A Major Revival
GIUSEPPE PENNISI reports on
bel canto in Europe
A major revival of bel canto is being featured this early summer in Western Europe. There are two salient events: a major tour of tenor Juan Diego Flórez in the main European capitals, and the Salzburg Whitsun Festival (directed by Cecilia Bartoli). I was able to catch Flórez on 24 May 2012 during his stop in Rome. (The tour started in London and will end in Salzburg during the Summer Festival.) I listened to Bartoli's Giulio Cesare in Egitto on the radio and hope to see a live performance in August when the much acclaimed production is to be revived before being leased to other theatres.
These are only a few signals: just in Italy the Taormina Festival and the Rome Terme di Caracalla Festival will have as their main work the best known bel canto opera: Bellini's Norma. A production of Bellini's I Puritani is touring opera houses and provincial towns in Northern and Central Italy.
Bel canto is defined as a style of singing that 'emphasizes beautiful tone and a brilliant technique rather than dramatic expression' (Harper's Dictionary of Music, Barnes & Noble, New York, 1973 page 35). True enough, musicologists and opera-goers do not agree on a clear-cut perimeter for bel canto: the style was very popular in Italy (and also in France) in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and it moulds Bellini's operas, quite a few of Donizetti's operas and some parts of Rossini's operas. However, many authors consider Mozart's operas as the typhoon which overthrew bel canto, whilst others include Mozart's vocal numbers in Italian style as part bel canto. Verdi's coloratura and agility arias (up to La Traviata) are also included in the bel canto style.
On 24 May 2012, the 2,800 seat Sala Santa Cecilia in Rome's Parco della Musica was as crowded as a football stadium for the concert of Juan Diego Flórez, with Vincenzo Scalera at the piano. Also, Flórez received ovations like in a sports arena even though the concert did not include the most familiar bel canto pieces but was built on less known arias (including Rossini's delightful and rare nostalgic and patriotic péché de vieillesse) by composers from Italy (Bononcini, Ciampi, Piccinni, Rossini and Donizetti), France (Meyerbeer, Gounod, Lalo and Offenbach) and Spain (Padilla, Lacalle Garcìa and Soutullo). Many of these composers are familiar only to bel canto specialists. The audience acclaimed Flórez so much that the tenor offered three encores: very well known arias from Elisir d'Amore, La Fille du Regiment and Rigoletto. Flórez is thirty-nine years old; he had a sudden world-wide success when he substituted for a colleague in Rossini's Matilda di Shabran at the 1996 Rossini Opera Festival (ROF) in Pesaro (where he now lives with his family). His voice and especially the emission and the high C's are as fresh as they were eighteen years ago. His timbre is very clear. He must select his roles very carefully -- as Alfredo Kraus did -- not to darken his voice; this means, for example, that he must not fall into the trap of indulging in Verdi's operas. They spoiled Pavarotti's voice which was sublime in bel canto when he was young. Flórez is right is making a European tour with lesser known bel canto composers and arias. The young generations seem to appreciate bel canto vocalizing: after melodrama, musikdrama, verismo and other styles of music theatre, bel canto is an immense mine where there is a lot to discover.
Vincenzo Scalera (left) and Juan Diego Flórez at Sala Santa Cecilia in Rome. Photo © 2012 Musacchio & Ianniello. Click on the image for higher resolution
Let us now quickly turn to Giulio Cesare in Egitto by Georg Friedrich Händel, one of the four items of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival (17-20 May 2012). The Festival subject was Cleopatra. Thus, Giulio Cesare in Egitto was its main dish. With Il Giardino Armonico ensemble conducted by Giovanni Antonini and with stage direction by Patrice Caurier, Cecilia Bartoli was a sensual Cleopatra. Caesar was the countertenor Andreas Scholl, Cornelia: Anna Sofie von Otter and Sextus: Christophe Dumaux. A top-notch cast. Giulio Cesare in Egitto is a milestone in opera history: the characters are very well designed in their psychological development (a rarity in baroque musical theatre) but also due to the use of recitatives with orchestral accompaniment which explode in arias. Musically the performance was excellent.
The Salzburg Whitsun Festival proved that music does not need to be a bottomless pit of taxpayers' money. More than 10,500 visitors from thirty-nine nations attended the Festival. This means that a 96% share of tickets was sold, confirming that the new concept has met with full audience approval. 'It is a Whitsun miracle for the Salzburg Festival too', exclaimed Festival President Helga Rabl-Stadler. 'An enormous artistic success, thanks to the wonderful Cecilia Bartoli and the artists and programs chosen by her. Glorious weather and an extraordinary financial success. The Whitsun Festival is no longer the little sister of the Summer Festival, but a jewel that shines on its own.'
Anne Sofie von Otter as Cornelia in Handel's 'Giulio Cesare in Egitto' at the Salzburg Whitsun Festival. Photo © 2012 Hans Jörg Michel. Click on the image for higher resolution
'I am profoundly happy about Cecilia Bartoli's enthusiasm, her unflagging passion for music and her wealth of ideas' said Artistic Director Alexander Pereira. Impressive audience growth rates came from the core countries of Austria, Germany and Switzerland, but also from countries not represented to this degree during past seasons at the Whitsun Festival. Thus, France has eclipsed Switzerland as the country with the third-largest contingent of visitors. Russia now equals the USA's share of visitors. Thus, even during the first year, the Festival has become measurably more international.
Another positive aspect is that customers followed the thematic journey, many of them choosing the offered subscription (at least one opera and three concerts). Thus, the number of subscribers increased fourfold since the past year. Ticket sales (1,135,000 euros) make this the year with the highest revenues since the founding of the Whitsun Festival. The Press Office accredited 103 journalists from fourteen countries, including Russia and Japan.
Cecilia Bartoli as Cleopatra and Andreas Scholl as Giulio Cesare in Handel's 'Giulio Cesare in Egitto' at the Salzburg Whitsun Festival. Photo © 2012 Hans Jörg Michel. Click on the image for higher resolution
Giulio Cesare in Egitto was recorded by Bel Air Media and Clasart Classic as co-producers in cooperation with ARTE France, and was broadcast live (with a delay) on 27 May 2012 by ARTE and re-broadcast on 28 May by ORF 2. Next year Salzburg Whitsun Festival will take place from 17-20 May 2013, under the motto Sacrifice Victims (such as those who were castrated for singing). Subscriptions may be pre-purchased now. Any remaining individual tickets will go on sale, subject to availability, on 15 October 2012.
Copyright © 5 June 2012 Giuseppe Pennisi,
GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL
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