The Collegiate Chorale
(Collegiate Chorale Website)
Robert Bass, Music Director and Conductor
Orchestra of St. Luke’s
(Orchestra of St. Luke’s Website)
Puccini: A Composer’s Journey
At Carnegie Hall
Press: Cohn Dutcher Associates
Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
January 30, 2006
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Le Villi, Libretto by Ferdinando Fontana
Guglielmo: Carlo Guelfi
Anna: Aprile Millo
Roberto: Franco Farina
Narrator: Antoinette LaVecchia
Turandot, Act III, Libretto by Giuseppe Adami
& Renato Simoni, completion by Luciano Berio
Calaf: Franco Farina
Ping: Lester Lynch
Pang: Richard Cox
Pong: Douglas Purcell
Turandot: Aprile Millo
Liù: Hei-Kyung Hong
Timur: Valentin Peitchinoff
With the style of a Carnegie Hall Gala, two arts organizations came together tonight, Collegiate Chorale and Orchestra of St. Luke’s, along with opera diva, Aprile Millo, and an ensemble of opera virtuosi. Not only would we hear Luciano Berio’s completed third act of Turandot (Puccini unfortunately died before completing his final opera), but we would also be treated to Ms. Millo, who appears at Carnegie Hall for operas in concert form, such as in tonight’s program.
But, before we were to hear the towering arias of Turandot, we were treated to one of my favorite librettos of the two act opera, Le Villi (written in Puccini’s youth, thus the “composer’s journey”). Roberto and Anna are engaged, but Roberto rushes off to receive his inheritance, and, as luck has it, meets and is seduced by a siren. Anna dies of a broken heart, never to be wed, and becomes one of the Wilis, ghosts of dead fiancées. (Program Notes). In the opera form, the narrator (Antoinette LaVecchia) explains the scenario in Italian, and sur-titles are beamed above the stage. To return to the story, Guglielmo, Anna’s father, is grief-stricken and blames Roberto for Anna’s death. Roberto happens on the Wilis in the Black Forest, and Anna does not protect Roberto from the wrath of the Wilis, as she seduces him into a dance to his death. (Program Notes). Anna sings, “I am no longer love. I am vengeance”.
One of my favorite quotes from the translated libretto was, “Dancing truly rivals love, making the heart beat.” I had never experienced the story of the Wilis in opera form, and Collegiate Chorale, led by Robert Bass, was brilliant in the crowd (Wili) laughter/taunting/whispering, as well as the sensational choral passages of the opera. Maestro Bass knows his Chorale, and he also knows St. Luke’s Orchestra, perfectly pitched and perfectly blended in this sumptuous and dramatic work. Baritone, Carlo Guelfi, who passionately sang of the “bleeding heart” of a parent, had vocal power that carried through Stern Hall. Tenor, Franco Farina, as Roberto, sang of devotion, of desire, and then of dread and death. Both Mr. Farina and Mr. Guelfi were able to transport the audience with intense theatricality, even in this concert version.
Yet, it was soprano, Aprile Millo, who was the most noteworthy operatic presence, with a long, black cape, elegantly draped over her arms. Ms. Millo’s voice was rich and clear, and she and Mr. Farina kept eye contact during the height of drama. The concept of the onstage orchestra and Chorale, with the soloists and narrator stage front, is not new, but tonight it was a celebrated technique, and the sur-titles were split-timed and synchronized. Ferdinando Fontana’s libretto brought forth the eloquence and etherealness of this tragic tale. Puccini’s two act opera is one to be seen in full staging, and I will look for it in opera listings. For a New York audience bred on the ballet, Giselle, hearing the magical momentum of the dance of the Wilis and the imagined thoughts and words of Anna, Roberto, and Guglielmo (In the ballet, Giselle’s anguished mother, not father, is a featured character) is quite a memorable moment.
I actually enjoyed Le Villi more than Act III Turandot, because the passionate power of the Chorale as Wilis was not equaled by the passionate power of Franco Farina in his signature aria, “Nessun Dorma” (trans. “nobody is sleeping”). I have heard this aria sung countless times by countless tenors, in festivals, at The Met Opera, on television opera, on opera video, and it is always a showstopper, a high point of the evening. Mr. Farina had seasoned vocal quality, but the tone and torment did not shine through. Yet, happily he received accolades on the aria’s conclusion. ”Turandot” takes place in old Beijing, and it is named for a princess of icy demeanor, who will finally marry a man, who can solve all three of her riddles. If a man loves her, proposes to her, and then fails to answer the riddles, he is executed in public at the height of the moon. In Act I Prince Calaf tries to woo the cold princess, and Ping, Pang, and Pong, the ministers, warn him not to strike the gong, but he does so anyway, in a declaration of pursuit.
In Act II Turandot tells the tale of an ancestor, who died at the hands of the Tartars. Her wrath lives on, and, when Calaf answers the riddles, she still refuses to marry him. He then agrees to his own execution, only if Turandot can announce his true name before dawn. In Act III, “Nessun dorma”, that is, nobody can sleep, until Turandot discovers Calaf’s name. Calaf will, however, speak his name after sunrise. When Liù, former King Timur’s, servant, reveals that she has knowledge of the name, she is tortured by Turandot’s soldiers, until she stabs herself, to protect Calaf from the possibility of her revealing his name. Calaf still tries to unfreeze Turandot with a kiss, which actually works. As dawn breaks, Turandot labels Calaf’s name as “love”. (Program Notes).
Ms. Millo exuded towering triumph and dramatic depth as Turandot, with a voice that pierced the air with precision and pathos. Soprano, Hei-Kyung Hong was a bright light of lyricism and love, as she sang her death scene in her effort to thwart the torturers’ efforts to extract Calaf’s name from her lips. She sang about self-doubt at the worst moment of pain. She was mesmerizing and moving in her arias. The vocal passages for Ping, Pang, Pong, and Timur were all handled expertly. I had hoped for more power and vocal purity from Mr. Farina as Calaf, but he carried the role with confidence and characterization. Ms. Millo and the exceptionally well-rehearsed Chorale were showcased quite effectively, and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s brought fire and demonic tones to the stylish event.
Berio’s ending was contemporary and somewhat dissonant, a fascinating turn to a mostly melodic score. Kudos to Giacomo Puccini, and kudos to Robert Bass for masterful organization and conducting of this multi-leveled stage of performing artists.
Aprile Milo, Franco Farina and Hei-Kyung Hong
Photo courtesy of Michael Devitto