly climbs up to enter through his lover's stained glass window (Giulia). One does not need a lot of money to come up with a creative way of representing that. Cheeky entrances through a lime green door, from an offstage completely visible to the audience, are not sufficient. A creative director would have found a way of making this more interesting, regardless of the amount of money made available to him.
What bothered me most was the lack of supertitles. When an audience does not understand the meaning of what is being sung, they are missing out on more than half of the composer's intention. Opera is music's representation, and augmentation, of language. That which cannot be expressed simply by words, as music lovers proclaim. Geneva is in French speaking Switzerland. And those who don't speak French (like myself) probably understand English. Two lines of supertitles would probably help for an Italian opera. And come on, who doesn't own a laptop? Does no one involved in this production have access to a projector? Call me naive, but it can't be that hard. There was a row of clean white stone wall directly above the stage that would have been perfect for supertitles, maybe even in two languages. When a production fails to provide the audience with supertitles or at the least a translation of the libretto, they are robing the audience of the full experience.
The singing was entertaining and at times riveting. Most impressive was William Lombardi, playing Dorvil. His tenor voice was by no means large enough to overcome the audience, but its intensity more than compensated. It is always more enjoyable hearing a singer push himself to the point of cracking, using all the expressivity he has inside, rather than hearing someone just play it safe, never surpassing pretty. Other singers had moments like this, but most overacted. And again, cheeky acting is no substitute for the natural comedy that would emerge if the audience understood what the hell was going on. Opera is not a circus, you don't need to overcompensate by shoving it down our throats. If all the pieces were in place last night, the woman sitting in front of me would have laughed a lot more instead of fanning herself or fixing her hair. Pity.