Genius in the Service of Genius

ItalyItaly  Britten, Curlew River: Chorus of La  Stagione Armonica, Members of Orchestra da Camera di Perugia.  Conductor, Jonathan Webb.  Stage Director, Andrea De Rosa.  Lighting designer, Pasquale Mari with Mark Milhofer as the Madwoman.  Sagra Musicale Umbra at the church of San Bevignate, Perugia.  22.09.2013 (JB)

Genius in the Service of Genius

Curlew River performance, courtesy of Sagra Musical Umbra
Curlew River performance, courtesy of Sagra Musical Umbra


The history of music in twentieth century Italy –or more precisely, the history of music performance in Italy (and from there in the entire world) would have been vastly different if Francesco Siciliani (1911-1996) had not had his amazing self-composed musical empire.    He shaped many careers through his astute ear and mind, including Callas’s  Very nice, signorina, he is reported to have said to the large young woman who came to audition with Isolde’s music,  But I’d really like you to come back in a fortnight after you’ve had a look at this, as he handed her a score of Norma.

And don’t believe the stories you’ve heard about Visconti teaching Callas how to act.  They fought like cat and dog,  Siciliani  sometimes physically separating them.  He was Artistic Director at La Scala at the time.   He realised he was going to get no compromise from Maria, so he took Luchino aside: Look, this Greek girl has amazing instinct and I want to ask you if you could set aside your admirable method of rehearsing every gesture and just see what she does, then tell me if you could build your production round that.   It worked.  Even Maria was convinced that Luchino had taught her acting.  He was merely  doing what all great teachers do: watching and learning from the pupil.

It was  Francesco Siciliani who suggested to Leonard Bernstein that he might try his hand at conducting Italian opera as he ought to have a flair for it.  On that occasion, Bernstein could hardly have gone wrong: Callas led the cast.  When Siciliani showed Joan Sutherland the score of Semiramide, urging her to learn it, Dame Joan told him not to be ridiculous.  Fortunately, Richard Bonynge was on hand, her husband and tutor  , who offered to take it away and work on it.

Britten was among the many composers Siciliani introduced into Italy.  And not least at the Sagra Musicale Umbra (SMU), the autumn festival he founded in his native Perugia in 1937.  This regional capital, some  one hundred and sixty kilometres north of Rome, is rich in history, and especially, church architecture.  And here was the man to find the right music for these venues.

In 1965 Siciliani invited Benjamin Britten to Perugia with the original cast of Curlew River –its Italian premiere.  A parable for church performance, says Britten.  Siciliani could hardly have hoped for more from his friend.


Flash forward to 22 September 2013 to the Templar Church of San Bevignate, built in 1250 and still unaltered,  though deconsecrated in 1870 then left to decay until the noughties, when superb restoration of the delicate frescoes was undertaken and the impressive acoustics of the shoebox shaped interior was again baptised with music.  The rectangular simplicity of the church is as lofty as it is long.

Today’s Artistic Director of the SMU, Alberto Batisti, seems to have the energies, connections, intelligence and imagination of his illustrious predecessor.  In 2005, Maestro Batisti saw a production of Curlew River  by one of Italy’s most gifted young stage directors, Andrea De Rosa, who is a native of Trento, where he removed all the stalls seats from the theatre there, with a sandpit covering the orchestra’s place, and a bridge over that, leading to the stage.  Batisti immediately invited De Rosa to bring this awesome, inspired production to the elegant Pisa Opera House, where, at the time, he was Artistic Director; he insisted that he should also bring Mark Milhofer with him as the Madwoman.

Imagine the joy of this team when Maestro Batisti invited them to bring this staging to the thirteenth century church of San Bevignate.


Like all templar churches, San Bevignate is built with its altar in the East and the main entrance in the West.  I must now introduce De Rosa’s lighting designer, Pasquale Mari, who built an extensive scadolding of lights outside the West door, which once the audience were seated, was also used for key entrances.  At the end, when it becomes clear  that the Madwoman’s madness is due to the loss of her son and there is a real or imagined resurrection of the child, the West door floods the entire Church with sunlight.  We all have experiences of resurrections in our own lives but this one will live in the memory for ever: uplifting and awesome.

Lindsay Kemp used to say there had to be love between actors and directors.  I neither know nor care whether there was a sexual element in the De Rosa, Milhofer relationship.  It appears to go too deep for that.  Auden’s We must love one another or die, gets nearer the mark.  What was evident was a profound, uncompromising dedication to enter into the very soul of the Plomer (librettist) and Britten creation.

The Madwoman enters, her eyes blindfolded with bandages (which the child will eventually remove in the final revelation).  I assumed, of course, that the actor could see through the (fake?) bandages.  Wrong!  Not knowing where you are, who you are or where you are going is what this is all about.  Milhofer agreed that he could better get into the psychological depths of the role if the bandages were real.  Was there ever such total dedication on an operatic stage?

Britten was steeped in English poetry and so, of course, was William Plomer (1903 – 1973)   Underscoring the whole drama is John Clare’s (1793 . 1864)  famous poem, written when he was interned in a lunatic asylum:

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,

My friends forsake me like a memory lost;

I am the self-consumer of my woes,

They rise and vanish in oblivious host,

Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;

And yet I am! And live with shadows tost


Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,

Into the living sea of waking dreams,

Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,

But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;

And e’en the dearest –that I loved the best-

Are strange –nay, rather stranger than the rest.

 Mark Milhofer’s professionalism knows no limits.  He lived the role, rather than acting it.  I thought he was immensely tall but standing next to him after the show I saw that he was about two centimeters shorter than me.  I am 1.84.  Milhofer, I then realized, is as short or as tall as he wants to be depending on the action of the moment.  Unusually for someone with large hands, he has the most beautifully choreographed, expressive hand gestures which relates neatly to the original Noh play on which the opera is based.  The Madwoman’s timbres are varied and wide and it goes without saying they were always pitch perfect with immaculate diction in his delivery.

As the only native speaker of English present among the music press, I was asked by the other singers at the dinner party afterwards, about their diction.  Sheer perfection, gentlemen!  Plomer’s words are important.  Jonathan Webb (more of the conductor in a minute) is a considerate accompanist and Robert Abbondanza was impressive as the Abbot.  Handsome Alessandro Pagnotta was perfectly in tune as the Spirit of the Boy.

Simone Del Savio as the Ferryman and Mauro Borgioni as the Traveler were equally impressive and in character.  The chorus too delivered well in the introductory Latin plainchant  as well as the English of the pilgrims.

Britten is on record saying how overawed he was the sparseness of the original Noh play.  He then managed to capture some of this in the instrumentation of the seven piece ensemble, in part by creating huge spaces between, say, the double bass and flute or the viola and bass drum.  In this way, the audience hears the spaces as much as it hears the actual instruments.  This was realized exquisitely by Jonathan Webb, who also had the excellent plan to place the percussionist (who is kept particularly busy) across the other side of the action from the other players,

Benjamin Britten and the ghost of Francesco Siciliani, the Sagra Musicale Umbra served you magnificently.

Jack Buckley