Italy Meyerbeer: L’Africaine, Orchestra and Chorus Teatro La Fenice, Emmanuel Villaume (Conductor), La Fenice, Venice, 29&30.11.2013 (JMI)
Selika: Veronica Simeoni/Patrizia Biccirè
Vasco de Gama: Gregory Kunde/Antonello Palombi
Inés: Jessica Pratt/Zuzana Markova
Nelusko: Angelo Veccia/Luca Grassi
Don Pedro: Luca Dall’Amico
Don Diego: Davide Ruberti
Don Alvar: Emanuele Giannino
Inquisitore: Mattia Denti
Brahma Priest: Rubén Amoretti
Anna: Anna Bordignon
Direction: Leo Muscato
Sets: Massimo Checchetto
Costumes: Carlos Tieppo
Lighting: Alessandro Verazzi
The case of Giacomo Meyerbeer is almost unique in the history of opera. The most popular opera composer in the first half of 19th century, he has been rejected by theaters over the past several decades. It is not that opera lovers have turned their backs on Meyerbeer (the few performances of his works are well received by the public, as here in Venice), but rather the fact that the criteria of decision makers in opera houses have little to do with audiences’ tastes.
As far as L’Africaine goes, suffice it to say that it had not been performed in Venice since the late 19th century. The opera has hardly been seen in recent years outside Germany, and never in top houses. This season marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Meyerbeer, and La Fenice decided to commemorate it by offering this posthumous opera. The performances were popular with the audiences and featured an interesting and attractive stage production, solid musical direction, and an excellent cast in the main roles.
The director of this new production was Italian filmmaker Leo Muscato, whose work here was more interesting than what he offered last month in I Masnadieri in Parma. The great simplicity of the stage for much of the performance was attractive: in four of the five acts it was occupied by an inclined platform, to which props were added for the different scenes. In Act III the stage became a ship with appropriate movement; the last act, where the platform represents the sea through excellent lighting, was very beautiful. Costumes were well suited to the time of the libretto, and particularly colorful in Act IV with Hindu outfits for chorus and extras.
Muscato’s narration of the complicated plot and the several love triangles was successful. He used video projections at the beginning of each act to reflect anti-colonialist sentiments, which is not at all removed from Meyerbeer’s intentions.
Emmanuel Villaume led a well-controlled performance with a good reading of the score. The Orchestra of the Teatro La Fenice had a remarkable sound, and the Choir of La Fenice was also very good. The version offered here had cuts, including the ballet music, which is natural in an opera like this.
Veronica Simeoni as Selika was a pleasant surprise. She offered a lyrical interpretation of the character, far from the dramatic aspects one hears in historical recordings of the opera. She was right to follow this line since her voice is not very powerful: what she brought to the role was musicality and delicacy. In the second cast, Selika was Patrizia Biccirè whose singing was good but somewhat modest. Her her voice is short in colors and her biggest problem is the low notes, which are too weak for the part.
Gregory Kunde was a remarkable interpreter of Vasco de Gama. The career of this singer is truly unusual as success has come to him at an age when singers may be considering retirement. At almost 60, he has become a fashionable tenor in the most demanding repertoire. His performance here was excellent, and he faced with bravura the more difficult moments. The biggest applause of the evening came for him after O, Paradis. Antonello Palombi in the second cast has two very different voices: a wide baritone middle range, but above the passage things get thinner and tighter. He is not a very elegant singer.
Jessica Pratt was an excellent Inés. She’s a strong singer with a light-lyric soprano and attractive timbre. The young (26) Czech soprano Zuzana Markova in the second cast made a very good impression. She is a light soprano, with a darker voice than is usual in this type of singer. She is easy at the top and vocally agile.
Angelo Veccia was not well suited for the demands of Nélusko. He can sing a good Marcello or any of the lighter Verdi baritones, but Nélusko requires a wider voice. He pushed his voice and was at his best in the final scene with Selika. Luca Grassi was a better fit for the role. His voice has a certain width and quality, but he also has a tendency to seek more volume.
The numerous secondary characters were effective but no more than that.
La Fenice was almost sold out on both days. The audience was warm and receptive during the performance and also at the final bows. The biggest cheers were for Gregory Kunde, Veronica Simeoni and Luca Grassi.
José Mª. Irurzun