Monday, 29 October 2018

Leoni/Giordano - L’Oracolo/Mala vita (Wexford, 2018)

Franco Leoni - L’Oracolo
Umberto Giordano - Mala vita

Wexford Festival Opera, 2018

Francesco Cilluffo, Rodula Gaitanou, Joo Won Kang, Sergio Escobar, Leon Kim, Benjamin Cho, Elisabetta Farris, Louise Innes, Francesca Tiburzi, Dorothea Spilger, Anna Jeffers

O'Reilly Theatre, National Opera House, Wexford - 25 October 2018

You can always count on some Italian verismo to give Wexford Festival Opera a bit of an edge. Alfano's Risurrezione at last year's festival packed quite a punch, and if anything the impact is even more intense in this year's double-bill of two concise little gems that Wexford with Francesco Cilluffo at the helm once again have rescued from semi-obscurity for the 2018 festival programme. Franco Leoni's L'Oracolo and Umberto Giordano's Mala vita proved to be a fine complementary pairing that doubled-up the verismo impact.

To all appearances the two works don't have that much in common. Leoni's L'Oracolo (The Oracle) is set in San Francisco's Chinatown, a sordid tale of opium dens, kidnapping, betrayal and murder all squeezed into a one-act one-hour package. Giordano's Mala vita is more Italian in its Neapolitan setting of passionate outpourings in the realm of love and betrayal. There are however a few interesting commonalities brought out by the pairing together of the two works.

Essentially, both works are about ordinary human lives where the poverty of their environment has a lot to do with their actions. With nothing left to live for, characters are forced to resort to other means to lift them out of the misery of their situation, with drugs and criminality one indication of this in the backstreets of Chinatown in L'Oracolo. In L'Oracolo however, some turn to superstition in fortune-telling, and in Mala vita others turn to religion - or superstition again, if you like. In both cases however human nature proves to be stronger and it's not the good side of it.

In terms of verismo, L'Oracolo, written in 1905 could probably be most closely associated with Puccini's Il Tabarro (from Il Trittico), not least in its shock conclusion of the fate of the victim of a murder being disguised. Musically however, Leoni is in advance of Puccini in his use of street sounds and noises feeding into the score as atmospherics. Dramatically, it's pure Grand Guignol, involving opium den owner Cim-Fen kidnapping her young brother so that he can impress Ah-Joe when he 'recovers' the child. His efforts are hampered however by a rival for Ah-Joe's affections when San-Lui discovers his plot, forcing Cim-Fen to brutally kill him.

As if this isn't colourful enough L'Oracolo also has a number of busy street scenes set around the beginning of the Chinese New Year, with partying, dancing, a dragon procession, a lantern festival and the fortune-telling scene by the oracle that gives the opera its title, predicting two deaths to come. It also embarks on a revenge killing when San-Lui's father, the owner of a Chinese medicine shop, goes off to exact bloody retribution on the murderer of his son. As if that's not enough, director Rodula Gaitanou piles on the gore in place of the attempt to hide the death from the unfortunate policeman who works on this beat.

If Leoni's score is more impressionistic and dynamic in its balance of light and shade, Giordano's goes for an all-out Italian passions in Mala vita in a manner that takes it closer to Cavalleria Rusticana. Like L'Oracolo however its tale of poverty and the law of honour killings in the countryside, but is set in the poor district of the city of Naples. Religion and community however still play an important part, and in Giordano's three-act short work, Vito who is suffering from tuberculosis is inspired to seek out and help an unfortunate woman on the streets as a way of atonement and a plea to God for a cure for his illness.

Vito pledges to take prostitute Cristina out of the den she works in and promises to marry her, much to the fury of Amalia his mistress who is married to Annetiello, a sleazy character who already 'knows' Chrstina. The fallen woman gratefully accepts Vito's promise of redemption (shades of Alfano's Risurrezione there too) but is ultimately let down by Vito, who finds that his feelings for the spiteful Amalia are greater than his sacred vows to God and to a lowly prostitute. Left destitute once again, Cristina in this production - again rather emphasising the tone of lives in desperation - kills herself.

Musically, Giordano's score is every bit as overpowering as Cavalleria Rusticana, filled with religious processions, singing and dancing and huge choruses that are almost declamatory in delivery. You would almost think it might be taking things a little bit over-the-top, but then you remember Mala vita is set in Naples, so it might even be considered understated in that light. Francesco Cilluffo brings the fire out of both works, with a more appropriate lighter touch for L'Oracolo, while the orchestra is boosted by a larger string section to draw out the darker tones for Mala vita.

The singing performances also exhibit a similar range and appropriateness of tone. Mala vita provides the best opportunities for the lead soloists to shine, particularly for the competitive female leads of Cristina and Amalia, which are sung superbly by Francesca Tiburzi and Dorothea Spilger. Sergio Escobar, also singing San-Lui in L'Oracolo, was really given a chance to let his ringing tenor shine as Vito in Mala vita, fearlessly and impressively hitting all the expressive high notes.

The set designs and costume design (vaguely 1930s backstreet poverty) by Cordelia Chisholm were impressive; a rotating block of tenement flats with lower-floor shops and buildings that moved fluidly form one scene to the next. How the cast managed to keep up with this from one moment to the next and get themselves into position in the crowded stage is another wonder of stage management. All that was required for the change was to turn the shop signs from Chinatown shops to Italian ones, even if it still retained more of a San Francisco feel than an authentic Neapolitan scene. More important however was that it permitted a direct comparison and transference of theme across the two works, and - with those superb musical and singing performances - both accordingly came over with tremendous power.


Links: Wexford Festival Opera