Monday 30 October 2023

Tutino - La ciociara (Wexford, 2023)

Marco Tutino - La ciociara

Wexford Festival Opera, 2023

Francesco Cilluffo, Rosetta Cucchi, Na’ama Goldman, Jade Phoenix, Leonardo Caimi, Devid Cecconi, Alexander Kiechle, Allen Boxer, Carolyn Dobbin, Conor Prendiville, Erin Fflur, Julian Henao Gonzalez, Grace Maria Wain, Meilir Jones, Christian Loizou, Will Searle, Peter McCamley

O'Reilly Theatre, National Opera House - 26th October 2023

Wexford Festival Opera may be noted for its unearthing of rare works mainly from the 19th century, but the reviving of works as a way of keeping opera alive and vital also extends to programming new and recent 20th and 21st century works. It's in the context of the 72nd festival's Women & War theme that even against some notable historical competition it was a contemporary composer Marco Tutino and his opera La ciociara that proved to be the most musically and dramatically satisfying work in programme. You might think that the task of composing an opera on the subject of war might have been made easier by having the cinematic source material of the master of post-war neo-realism Vittorio de Sica to work with, which in turn is adapted from Alberto Moravia's war time experiences in Italy, but there is clearly much more to making all that into a successful opera. And indeed a challenge to stage it successfully, so we were fortunate that conductor Francesco Cilluffo and director Rosetta Cucchi were key to realising the full dramatic potential of the work for Wexford.

Composed in 2015 where it was premiered at San Francisco Opera, it's a newly revised version of La ciociara that was being performed for the first time at Wexford. For a festival specialising in reviving old and forgotten opera, Wexford manage to rack up a surprising number of premieres, also managing this year to put on the first ever staged production of the original version of a rare Donizetti opera, Zoraida di Granata. La ciociara was however even more of a coup, since in its new form at least it's an extraordinary piece of opera. It has the opera-cinematic quality of Richard Strauss in its huge dramatic and romantic sweeps, matching the dynamic and range of human experience during a time of war, but it is also thoroughly modern in how it adapts to those changes of tone and provides a consistent accompaniment to the dramatic action without ever resorting to film soundtrack backing.

Photo: Clive Barda

It's a work that more fully realises the Women & War theme of the 72nd Wexford Festival Opera. Where Zoraida and L'aube rouge struggled to get a satisfactory balance, La ciociara also has a romantic core but fully humanises it in while placing it in the context of war. And by humanising that also includes the dehumanising effect of war. There is no holding back here on the brutality and the horror that war inflicts on society and the individual. The individuals in question are Cesira and her daughter Rosetta, the 'two women' of the English version of the Moravia book and film, and Michele, the school teacher Cesira meets in the village of Sant'Eufemia when she returns to her home region of Ciociara escaping from the war in Rome.

Another aspect of the impact that war has on individuals comes in the form of Giovanni, a brute who has followed Cesira and Rosetta from Rome who joins a fascist militia. He hears that the two women and Michele have given aid to a wounded American soldier and, in a jealous rage over Cesira's blossoming relationship with Michele, he informs the local Nazi commander Von Bock - a Scarpia-like figure - which leads to a similar anguished confrontation and eventual execution of Michele, not to mention a rape scene. It's hard not to associate the musical connection and heritage of the brutality pushed by Puccini in Tosca in such scenes.

Photo: Clive Barda

You can detect the post-Wagner and post-Verdi approach to opera of Strauss and Puccini in Tutino's music, but the composer nonetheless puts a neo-Romantico spin on ot, the music dramatic, theatrical and emphatic. Musically everything goes hand in hand with the drama, enhancing the narrative and emotional tone of the piece at every stage. Not a moment is wasted, the opera simply flowing from one scene to the next. The director Rosetta Cucchi (also the artistic director of the Wexford Festival Opera) has a hand in that of course, using filmed segments to link the journey of the two women, Tutino helpfully providing linking music to mark the passage of time and distance. 

Cucchi also takes inspiration from Vittorio De Sica (Peter McCamley), the director of the film version of La Ciociara, including him as a silent figure in the drama during preparations for filming, taking in the location and imagining what he will make of each scene. That gives Cucchi licence to include a dancer figure, a representation of his inspiration perhaps, the emotional core of what he wants to capture on film, the essence of woman maybe? Strength? Endurance? It doesn't necessarily need a name or single definition, since it is really something deeper that arises out of the music that can connect on a different level with the personal experience and reaction of each person in the audience.

This is vital to the human aspect of the work, to the connection it makes with the listener and as a reflection of how the experience of war can be different for different people. It can dehumanise and inflict horror, as Zoraida di Granata and L'Aube rouge made clear earlier in the opera festival, but it can also bring out the better human qualities. Cesira in fact was not such a nice person while she was in Rome, using the war as an excuse to inflate prices in her store. Returning to what was known as the Ciociara region south of Rome, in the country, she finds a closer relationship with nature, naming the flowers and trees, finding secret paths in the woods, finding love, the contrast of the war revealing what is truly important.

Photo: Clive Barda

The opera evidently requires a strong central performance in Cesira, and you couldn't ask for better than Na'ama Goldman, or indeed praise her performance enough. She held the work together as its heart, her singing and dramatic performance absolutely exceptional. Just as remarkable was Jade Phoenix as Rosetta, the young soprano giving an amazing performance through some challenging scenes, singing absolutely superbly. The scene where she took to the front of the stage to offer up a song of prayer was a revelation, winning over the audience as she lived through the trauma and post-trauma brilliantly. Leonardo Caimi was excellent as Michele and Devid Cecconi marvellous in the thankless role of the fascist brute, Giovanni, but neither overshadowed the outstanding performances of the "two women" at the heart of the work.

Superbly directed by Rosetta Cucchi with no expense spared on the impressive production design, the staging couldn't have been in better hands. The same goes for the musical direction of Francesco Cilluffo, and the Wexford orchestra were on fire as they tend to be under this conductor. I look forward to the work he directs at Wexford every year in the assurance that it will be among the best of the festival. That was certainly the case this year in a very good main programme, but in terms of being the full package, La ciociara topped the bill and that was recognised by fierce applause and a standing ovation at the curtain call. I don't think there is any such thing as the perfect opera, but when music, drama, performance and presentation come together as well as they do here, this is as good opera gets.

External links: Wexford Festival Opera