Franco Alfano - Risurrezione (Florence, 2020)
Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, 2020
Francesco Lanzillotta, Rosetta Cucchi, Anne Sophie Duprels, Matthew Vickers, Leon Kim, Francesca Di Sauro, Romina Tomasoni, Nadia Pirazzini, Ana Victoria Pitts, Barbara Marcacci, Filomena Pericoli, Nadia Sturlese
Rosetta Cucchi's production of Franco Alfano's Risurrezione was something of a revelation for me when when I first saw it at the Wexford Festival Opera in 2017. Not only did it serve to give much better representation of a composer who is only really known by most for having completed the last Act of Turandot when Puccini died, but it helped illuminate better the idea of opera verismo. More than just being about realism and the misfortunes of ordinary people, it can also be seen in many of its best works (La Bohème, Cavalleria Rusticana) to elevate the lives and suffering of ordinary people to something of a spiritual level.
If you are looking for an author in literature author who is capable of doing precisely that it's Count Leo Tolstoy. To be fair many of the classic Russian writers including Turgenev and particularly Chekhov achieve that in their writing, but no-one else lived their beliefs out quite the same way as Tolstoy. Repudiating even his greatest works and turning his back on the wealthy, dissolute lifestyle of being born into nobility, Tolstoy would choose to dedicate the rest of his life to not only celebrating the spiritual and morally pure existence of a life of hard work and poverty in his writing, but he would live his life according to those values as well.
Tolstoy documented his early life experiences in 'Childhood, Boyhood and Youth', and there's clearly also a semi-autobiographical element to the character of Prince Dmitri and his reckless womanising behaviour in his later work 'Resurrection'. A well-off noble, on a visit to his aunt's country house just before joining the army, Dimitri renews a childhood romance with Katyusha, one of the maids of the household who has now grown into an attractive woman. It's not so much a renewal of an innocent romance as much being aware that he has the power, position and authority to prey on the naivety of the young woman to seduce her.
In Act II we discover that Katyusha is pregnant from that fleeting encounter. Hearing that Dimitri is returning wounded from the front on his way home to St. Petersburg, she goes to the train station to see him and tell him of her predicament. Fearful, hoping he will understand, the bleakness of the conditions don't offer much comfort to Katyusha agonising outside in the cold winter, her fate hanging in the balance. Alfano's opera (not unlike Act III of La Bohème) cleverly interweaves a scene of drinking, gambling and a drunken dispute going on in the station, a scene that also alludes to other vices of the young Tolstoy.
When Dimitri passes by without seeing her, a beautiful woman on his arm, Katyusha's fate is sealed; vagrancy, destitution, prostitution and a decline that sees her in Act III and IV unjustly condemned to 20 years imprisonment in Siberia. Dimitri however has recognised her, is repentant of his actions, has sought her out and wants to gain forgiveness by trying to save her. Katyusha's feelings about how that can be attained however are quite different and on a different level from Dimitri.
Musically, Alfano's score is wholeheartedly verismo in its range and dynamic, reminding one certainly of Puccini. The situations, the passing of the seasons, the joy of young love and foolishness turning to trials and pain of dealing with the harsh realities of life mirror scenes in La Bohème to an extent. The difference between them is that Puccini's subjects never let him achieve the same kind of of redemptive, soaring spiritual enlightenment that Alfano reaches for in Tolstoy's writing, failing to see - perhaps realistically - any other outcome for his troubled protagonists than death.
Risurrezione strives for a higher purpose, looking beyond death and material concerns towards a spiritual rebirth, and in that respect, Katyusha's journey is perhaps closer to Manon Lescaut in its trajectory and search for redemption for past sins. In the light of Risurrezione I wonder however whether it might be worth looking anew at this lesser and often unsatisfactorily staged Puccini to consider whether he wasn't striving towards a similar transcendental experience in that problematic final act, and whether the opera might be made to work with a staging as sympathetic to it as this one is to Alfano.
In staging Risurrezione it would be enough just to match the emotional content of the music and the drama to the weather conditions of each of the seasons that accompany and heighten the situations and experiences to an almost unbearable level of anguish. The shock of the verismo realism is powerful in its own right, and Rosetta Cucchi's direction doesn't flinch from showing the grim situations to the full. Much more tricky is allowing a sense of hope and meaning for such misery and suffering to take you through to the extraordinary finale of death and rebirth, but the director does that extraordinarily well. Using the image of a young girl seen out of the corner of Katyusha's eye to occasionally wander into each scene, it's a fine way to suggest a sense of the inner woman, the inner child and the necessity to rediscover the innocence of youth.
It's a fantastic idea that works well with the intent of the piece. How much you can hear of that in Alfano's music I'm not so sure, but there is repeated motif reflecting on a photograph of Katyusha taken when she was young in garden of Prince's aunt and the director expands on this to great effect. Conductor Francesco Lanzillotta certainly brings out the fullness of the emotional content of the score, but in order to feel the pain that deeply there must be some sense of human vulnerability there, as well as the human strength to rise out of it. That comes out in all its glory in the finale of the opera and the production's magnificent staging of it.
The human element in opera is of course best expressed through the voice and although Katyusha is evidently a challenging central role to deal with emotionally as well as on a technical level Anne Sophie Duprels reprises her 2017 performance of the role at Wexford here to striking effect. Matthew Vickers is a little bit stiff by comparison, but Dimitri it must be said is a rather more difficult figure to relate to. Vickers nonetheless sings the role well enough to feel some sympathy for this character. Leon Kim sings the baritone role of Simonson, the prisoner who falls in love with Katyusha in Siberia, warmly and with feeling.
This world premiere video recording of Risurrezione, recorded in January 2020 at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Dynamic. Image and sound are marvellous on the Blu-ray capturing the tone of the work and its presentation well in Hi-Res Stereo LPCM and surround DTS HD-Master Audio mixes. The enclosed booklet contains a tracklist, a full detailed synopsis and an informative essay on Alfano's and an analysis of the opera. The booklet is in Italian and English. The Blu-ray is region-free, BD50, and offers subtitles in Italian, English, French, German, Korean and Japanese.