Italian Festival Unearths Rossini Rarities

Festival della Valle d’Itria, Martina Franca, July 30-31, 2018—It is the 150th anniversary of Rossini’s death, and Italy is celebrating in style. Parliament has ushered in a “Rossini year”, and a wealth of Rossini initiatives are taking place across the nation. But what can be learned about the composer when the Rossini revival that began in the 1970s already has done so much to improve our understanding of the composer’s life and work? A great deal, I’d hazard in the wake of my visit to the 44th edition of the Festival della valle d’Itria. The festival has chosen a Rossini theme this year and, in typical fashion for this festival, it has unearthed some of the composer’s rarer works.

Sicilian pianist Orazio Sciortino’s nocturnal-themed program took place under the stars in the central court of Martina Franca’s Chiostro di San Domenico and evoked the image of Rossini in old age. The effervescent pieces in the style of Offenbach and Liszt in Péchés de vieillesse (“Sins of Old Age”), which Rossini wrote during the decade before his death, show that maturity had not dulled the composer’s wit. Sciortino opted for some of the collection’s altogether more contemplative works, and demonstrated Rossini had lost none of his taste for high drama either.

In Un cauchemar (“A Nightmare”) the pianist drew sharp contrasts between the lightning-bolt outbursts and rhapsodic interludes, and Un rêve (“A Dream”) was striking, Sciortino unleashing a torrent in the stormy middle section and clearing the air with a crisp rendition of the snappy horn call that follows. Of the works by other composers, Schumann’s Nachtstücke was a standout, and Sciortino’s own piece, Due Valzer per aspettare la mezzanotte, apparently inspired by a sense of nostalgia that precedes the arrival of midnight on New Year’s Eve, proved an interesting jazzy piece. Three works by Liszt–Hymne de la nuit, Hymne du matin, and Sursum corda from Anées de Pèlérinage III–were neatly dispatched.

Rossini had a distinctive voice already early in his career, as we learned in the preceding concert of the little-known Messa di Milano. The composer wrote the work at the age of 17, and the sparkle, energy, and irreverent tone that would later characterize many of his operas are discernible here: take the effervescent “Gloria”, for example, where the alert male chorus (bracingly delivered by the male voices of the Piacenza Municipal Theatre’s opera chorus) seems to presage that in “Gloire au pouvoir suprême!” in Guillaume Tell. Conductor Ferdinando Sulla drew a colorful and varied account from the start, deftly balancing martial rhythms, bubbling orchestration, and airy lyricism in the “Kyrie eleison”, and the Orchestra ICO della Magna Grecia played well for him.

Of the four soloists, most impressive were countertenor Raffaele Pe, especially in his rapturous contribution in the “Crucifixus” atop glowing singing from the chorus, and tenor Francesco Castoro, who after the moody introduction to the “Kyrie” lit up the Basilica with his bright, open sound. The Mass was preceded by the world-premiere of Giampaolo Testoni’s Tre pezzi sacri, a rich and sensuous work for female chorus and chamber orchestra that mixes hints of perfumed Poulenc with the searing intensity and modality of James MacMillan and the spiritual introspection of Arvo Pärt. The washy acoustic of the Basilica di San Martino, generally not ideal for concerts, lent an appropriately ethereal quality.

The Festival della Valle d’Itria did not bill a Rossini opera in its main series, perhaps not wanting to step on the toes of the Rossini Opera Festival, which is soon to open. Instead, it programmed Giuletta e Romeo by Vaccai, a contemporary of Rossini for whom the composer expressed great respect, as indicated with a citation in the program: “his compositions are a model of distinction, and nobody more than he knew how to compose for human voices,” Rossini wrote. Such gives an impression of Rossini’s humility and his healthy interest in musical movements happening around him, at odds with the popular image of the composer as driven by arrogance and idleness to retire from the operatic scene before he was 40.

Giulietta e Romeo, composed in 1825, is best known for Maria Malibran’s decision to substitute the finale of Bellini’s Capuleti e Montecchi with that of the Vaccai (she deemed it better written for the voice, and the switch thereafter became common practice throughout the remainder of the 19th century). Vaccai’s opera is pure bel canto, and here its winding melancholic melodies were infused with elegance, finesse, and cantabilità. Sesto Quatrini, conducting the Orchestra of the La Scala Academy, demonstrated both great affinity for the bel canto style and a good deal of authority and control to ensure the score’s finer details, and its timbral variety was vividly communicated, the joins between its various sections cleanly managed. This was a commanding display from the young Roman conductor; safe to say Quatrini is one to watch.

The singers have clearly been selected with care, as they were generally perfectly suited to their parts. Mezzo Raffaella Lupinacci impressed as Romeo, and while her voice sounded modest in size it was robustly produced to ensure that the role’s heroic nature was believably portrayed.  Leonor Bonilla’s Giulietta was a delight: the ex-ballerina knows exactly how to hold herself on stage–in this case with seductive poise–and sounded especially fine when spinning daringly pianissimo lines infused with a healthy glow. Leonardo Cortellazzi was a forceful Capellio and Paoletta Marrocu oozed authority as Adele.

Cecilia Ligorio’s functional, effective period production used the space of the central court of the Palazzo Ducale cleverly to allude to 14th-century Verona. Arches flank one side of the large stage while a tapering wall lines the other and leads the eye to the windows overlooking the courtyard from which tapestries hang from the windows. Black and white dress means Montagues and Capulets can be clearly distinguished, and there are deft directorial touches when, for example, Giulietta is accompanied by grey figures in her final scene that eventually petrify, becoming statues to suggest a mausoleum for Giulietta. Such a fine production makes a strong case for Vaccai’s Giulietta e Romeo, which would be a worthy inclusion in any major operatic season. Three cheers to the Festival della Valle d’Itria, then, for having unearthed this forgotten gem.