Zeffirelli and the Aesthetic of Astonishment
Arena di Verona
08/07/2010 - and August 11, 14, 19*, 25, 28, 2010
Guiseppe Verdi: Il Trovatore
Sondra Radvanovsky*/Anda-Louise Bogza (Leonora), Marianne Cornetti/Mariana Pentcheva*/Andrea Ulbrich (Azucena), Marcelo Álvarez (Manrico), Dmitri Hvorostovsky (di Luna),Giorgio Giuseppini*/Roberto Tagliavini (Ferrando), Mirjam Tola*/Ausrine Stundyte (Inez), Antonello Ceron*/Carlo Bosi (Ruiz)
Chorus of the Arena of Verona, Giovanni Andreoli (Chorus Master), Orchestra of the Arena of Verona, Marco Armiliato (Conductor)
Franco Zeffirelli (Production and Set Designer), Raimonda Gaetani (Costume Designer), Luca Real (Choreographer), Maria Grazia Garofoli (Director of the Ballet)
(© Ennevi/Courtesy of Fondazione Arena di Verona)
The Arena in Verona is a grandiose and eminently functional survivor. In contrast, its close contemporary, the Colosseum in Rome, is a picturesque relic, albeit a richly evocative one. As I left my hotel in Verona, I got my first glimpse of the Arena. It was right at the end of my street, nestled in a square in the midst of a bustling city. This 2,000 year-old structure, pillaged and plundered, with its outer shell virtually sheered off by an earthquake in the twelfth century, has been the site of opera performances since the 1913 centennial celebration of the birth of Verdi. This is the Arena Festival's eighty-eighth season.
Just as there is nothing minimalist or subtle about the Arena, the location has met its match in the director for all five of this season's productions, the redoubtable Franco Zeffirelli. Indeed, the title of the 2010 festival is Franco Zeffirelli e l'arena. For the first time in its history, the Arena di Verona has engaged a single director for all of its productions.
Zeffirelli is the master of the spectacular operatic spectacle. But, increasingly, his flamboyance is being seen (most publicly and controversially by the Metropolitan Opera's General Manager Peter Gelb) as undramatic and rather old fashioned. At the Met, his lavish productions have become an endangered species. Last season, Tosca and Carmen were replaced and, this season La Traviata. His La Boheme, staged with rotating stellar casts for an amazing 17 performances this season, may well be enjoying a final victory lap.
His aesthetic seems right at home in the Arena, which, historically has been known for over-the-top staging, particularly of Aida. In this setting of drop-dead theatricality – thankfully no one actually succumbed, off stage anyway – he got what he wanted. Visible and audible amazement.
The set was enormous, as was the number of participants. Just when one thought no one else would fit on the vast stage, there were more. And more. The unit set had three huge towers. The central one opened up to reveal the crucified Christ in what seemed to be solid gold. Perhaps a Bernini apse from Rome, somehow sheered off the eastern end of a church and carted off to the Arena? Two pairs of gladiators flanked the stage, perhaps an allusion to the history of the Arena. The anvil chorus featured dozens of singers, extras, flamenco dancers with castanets and a mere two anvils. In the convent scene, a procession of men in pointy hoods carried candles as big as crutches. And then there were the horses, one of which seemed so spooked that we could see the white of his eye. He was clearly as overwhelmed as the rest of us. Despite his stage fright, he performed splendidly and, at the end of the second act, carried off the soprano and the tenor to loud applause. The lighting effects were marvelously theatrical as they colored the curved backdrop of this extraordinary Roman amphitheater: During Manrico's aria “Di quella pira”, for example, the stage turned blood red.
The costumes by Raimonda Gaetani were certainly eye catching. Dmitri Hvorostovsky had three outfits and he clearly relished their over-the-top theatricality. Striding around the stage wearing the first one, he actually glowed in the dark – a green tinsel-like presence. Marcelo Alvarez was clad in brown and red, and the cut of his costume emphasized his newly svelte appearance.
Of the principals, Sondra Radvanovsky was the clear standout. She was simply superb. With her strong luminous voice, she sang beautifully throughout her range. Her performance, always dramatically compelling, was vibrant, passionate, and deeply affecting. Her coloratura was spot on, and her top was bright but never shrill. She seems born to sing Verdi. With her subtly deployed power, she was more than a match for Marcelo Alvarez and simply dwarfed Dmitri Hvorostovky.
Marcelo Alvarez sang with an ardent full rich sound, and his delivery of the dazzling cabaletta, “Di quella pira” literally stopped the show, eliciting prolonged cries of bis.He returned to the stage to acknowledge the tumultuous applause but did not take an encore. He was clearly moved by the audience response.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky gave a very physical performance. Leaping about the stage, he cut a very charismatic figure. He sang with his trademark breath control and beautiful legato line, most tellingly in his aria, “Il balen del suo sorriso.” He was, however, often outsung by Alvarez and Radvanovsky, and when singing with them, his voice seemed nearly to vanish. He also sounded somewhat tight, muted, and pushed at the upper end of his range.
Mariana Pentcheva as Azucena sang with a lovely dark and dusky tone and was particularly fine at the lower end of her range. However, at the upper end, there was an intermittent wobble. Her last scene with Alvarez was beautifully sung by both of them and emotionally powerful. This was one of the vocal high points of the evening.
Giorgio Giuseppini made a fine Ferrando, with his deep resonant bass voice.
The chorus under Giovanni Andreoli was in excellent form. The conductor, Marco Armiliato, was his customary animated self, on and off the podium. He led the orchestra in a spirited performance.
In the beautiful Veronese tradition, the singers and conductor walked to their cars along the grand Piazza Bra with its row of cafes lined up one after another across the length of the square. A segment of the audience had gathered there to prolong the evening. Waves of cascading applause drifted across the square as the singers passed by each cafe. There was appreciation for all, but the loudest applause went to Radvanovsky.
The 88th Festival season runs through August 29th. Three of the four principals – Radvanovsky, Alvarez and Hvorostovsky – return to the Metropolitan Opera in the spring in the excellent David McVicar production of Il Trovatore. A worldwide audience can see and hear them in the eleventh of this season's twelve Live in HD broadcasts on April 30, 2011. For information, please visit: www.metopera.org.
Arlene Judith Klotzko