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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Teatro Grattacielo's Twentieth Anniversary Benefit Concert

[Click for full size]

Truly, you may never hear these rare masterpieces again, sung live and with the accompaniment of a full symphonic orchestra. Works by Italo Montemezzi, Franco Alfano, Pietro Mascagni, Riccardo Zandonai, Ruggero Leoncavallo, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, Umberto Giordano. Ottorino Respighi, and Licinio Refice.

Some of the music is from operas that we have presented over the previous twenty years, and some is from operas that we plan to program in their entirety in the near future.

Part I - Looking back: 1994 - 2014

Italo Montemezzi:
L'amore dei Tre Re, Act I, scene 1
Flaminio - Wesley Morgan
Archibaldo - Ashraf Sewailam
Franco Alfano: Risurrezione, Act IV
Un voce lontana - Megan Monaghan
Simonson - Sephen Gaertner
Katiusha - Kerri Marcinko
Vera - Anna Tonna
Kritzloff - Damian Savarino
L'Ufficiale - Roderick Gomez
Dimitri - Raúl Melo
Il Cosacco - Stefanos Koroneos
Pietro Mascagni: Guglielmo Ratcliff - Intermezzo, Il Sogno

Riccardo Zandonai: I Cavalieri di Ekebù, Act I
Giosta Berling's aria, "La chiesetta triste"
Giosta - Raúl Melo
Ruggero Leoncavallo: Zazà - Act III
"Lei dunque è la Signora Dunoyer!..."
Marco - John Tiranno
Natalia - Megan Monaghan
Zazà - Aprile Millo
Totò - Amberdawn Scarborough

Part II - Looking forward, 2015 & Beyond

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari: La Dama Boba, Overture
Umberto Giordano: Siberia, Act II
Duet: "La polootapa della Steppa d'Omsk?"
Stephana - Tiffany Abban
Il Cosacco - Roderick Gomez
Il Capitano - Stefanos Koroneos
Vassili - Raúl Melo
Ottorino Respighi: Belfagor, Act I
Ipsilonne's aria, "Alichino, lo vedi"
Ipsilonne - Stefanos Koroneos
Licinio Refice: Cecilia, Episodo III, Scene 2
Cecilia's Death, "Grazie, sorelle"
Cecilia - Aprile Millo
Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, Il Campiello, Act III
Finale - "Biondi, Venezia cara"
Gasparina - Megan Monaghan

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Special Sauce that is Verismo

We mourn the passing of tenor Carlo Bergonzi this week, an enormously talented singer who began his career as a baritone, then changed to the more heroic register, not only because the parts lay better in his range, but the parts were better in the operas. We can only agree with that, and are thankful that he did change, as his warm, emotional singing enriched the world of opera for many years. And what role did Bergonzi sing in his tenor debut? Not Rhadamès, not Alfredo, (although he was superb in both those roles later on), but the lead in Giordano's  Andrea Chenier, a tremendously demanding role that is one of the glories of verismo, and one of the only operas of that composer still regularly  staged. 

And while Bergonzi was not considered a terrific actor--in fact, everyone including him seemed to agree on his lack of thespian ability, the role of Chenier is not particularly suited to histrionics. As a poet, Chenier is more intellectual in his expressions, and as such is a tenor role that can live well in the scene as long as the singer has sufficient expression, which Bergonzi had in spades.

And yet there are numerous examples of how downright visceral verismo operatic acting could be. Perhaps the roles of Turridu and Alfio from Cavalleria Rusticana are exemplars of that scene-chewing, breast-beating flavor of "the Grand Manner" which either thrills the audience or causes them to roll their eyes and bite their handkerchiefs in derision, if poorly done.

In this example from 1928, when Mascagni still had almost 20 years to live, we can see what a performance of the ending of Cavalleria might have looked and sounded like, this starring Beniamino Gigli, whom the composer favored, and whom he directed in a famous recording some years later.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Maestro Gursky takes up the baton for Alfano’s Sakùntala

Maestro Israel Gursky will conduct
Alfano's Sakúntala on Nov. 19
While a conductor is by definition a person who needs to communicate to many musicians with split-second timing, it’s clear that in order to be prepared for those electric showtime hours, it takes many hours of hard work—sometimes very lonely hours—to study the music and absorb all one can in order to conduct it when the time comes.  For the upcoming Teatro Grattacielo opera, Sakúntala, by Franco Alfano (1952, revised from 1921), Maestro Israel Gursky is not only poring over the score, but boning up as much as he can on the composer, the times in which the work was written, even the politics that were in play at the time. 

No newcomer to verismo, Maestro Gursky has conducted plenty of Puccini. “But,” he says, “the musical language of Sakúntala takes a step beyond Puccini's sound-world: The harmonies are more daring, the orchestration is more complex and the demands upon the performers - singers and orchestra alike - are ever more formidable." 

Originally written in 1921, Sakúntala was written during a period when many composers expanded the size and the role of the orchestra in their operas, and consequently placed ever bigger demands upon their singers. “One can see this In Puccini’s final opera, Turandot, which Alfano completed.  Puccini uses a very large orchestra in Turandot, with a big percussion section and off-stage brass, but the roles of Turandot and Calaf are hard to cast, with their long sustained phrases riding over the large orchestra and persistently high tessitura. One sees this also in Strauss's Die Frau Ohne Schatten, premiered in 1919, or in the operas of Korngold which were also written during that period and all use very large orchestras." 

“Just by looking at the orchestral score of Sakúntala , it becomes obvious that Alfano expected to have almost limitless resources at his disposal, and probably luxurious rehearsal time as well.  Take, for example, Puccini’s La Bohème: there is a passage where Puccini gives a note to the violas –and asks that  desks 1, 3, and  5 play one note, and desks 2, 4, and 6 play another. That means that he expected to have 12 violas at least. How often to you find 12 violas in an opera orchestra today?  

While last year’s opera, La Nave—also premiered in 1919—was a complicated piece, “Sakúntala presents even more challenges for the orchestra."  The instrumentation calls for a large percussion section, 2 harps, piano, celesta and heavily-divided strings: often divided by desk, and sometimes even divided by player.  The harmonic language is very advanced, often pushing the limits of tonality, and many of the orchestral parts are quite virtuosic.   "But while it’s a challenge for all of us, we are looking forward to performing in a new hall this year, the Skirball Center.”  It’s a somewhat smaller theater than in previous years, but there could be advantages to performing in a more intimate venue. “in smaller theaters singers often have more of an opportunity to sing softly and play with dynamics in a way that the audience can hear and appreciate.  That’s what we are trying to achieve.”

Gursky agrees with Alan Mallach, whose book “The Autumn of Italian Opera” states that verismo was the last great blooming of this artform. “Opera was a big deal back then, and opera singers - think of sopranos like Maria Jeritza, Rosa Raisa—were the big stars who headlined such difficult works.”  Today companies such as Teatro Grattacielo demonstrate that the resources are still there, and are gathered to perform this difficult repertoire, even if it is for one performance a year.

Alfano had a strong French influence.  “I hear so much of Ravel and Debussy in it,” says Gursky. “ especially Debussy's La Mer, for one, which also has two harps, and often uses the meter of 6/4; a rather unusual meter found frequently in Sakúntala.  The ballet music which begins the third act of Sakúntala even quotes one of the themes from the 2ndmovement of La Mer.  There's no question that Debussy’s sound-world was in Alfano's mind while composing Sakúntala.”  
“In a way, Teatro Grattacielo is presenting a slice of musical history, of a musical style that was prominent before World War II,  and since then is encountered less often.  But during that time, those pieces were at the forefront of the artform.” 

Maestro Israel Gursky will conduct Franco Alfano’s masterpiece, Sakúntala, on November 19, at the Skirball Center in New York, at 8 p.m.  For more information, see

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Sakùntala arrives in NY on November 19th

Teatro Grattacielo's 2013 offering for its one-night only, full-symphonic orchestra and world-class singers, is Franco Alfano's opera, Sakuntala.  Written in 1921 as La Leggenda di Sakuntala, and conducted by Tullio Serafin, the opera was such a success that Toscanini asked Alfano to complete the last scene of the late Puccini's opera Turandot.  A mixed success for his reputation, Alfano had a difficult time living it down thereafter, although his operas Risurezzione and Cyrano de Bergerac had some measure of success during his lifetime.  La Leggenda di Sakuntala had the ignominious fate of having its score and parts destroyed in an Allied raid during WWII--or so it was thought at the time.  This is a series of photos taken of the Ricordi organization after the bombing.

Undaunted, Alfano took the vocal score, which had been engraved and published by Ricordi, and re-orchestrated the whole thing from 1948 to 1952, making other changes to the structure and enhancing the orchestration, re-titling it simply Sakuntala.  Since it takes large forces to perform, this version was not often programmed, and at Alfano's death in 1957 it was seen only seven times.
Some fifty years later when the Rome Opera decided to revive the opera, Ricordi miraculously found the original 1921 score and this, the original version of the opera, was presented in Rome during their 2006 season, and it is this version of the score that will be presented by Teatro Grattacielo on November 19, 2013 at the Skirball Center in New York.

Original costume design from the first production

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Xena Operatica

La Nave is one of those operas that has remained more in the consciousness of musicologists than in the repertoire of opera companies. Huge in scope, needy in resources and forces to perform, as a staged production it would probably bankrupt any company out there, even if it used a Met-Machine with dozens of flapping metal see-saws. Written in 1918 by Italo Montemezzi, it was something of a cash-cow for author Gabriele D'Annunzio, the king of decadence. As a play in 1908 it made a deep impact on the audiences of the time, expressing itself as a tragedy that used symbolism to depict the confusion that Italy was in, and had a point of view that Italy was a ship that needed to arm its prow and head off into the world.

The story concerns two families in ancient, nascent Venice in 552 AD. The Gratico family has won out, and the Faledro family has lost.  The Faledros have been punished by blinding all the men, and cutting out the tongues of the sons as well.  The two Gratico brothers arrive, one as the Tribune, one as the bishop.  At the same time, the Faledro's daughter enters as well, her name Basiliola. She is at once incarnate Salome, Jezebel and Xena wrapped up in one. Leading the two Graticos to believe she is not there to avenge her father and brothers, she begins to seduce them through dance.

In fact she inflames them so much they have a pitched battle between them, with the Tribune killing his brother the bishop; Basiliola is held up as the cause of it all, and is eventually nailed to the prow of the ship as a kind of living masthead as the Ship -- the Nave of the title is launched and heads off to conquer parts unknown.
Productions of the play, with music by Ildebrano Pizzetti, appeared all over Italy, and in 1912 a film was made of the blood-soaked story, the only vestiges of which seem to be a series of postcards - a major marketing method at the time.

Then in 1918, composer Italo Montemezzi decided to improve on his opera L'Amore dei tre Re, and jumped on the bandwagon to adapt D'Annunzio's epic.  No less than his publisher, Tito Ricordi adapted the 300-page script for the music.

While the opera was considered a success when it premiered at La Scala in Nov. 1918, it was Italy again that was the likely audience.  The end of the first world war was announced during the premiere, which helped its popularity, and the rather jingoistic point of view in the story prepared Italians for the occupation of Fiume, effected by D'Annunzio himself in military regalia, and four years later, for the March on Rome by D'Annunzio's rival and erstwhile friend Benito Mussolini. But the opera never found a worldwide audience.
In 1921 another film was made, one that seems more sophisticated than the first one, which still exists today and has a certain raw power to it.  It starred dancer Ida Rubinstein, who was second only to Isadora Duncan in international popularity in the dance world. Both play and opera stress dance as a means of expression in La Nave, much in the same way as Wilde's (and Strauss's) Salome. In fact, the temptress who dances to gain influence is almost identical in D'Annunzio's conceptualization of the story.

Hardly a man is left alive who has seen the last production of this opera. No one has heard a bit of it in concerts, salons, or retrospectives.

You must come see this work on October 29, 2012, at the Rose Theater, Home of Jazz, in New York, presented in concert by Teatro Grattacielo.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

La Nave is coming . . .

No, it's not Fellini's La Nave Va, although you might think the story was derived from the fevered brain of the Italian film director.  Written as a play in 1908 by Gabriele D'Annunzio (who surpassed any film director's maddened visions), La Nave is a dazzling work that oozes with turn-of-the-last-century Italian decadence and angoscio (if that is the word they'd use for angst).

Italo Montemezzi used the play as a basis for his opera, adapted by Tito Ricordi, in 1918. With massive sets and large casts, it played throughout Italy, and then came to Chicago Lyric Opera with Rosa Raisa, conducted by the composer, just after World War One.

Set in 6th century Venice, the story depicts the debasement of one ruling family and the rise of another. As they pass, so to speak on their trajectories, a woman from the defamed family, named Basiliola vows that she will capture the love and affection, if not unilateral power, of the upcoming Marco Gratico. An unlikely pairing from the start, as we see her father and brothers, blinded, some with their tongues cut out, paraded by.

A massive boat is being built and is almost ready to be launched, an overt symbol of Italy's yearning to take part in the world's power struggle to colonize at the time.
With all the charm of a cobra, Basiliola works her wiles on Marco, dancing before him half-nude, seducing him in a pagan rite on the very steps of the basilica in Venice.  In a rather sado-masochistic frenzy, she shoots prisoners in a pit with arrows, and they beg for more, as though they were kisses.

At the final crisis, Marco becomes ruler of Venice and Basiliola, in an attempt to save face with a noble death, asks to be sacrificed.  In the original play she is burned at the stake, but the opera has an even more spectacular ending with her being nailed to the prow of the ship that takes off for parts unknown, to bring glory to Italy as a world power.

La Traviata it ain't.

And yet, it is a wonderful operatic tour de force, not seen in this country for ninety or more years, and never recorded. This year Teatro Grattacielo will be performing it in concert, and it is not to be missed.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Tonight at 8 PM -- Two operatic rarities

This evening Teatro Grattacielo will present two one-act operatic rarities: I Compagnacci from 1923, by Primo Riccitelli, whose work is seldom heard in America, and Il Re, a better-known, but still seldom-performed opera from 1929 by Umberto Giordano, who is best known for his Andrea Chénier.
Blogs are blogging about it, articles being written about the event, so all should be set for a full house tonight at Rose Theater, Home of Jazz - (although don't look for either a "the" before the "Rose" or much publicity on the venue's site...).
Tonight's performance will feature Jessica Klein, Joanna Mongiardo, Peter Castaldi, and John Maynard in the casts, and should prove to be a lively event. Libretti are online, and printed copies will be available at the door (but they go fast, so get there early!)