Saturday, 11 November 2017

Alfano - Risurrezione (Wexford, 2017)

Franco Alfano - Risurrezione

Wexford Festival Opera, 2017

Francesco Cilluffo, Rosetta Cucchi, Gerard Schneider, Anne Sophie Duprels, Charles Rice, Romina Tomasoni, Louise Innes

National Opera House, Wexford - 2 November 2017

Late in his life, Leo Tolstoy embraced a radical form of Christianity and would look back with disgust at the indulgence and sin of his former aristocratic upbringing. Adopting a more ascetic lifestyle he would also come to repudiate his greatest works, including War and Peace and Anna Karenina, believing that art and literature had no purpose unless it was instructive. Some of his descriptions of his former life of dissolution can be found in the early semi-autobiographical work Childhood, Boyhood and Youth, and a more reflective and penitent side of his rebirth can be found in later works like The Kingdom of God is Within You, The Forged Coupon and Resurrection.

The idea of penitence and rebirth is evidently very much to the fore in Resurrection. It might seem primarily like an exercise in guilt, but Resurrection is not so much about wallowing in self-pity and self-abasement as much as reflecting on how one's actions affect others, and whether any real good can be brought about by repentance and a change of heart. Tolstoy reportedly wasn't impressed by the indulgence of Resurrection being adapted into an opera that caters to a well-off audience, but you can also see why Franco Alfano's Risurrezione didn't set the world alight and even now remains a neglected piece. It is a gloomy affair for the most part and Alfano's treatment of the work is as serious as it gets, but it is also beautiful and ultimately uplifting.

The opera is structured neatly into four parts that, since the story is instructive and not bogged down with distracting sidelines, are easily summarised. Prince Dmitri reflects Count Tolstoy's early life of indulgence of the aristocratic lifestyle, without a thought or care for the needs and feelings of others. In Act I he seduces the maid Katiusha on a fleeting visit to the family mansion and then disappears again, forgetting about her.  In Act II we discover that Katiusha is pregnant from this encounter and as a consequence she has been thrown out of the house and her life has fallen into ruin. She abandons an attempt to tell Dmitri about the situation when she discovers him with a prostitute.

Dmitri belatedly discovers Katiusha's fate, which has ended up with her becoming a prostitute and falsely imprisoned, and he tries to make up for what has happened in Act III, visiting the fallen woman in prison. He pleads that he knew nothing of what had happened, that he is still in love with her and that he can help get her released from the harsh prison environment so that they can marry, but Katiusha remains impervious to his entreaties and doesn't believe that he can really change his ways.

Alfano sets Risurrezione very much in the Italian verismo style of the day, which proves to be quite appropriate, at least for these first three acts. It's actually not unlike La Bohème, the meeting of Dmitri and Katiusha in Act I similar to that of Rodolfo and Mimi; on shaky ground from the start, the brief spark between them soon extinguished by the cruel reality of their circumstances. In Risurrezione, Act II and III also relate closely to the situation in Act III of La Bohème, where attempts to rekindle the spark seem even more unlikely; the couple despairing of the impossibility of their union. Surely death is also on the horizon in Risurrezione?

Well yes and no, and that's the point of Tolstoy's work. Hard lessons have to be learned, there needs to be an acceptance of one's true self and true repentance and reparation. Dmitri tries to show this, but it is worthless without Katiusha's acceptance and forgiveness, which can also only come with an acceptance of her own true self. This is visually represented in Rosetta Cucchi's impressive Wexford production by a young girl seen briefly throughout, but to be fair it's hinted at in Alfano's score, which is not as relentlessly downbeat as it sounds, but alive to dynamic and emotional tone.

The focus is very much on Dmitri and Katiusha for most of Act I, much of Act II, the latter part of Act III and all of Act IV.  Considering the challenging nature of their characters' predicaments, that places a lot of pressure on Gerard Schneider and Anne Sophie Duprels, but both take their parts exceptionally well, remaining strong and consistently lyrical throughout. Alfano does however break the story down into memorable scenes with a greater variety of dramatic situation than might be expected, even if variation of the overall despairing tenor of the work up to the final scene is negligible.

That makes Risurrezione quite a challenging work also for a conductor trying to harness Alfano's verismo score towards the true character of Tolstoy's original work. Francesco Cilluffo however drew a magnificent performance out of the Wexford Festival orchestra that was entirely sympathetic to the sensibility of the work and the composer's treatment, holding to a consistent through-line while finding the right adjustments of volume and tempo to allow the score to hit all of its dramatic points. The Italianate orchestration might seem at odds with the spiritual Russian side of the work, but Cilluffo uses the verismo aspects of the score as another way of trying to find "truth", albeit in a very different way from Tolstoy.

The conclusion then in Act IV is worth waiting for, even though the treatment up to that point never drags or begs indulgence but is rather just earnest and purposeful. For the climactic moment of enlightenment Alfano has to abandon his verismo principles for a heavenly choir as an inner revelation dawns (literally) on both Dmitri and Katiusha and takes them to a spiritual awakening. It really does strike the perfect note of transcendental attainment that the work should be aiming to reach. The traditional operatic death that might be expected at the conclusion then is replaced by a metaphorical death, a letting go of the past and to ways that have held both Dmitri and Katiusha back from being open to their better nature, allowing them to be reborn, resurrected.

Links: Wexford Festival Opera