Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Fenice | Maria Stuarda | Charles and Camilla

My subscription at La Fenice guarantees that going to the opera is, except for the performance, a routine procedure. No surprises: same night of the week, same vaporetto hop, same streets, same seat. But walking from the Santa Maria del Giglio vaporetto stop last Tuesday evening for Maria Stuarda, I began to notice something was different.

It was the police. We saw the first group behind the opera house: eight of them, four in blue dress uniforms and four in dress fatigues. We crossed the bridge and rounded the rear of Fenice. There were several more groups of them in the narrow calle alongside the building, posted at each door. There must have been thirty more in the small square in front of Fenice, many of them, men and women, in the very fancy black uniforms with red and gold trim.

We went into the bar next door for a glass of prosecco and I asked the bartender what was going on.

He smiled ironically. "Il principe Carlo e sua Camilla." He winked.

That was a strange shock because there had been no preceeding buzz; unlike movie stars, it had been kept very quiet. Richard went in as soon as the doors opened, as usual, and I stayed outside to watch. I assumed that they would come by boat to the rear entrance, and went in to my seat.

I have a great seat. I got the subscription because I was tired of getting stuck in terrible seats. I am in the sixth row of the platea just off the center aisle. When I stood up and turned around, I could see preparations in the red and gold royal box. A very tense offical-looking man had positioned himself in the center aisle and watched the royal box like an eagle, receiving messages from his earplug and giving orders through his mouthpiece. The usual ushers were subordinated tonight to a higher command.

Charles and Camilla entered the royal box in a blaze of flash. All you could see was a swirl of light, silk, phosphorescent platinum hair, brilliant smiles; a pause; a wave; and the houselights went down.

It was a tough act to follow, and the singers demonstrated a little extra edge, which worked both for them (the two Queens) and against them (their Leicester, the tenor).

This production is shared by Teatro Verdi in Trieste, San Carlo in Naples, Massimo in Palermo . Sharing simple productions is a way of dealing with slashed subsidies. The unit set, modular and easily transportable, was a large, steeply raked maze. Navigating the maze comprised most of the stage action. Yes, it is symbolic; but it is also a cheap and unimaginative solution to the budget problem. It was lit various colors as the scenes progressed, but ended up being nothing more than an obstacle course for the singers. Fortunately, they were unhampered by cumbersome period costumes; instead, the costumes were minimalist simple, stylishly modern, in single colors with very Venetian jewel-tone sheens.

Sonia Ganassi, Elizabetta, is five months pregnant and got off to a rocky start, forced to stagger through the maze as if she were struggling for breath to sing all that complicated fioritura. Over the evening she became more and more dramatically convincing, her tone more even and commanding.

The same was true of Fiorenza Cedolins as Maria Stuarda. She sounded forced at the top, not as bright and easy as the high coloratura should have sounded. It is her first foray into this role, in want of some tuning. Below the stratosphere she was vocally secure and dramatically compelling.

Once again the problem was with the tenor. Fenice has been parading seriously inadequate voices in the tenor department. Roméo in March, both casts, was abysmal (Jonas Kaufmann was originally to have sung it, but dropped out early). Jose Bros was basically unacceptable. He often had trouble producing sounds, any sounds, let alone the music he was supposed to be singing. There were stretches where his tight nasal tenor was mellifluous, but not many. He was easily covered by the orchestra and the two women, but what are those duets and ensembles without the tenor? Not much, even though the girls sang like their lives depended on it. Real sparks flew between the two Queens, and that was when the opera happened.

After the interval the houselights dimmed to half-intensity, but not all the way. The security man was in the aisle listening and talking. It became apparent to the audience that they were waiting for the Royals to return to their box. The Italian women behind me (regulars) were muttering "get on with it" loudly.

At the end, after the various curtain calls, the audience turned to watch the Royals leave the Royal box. Their presence had influenced everything about the evening: the audience, the musicians, the staff. It was not another night at the opera. It was the night Charles and Camilla came to La Fenice. They smiled and waved. The audience applauded them warmly. They had come to Venice to go to the opera. That scored points.

[On the right is Albert's friend Luciano, who squired them around the house because he was considered the most knowledgeable person on the history and lore of La Fenice.]

Over the weekend Sir R. and Lady F. stayed our b&b. They had come to Venice for the weekend to attend a party at Villa Malcontenta, and Lady F. had gotten a tickets to the opera. I told them how Charles and Camilla had been there when I went.

"Oh, yes, I knew they were here," she said. "He loves opera."

I told them what I thought of the performance and the production. The next morning I chatted with them at breakfast.

"Enjoy the opera?" I asked.

"Smashing," he said. "But not one word of it is true, historically. Elizabeth and Mary never met."

"Operatic license, Italian style."

"We thought the two sopranos were marvellous, really. The tenor was the weak link. Although F. thought the soprano's high notes were a little off."

I was glad that it wasn't just me; that the tenor didn't cut the mustard for any one (his dutiful applause was lackluster; both sopranos got healthy ovations, as did, as always, the orchestra).

"I am always amazed that it is so difficult to find a good tenor, especially here, in Italy," I said to him.

"It's difficult to find a good tenor anywhere," he said. "The most difficult voice to fill; there are plenty of good sopranos and baritones and basses to choose from. But good tenors... they're hard to find."

You have to wonder why.

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