You'd think we'd be used to pleasant surprises at Spoleto Festival USA by now, but somehow, year after year, they still seem to keep sneaking up on us. And it happened yet again at the Sottile Theatre on Saturday, with the opening performances of this year's double-bill of rarely heard one-act Italian operas: Umberto Giordano's Mese Mariano (The Month of Mary) and Giacomo Puccini's Le Villi (The Fairies). Judging from the general audience buzz afterwards, many among the happy crowd — sharing the general exhilaration that follows an exceptional evening of operatic art — seemed almost shocked that both were works they had never heard — nor even heard of — before.
But then, music history has relegated Giordano — despite a couple of notable successes (Fedora, Andrea Chenier) — to a lower, "class B" niche in the pantheon of Italian opera composers, hardly on a par with masters like Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi, or Puccini. So musicologists have written his lesser efforts off. And even the great Puccini had to start somewhere — though art historians (and the musical public) seldom give full credit where it's due for his well-done early efforts. Still, it's Le Villi that launched Puccini's career in 1884 at the age of 26, even though it was soon eclipsed by his subsequent string of full-length smash-hit masterpieces.
After attending the three main operas of the festival's 2013 edition in two successive evenings, it wasn't hard for me to figure out that Spoleto's pervasive operatic theme this time around is the abandonment of mostly blameless women and the wide range of negative consequences it inevitably causes, mainly to the tragic detriment of the hapless heroines. Even if the abandonment is unintentional (as in Friday's spooky Noh-based ghost story, Matsukaze), the consequences are no less devastating to its victims. At best, there's shame, guilt, and endless sadness while life endures (as in Mese Mariano); at worst, there's madness and condemnation to walk the earth eternally as ghosts or vengeful fairies (Matsukaze, Le Villi). And the men get away unscathed. Well, maybe not in Puccini, where the male gets what's coming to him.
All such considerations aside, both of Saturday evening's mini-operas got productions and performances that were entirely up to Spoleto's usual lofty standards. Mese Mariano is the roughly 35-minute tale of an abandoned woman's illegitimate son whom she, in turn, must abandon at a church orphanage at her new husband's insistence. When she comes to visit him, the orphanage's nuns can't bring themselves to tell her that her boy had died the night before, and she leaves in tears. Most of the audience was left in tears, too — me included.
For such a sad story, it got off to an almost comedic start, as the nuns scurried around to prepare for a visit from their patron countess. The bevy of kids recruited locally to act as the orphans and sing for her onstage did a really fabulous job — in Italian, no less. But things got very sad in a hurry, rising to an unsung climax as the child's body was seen behind a screen while the orchestra throbbed dolefully. As Carmela, the visiting mother, soprano Jennifer Rowley (she sang the female lead in both operas) was simply magnificent. What a voice: a gleaming, full-dramatic instrument of huge power and even tone throughout her entire range. As the nun (and Carmela's cherished childhood friend) Suor Pazienza, Ann McMahon Quintero's rich and dusky mezzo was especially pleasing; so was her compassionate acting. Sopranos Linda Roark-Strummer (Superiora) and Yanzelmalee Rivera (Suor Cristina) executed their own sisterly roles very nicely. Well-done bit-parts went to Westminster Choir members Allison Faulkner, Nicole Fragala, Shari Parman, Anne Marie Stanley, and Justin Su'esu'e.
After intermission came Le Villi, which was not only Puccini's first opera, but the only one he wrote that deals with a supernatural theme. This one was a good bit longer: two meaty scenes divided by an intermezzo plus a narration that keeps the story line going. Le Villi is almost as much a ballet as it is an opera, with inspired dancing from Charleston's own Dancefx. In the opening party scene, our heroine Anna is celebrating her engagement to hero-cum-bad guy Roberto, and they danced splendidly, if rather conservatively — but boy, did that ever change. Meanwhile, the chorus (the ever-trusty Westminster Choir) played at partying hard, and sang beautifully all the while. But amid all the revelry, Anna was suffering serious premonitions of never again seeing Roberto (who was about to leave on a short business trip) ... at least not while she was still alive.
As the intermezzo got going, an unseen narrator told us that Roberto — while on his journey — got waylaid (literally and figuratively) by a "siren." He forgets Anna and, of course, fails to return and marry his sweetheart.
As scene II opened, we watched Anna's grief-stricken descent into insanity and death from a broken heart, as the erstwhile reception hall gradually transformed into an insane asylum, complete with ghoulish-looking inmates, now dancing in a chillingly macabre modern style. Guglielmo, Anna's father, delivered a passionate aria, swearing revenge. What turned out to be a huge rubber sheet descended like a smooth curtain in front of the set, and a drunken Roberto — now bedraggled and repentant — shambled out in front of it, pouring out his remorse in his "swan song" aria. You could hear the audience's collective gasp as impressions of clawing hands suddenly showed against the rubber sheet — incredibly spooky! The rubber curtain then rose to reveal the grotesque dancers — now seeming to dance while seated, as if glued, in an evenly spaced set of chairs in front of the asylum's padded walls. The tortured dancers were, of course, Le Villi, the vengeful spirits of abandoned women, who get their revenge by dancing their victims to death, which is just what this bunch proceeded to do to the hapless Roberto. Ah, sweet justice!
As Anna, Jennifer Rowley's amazing voice simply floored her fortunate listeners yet again, and her acting served her well as she made the transition from a giddy, lovestruck girl to a jilted (and dead) madwoman. Baritone extraordinaire Levi Hernandez was superb as Guglielmo, and tenor Dinyar Vania was spectacularly effective as Roberto with a clarion top end, and more than enough vocal oomph to keep up with Rowley.
Both operas were blessed to have the same terrific creative team. Conductor Maurizio Barbacini's deft baton kept the music under firm yet emotionally potent control. Only once or twice did the stage action seem just a tad out-of-synch with the Spoleto Festival Orchestra's rich and flawless sound from the pit. Director Stefano Vizioli conspired with his colleagues to craft a most effective all-around production set in a 1950's milieu. Neil Patel's set designs were ingenious, as was Matt Frey's lighting work. Roberta Guidi di Bagno's costumes were highly varied and either very appealing or horrific, as the action dictated. Choreographer (and assistant director) Pierluigi Vanelli outdid himself, especially in crafting the ghastly "chair-dancing" episode near the end. Joe Miller's chorus preparation made for the customary flawless singing from "the world's finest opera chorus."
Afterwards, a couple of very appreciative fellow audience members asked me which of the evening's operas I liked the best. I simply told them that I'd go with the crowd.
Mese Mariano merely got heavy applause; Le Villi got a raucous standing O. It may well have terrified us — and the music may have had more of a genius's touch—– but it was Mese that made most of us cry. Well-done Italian opera can do that to you.