Italienische Operngala, a Europa Classica Europa production. Arias and duets from Verdi operas Aida, La Traviata and Rigoletto. Performed by Latonia Moore (soprano), Julia Muzychenko (soprano), Irakli Kakhidze (tenor), Sangmin Lee (baritone). Rhein-Main-Philharmoniker under the direction of Hans-Friedrich Härle. Attended performance: Alte Oper, Frankfurt, 7 April 2019.
Tonio and his terracotta head
More than a century ago, on 31 December 1915, Matthijs Vermeulen wrote a review for De Telegraaf newspaper of a performance of Cavelleria Rusticana/Pagliacci, by Opera Italiana (produced by ‘Cav.’ De Hondt, famous impresario at that time) in Het Paleis voor Volksvlijt (palace of the people’s diligence) in Amsterdam. The Tonio in that performance was soundly dealt with as follows: ‘It is indeed a curious fact that no hand moved to applaud when he poked his head through the screen to sing the Prologue from Pagliacci. We are familiar here with neither personality cults nor the Mengelberg optimism of the Concertgebouw. First music, first melody is what is demanded by the gallery, from whence zeal emanates’. (Vermeulen was a self-confessed opponent of Mengelberg.)
‘First music, first melody’
The golden rule of ‘first music, first melody’ as a guiding principle for what opera is in essence, is not a popular position for the creators and facilitators of urgent and topical music theatre and their target group, the admirers of the proverbial emperor couture, to whom we so enjoy referring with the distinguished name they proudly confer on themselves: Today’s People. In 1967, Pierre Boulez said, “Die teuerste Lösung wäre, die Opernhäuser in die Luft zu sprengen” (the costliest solution would be to have the opera house fly into the air), and although this comment need not be taken literally, the art form is most definitely being undermined by nonsense. Nonsense about topical matters, diversity, social relevance, sexism and racism. Opera is suffering from a disturbing form of blinkered poshness (‘Opera Can Change Your Life’) and endless quasi-philosophical and smug political drivel.
Pièce de résistance, today’s people (without capital letters) are being served less and less well; the opera-lover who is more than anything interested in good music, beautiful voices and direction which stays true to the libretto, is being confronted by incomprehensible theatre staging, unfathomable symbolism and above all: concepts! In the above-mentioned ‘palace of people’s ignorance’, the ladies in the audience would happily spend the time between two arias continuing with their knitting projects. In our day, we are expected to chew over our food for thought. A pair of knitted winter socks would seem to us to be infinitely more productive.
Opera Classica Europa
However, not all is gloom and doom. Opera Classica Europa is an enthusiastic advocate of fine, unpretentious opera. This organisation, established in Germany, is led by the tireless American-German tenor Michael Vaccaro, who moved from the United States to Germany in 1988, and performed a wide range of tenor roles in theatres in Turin, Seoul, Frankfurt, Florence, Dubrovnik and San Remo, to name but a few. Roles ranging from Tamino in Die Zauberflöte to Tassilo in Gräfin Mariza and from Barinkay in Der Zigeunerbaron to Zarewitsch in Der Zarewitsch by Franz Lehar. As founder and artistic director of Opera Classica Europe, he has presented his own opera productions and concerts since 2004, in the most beautiful historic locations in Germany and other European countries, often in the form of enchanting open-air events. His 23 (!) productions include Tosca, Der Freischütz, Norma, Aida e tutti quanti and have been seen in 11 European countries: that gives us 480 performances and 320,000 audience members.
Dem Wahren Schönen Guten (to the true, the beautiful, the good)
Opera Classica Europa’s motto is ‘Dem Wahren Schönen Guten’, the words which embellish the frieze of the Alte Oper in Frankfurt. The impressive Alte Oper, built in Neo-Renaissance style between 1877 and 1880, was largely destroyed in an air raid in 1944. An Action Committee was set up in 1953, for the reconstruction, but sadly the building was no longer suitable for the performance of operas. Staying true to the inscription ‘Dem Wahren Schönen Guten’, Opera Classica Europa stands for opera in its purest form, in which the composer, the librettist and their original autonomous work are held in respect. Once a year, Vaccaro organises an Italienische Operngala in the Alte Oper featuring highlights of the (that’s right) Italian opera. This is a concert of only arias and duets and is pleasingly non-posh: Today’s People benevolently describe it as a guilty pleasure, but we do not see the ‘guilty’ in it, only the ‘pleasure’. There is no time to spend on knitting (unless during the moderator’s introductions of each section), since the opera hits explode off the stage in quick succession. This year, the programme was all Verdi, with arias from Aida, La Traviata and Rigoletto. All the usual suspects were presented: ‘Caro Nome’, ‘Di Provenza’ and ‘Ritorna Vincitor’, rendered by four excellent soloists. For Latonia Moore, who just recently performed Serena in Porgy and Bess at The National Opera, Aida has become a signature role, although she left out ‘O patria mia’ with the famous/infamous high C on this occasion. Not to worry, her cast-iron ‘Ritorna Vincitor’ made up for that. Soprano Julia Musychenko, a delightful soprano in every way (with an amazing stage presence!), sang an elegantly phrased ‘Caro Nome’ and Irakli Kakhidze, a true Verdi tenor, gave us a ‘Celeste Aida’ which conjured up images of a noble clarion call. Korean-born baritone Sangmin Lee was given a permanent appointment at the Dresden Semperoper in 2007. Although perhaps not the singer to move most flexibly on stage, he impressed in Frankfurt with ‘Cortigiani, vil razza dannata’ from Rigoletto and, of course, ‘Di Provenza il mar, il suol’ from La Traviata. The somewhat understaffed Rhein-Main-Philharmoniker, conducted by the likeable Hans-Friedrich Härle (I dined with him after the concert: what a charming and amusing personality) played with audible enjoyment, and to your reviewer’s great pleasure and relief, the overture La Forza des Destino was absent (we’d been dreading it for days). De overture I Vespri Siciliani (now we’re talking!) was the concert opener that evening, and we were very satisfied with that. It would have been even better with a few extra string players. Show time was 6 p.m. (why don’t we do that in the Netherlands?), leaving ample time after the musical delicacies already enjoyed, for a well-organised evening meal. Mission accomplished, with the greatest of pleasure.
Opera Classica Europa will be coming to the Netherlands on 20 July 2019, performing Die Zuberflöte at Kasteel Limbricht. You will find all the information through this link: http://www.operaclassica.de/spielplan/138-zauberfloete-200719#dfesp19
Olivier Keegel (published on 9 April, 2019)