The 2018 Verdi Festival in Parma. Review by Graham Bruce, October 2018.
Italy’s Verdi Festival which takes place in the composer’s homeland of Parma and Busseto, again this year made clear why it offers something different from the familiar run of Verdi productions: it offered the opera lover some interesting variants of the versions more familiar to them, as well as Verdi’s seldom staged second opera, Un Giorno di Regno.
Daniele Abbado’s production of Macbeth, for example, reverted to Verdi’s original 1847 version rather than use the more familiar revisions which the composer made in 1865. So, in Act 2 after Macbeth’s exit to arrange the death of Banquo and his son, Lady Macbeth’s 1865 soliloquy “La luce langue” was replaced by the original aria “Trionfai! Sicure alfine”, a spectacular piece with difficult coloratura, only really possible with a soprano with a voice equal to its challenges. This it had in Anna Pirozzi; the later version may perhaps be superior musically, but the thrilling performance of the earlier aria here received vociferous applause from the delighted audience. Pirozzi’s spectacular, full-voiced singing made a telling contrast to the almost whispered performance of her sleep walking scene later. Then at the end of the opera, Macbeth’s death on stage and final aria as he died was restored from the earlier version. While Verdi’s decision to cut this from the later version is generally praised, baritone Luca Salsi made this the culmination of a very moving performance of the reluctant butcher. The other differences here rescued from the 1847 version were the extensions to the witches’ choruses and dances, and the earlier version of the chorus of exiles “Patria oppressa”, generally thought to be inferior to the later version, but here effective enough. The grim atmosphere of both play and opera was, in this production, achieved by lighting effects, a generally bare stage with descending curtains, and a downpour of misty rain emphasising Macbeth’s “So foul and fair a day I have not seen”. It was a wonderful opportunity, then, to review Verdi’s first ideas for Macbeth, especially with such committed singing and orchestral playing and an appropriate production in Parma’s beautiful Teatro Regio.
What a contrast in mood with the production of Un Giorno di Regno! This took place in the exquisite small Teatro Giuseppe Verdi in Busseto. Verdi’s first opera, with a complex libretto about a cavalier who poses as “king for a day” while the real king makes his way secretly to Poland, takes place in a baron’s castle. Pier Luigi Pizzi’s production, revised by Massimo Pasqualetti, relished the confused interaction between the couples in a staging full of charm and fun. Sets slid in or descended seamlessly allowing the action to move swiftly, while the brilliant colours of the costuming were a constant delight. A “downstairs” kitchen scene invited particular applause: it was decorated with those two mainstays of the Parma region’s cuisine: an array of legs of ham, and huge wheels of Parmigiano cheese. Well, this opera is, after all, a “melodrama giocoso”, and the young cast of excellent voices entered into the fun.
Very few of us have seen the French version, Le Trouvere, of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, which he revised for Paris in 1857. Consequently, it was a significant opportunity to experience the 2018 Verdi Festival’s production of the French version. Apart from Verdi’s new music for the ballet demanded by French audiences of the period, these differences are in fact small. They included some changes to the cabaletta of Leonora’s lovely aria “Tacea la notte placida” and more extensive revisions to much of Azucena’s contributions. The very end of Il Trovatore is rather rushed and a little unclear in performance and Verdi lengthened this by 30 bars in the French version: here, as Manrico was led away to the scaffold, the offstage chorus of monks recalled the “Miserere” chant, alerting Azucena to his imminent death. (Those who are interested in the details of the changes might like to consult pages 107-111 in volume 2 of Julian Budden’s three- volume work, The Operas of Verdi). The performance took place in the huge Teatro Farnese, part of the Palazzo della Pilotta.
The performances were unique in that these were the last to take place in the Teatro Farnese; subsequence ‘alternative’ performances (i.e. those not in the Teatro Regio and Busseto) will, in subsequent festivals, will take place in another venue. The reasons became clear in these last performances in the Farnese: the lack of raked seating in the stalls made vision of the stage difficult, and the acoustic was rather muffled. In addition to these problems, the production of Le Trouvere by Robert Wilson did not please some. Looking at a libretto which frequently defies “realism” (Babies mixed up and thrown into a pyre, etc.), Wilson presumably decided upon a Brechtian approach, avoiding presentation of apparently ‘real’ characters on stage, and choosing instead to emphasise that what is presented is a theatrical experience provided by actor/singers. Hence many scenes showed the singers coming downstage, singing to the audience, and not communicating with the character supposedly addressed. Once the approach became evident to me, I began to enjoy the production, and admired the consistency of the approach especially as the singing was good. For many, though, the approach simply removed longed-for human interaction. The crunch came with the production of the ballet, a lengthy piece of music in four parts: Wilson clearly decided on a non-ballet, bearing no realistic relationship to the operatic narrative and had boxers wearing bright red boxing gloves punch to the music. Many in the audience loudly protested, and I admit that my patience here was sorely tested, even though I admired the performance as a whole.
The final opera Attila, returned us to the Teatro Regio and also to the rather dark atmosphere of the Macbeth production. Attila contains some splendid music and here as in all of the festival productions, the orchestral playing was excellent. Andrea de Rosa’s production, however, seemed keen to emphasise the conventional view of Attila and his men as barbaric and bloodthirsty. This became evident from the beginning as the slaughter of children took place during the overture. Once established, this aspect became rather tedious with repetition. The soprano part of Odabella is a ferociously difficult one and Maria Jose Siri barely rose to the challenge. The other principal parts of Attila, Ezio and Foresto were reasonably well filled.
If the final opera was not quite the equal of the others, this did not detract from the feeling of the importance of this festival set in the heart of the area which the great composer called home, and exploring the unfamiliar as well as the popular operas.