06 April 2014

CD REVIEW: Francesco Cilèa – L’ARLESIANA (G. Filianoti, I. Tamar, M. Bunoaica, F. Landolfi, K.-E. Lee; cpo 777 805-2)

Francesco Cilèa - L'ARLESIANA (cpo 777 805-2)

FRANCESCO CILÈA (1866 – 1950): L’arlesianaGiuseppe Filianoti (Federico), Iano Tamar (Rosa Mamai), Mirella Bunoaica (Vivetta), Kyoung-Eun Lee (L’innocente), Jin Seok Lee (Marco), Francesco Landolfi (Baldassare), Juan Orozco (Metifio); Opernchor und Kinderchor des Theater Freiburg; Camerata Vocale Freiburg; Philharmoisches Orchester Freiburg; Fabrice Bollon, conductor [Recorded in Konzerthaus Freiburg, Rolf Böhme Saal, Freiburg, Germany, 12 – 17 July 2012; cpo 777 805-2; 2CD, 105:57; Available from jpc and major music retailers]

​Francesco Cilèa's L'arlesiana is an imperfect opera, and its composer knew it. From the time of the opera's première in 1897 until his death in 1950, Cilèa returned to the score time after time, first consolidating its four acts into three for an 1898 production and later, at the instigation of his publisher, adding the celebrated Intermezzo in 1937. Like Offenbach's Les contes d'Hoffmann, L'arlesiana is an opera that defies easy classification, one of which its composer's truest intentions remain elusive. The presiding tone is one of pastoral lyricism, with even the famous 'lamento di Federico' shaped more by resignation than by unrestrained passion (a distinction lost in the caterwauling of many tenors who sing the number in concert or recital), but there are passages in which Cilèa seemingly aspired to a gutsier verismo aesthetic. The sensitive composer unquestionably regretted the loss of music necessitated by the restructuring of the score, but there can be little doubt that L'arlesiana in its three-act form is to be preferred to an edition that goes on longer. The quality of Cilèa's music notwithstanding, the opera's plot is a flimsy affair that can only be stretched so far. Still, the restoration of Federico's aria 'Una mattina m’apriron nella stanza'—rediscovered by this recording's Federico, Giuseppe Filianoti—in Act Three strengthens the drama and perhaps makes some amends for the disfigurement that Cilèa felt that his bruised score endured. There are pages in L'arlesiana in which there is more fat than sinew on the musical bones, but there are also scenes in which steaming marrow courses through fissures in the opera's skeleton. Flawed works of art are often those to which observers respond most profoundly: perhaps there is a sense of personal validation in the triumph of imperfection. Few—and probably Cilèa least of all—would make grandiose claims that L'arlesiana is a great opera. Like many of the scores that languish just beyond the fringes of the international repertoire, however, L'arlesiana is considerably more than the sum of its parts and, when performed with an integrity that accepts rather than attempting to apologize for its deficiencies, can prove a gratifying, gracious entertainment. Long absent from stages and recording studios, L'arlesiana here receives an opportunity to reveal its charms anew, and it is an opportunity seized with affection, advocacy, and adroitness.

Coinciding with concert performances in Konzerthaus Freiburg, cpo's recording transfers the immediacy and preparedness of the live performances into the clean acoustics of studio sessions. Though cpo's engineering is typically admirable, the fine playing of the Philharmonisches Orchester Freiburg is placed in a sonic space that sometimes sounds disappointingly one-dimensional, and both the choral voices and the higher-voiced principals lack richness and presence. The intermittent shallowness of the recorded sound does not diminish the excellent musical performance, however. Conducted with unflagging attention to detail by Fabrice Bollon, the performance benefits enormously from the conductor's intuitive pinpointing of the dramatic crux of each scene. The surprisingly wide range of colors in Cilèa's orchestrations is exploited in pursuit of dramatic intensity, and Maestro Bollon draws from the orchestra aptly Italianate sounds and phrasing that complements the vocal lines. The adults and children of the Opernchor and Kinderchor of Theater Freiburg and Camerata Vocale Freiburg sing with firm intonation and mostly acceptable diction. The singing of the children's chorus is charming at the start of Act Three, though it sounds as though Bach Cantatas or the music of Humperdinck's Kuchenkinder would be more familiar territory than Cilèa's raucous Farandole. The clarity of the part singing by both adult and juvenile choristers is enjoyable, though; and often missing from the performances of Italian choruses. For the reinstatement of Federico's aria in Act Three, Mario Guido Scappucci was engaged to orchestrate the music from Cilèa's recovered manuscript and to provide recitatives to place the aria in its proper context in Federico's duet with Vivetta, 'Non lo negar, non sei felice.' The skill with which Mr. Scappucci completed his task is revealed by the symbiosis with which his music conjoins with Cilèa's.

No member of the cast disappoints, and the consistency of singing among secondary rôles provides considerable pleasure. Mexican baritone Juan Orozco is a solid, aptly menacing Metifio, sounding quite content to take by force what he cannot win by allure. His performance in Act One is forceful, and there is something vaguely indecent in his singing of 'Mi diè gli ardenti baci' ('She has given me ardent kisses'). In Act Three, when Metifio resolves to abduct the girl from Arles, Mr. Orozco's voice brims with grim determination and defiance. South Korean bass Jin Seok Lee has more voice than Federico's uncle Marco needs, but it is a joy to hear the small part sung so capably.

L'innocente, Federico's disadvantaged brother, is sung with vocal freshness and great feeling by South Korean mezzo-soprano Kyoung-Eun Lee. The voice is unmistakably feminine, but the poise and precision of Ms. Lee's singing count for much. In the opera's opening scene, her exchanges with Baldassare and Rosa Mamai display the eagerness and slight ennui of an impressionable boy, and the relish with which Ms. Lee's L'innocente spies on his brother in the hayloft is quaintly comical. The unaffected sincerity of Ms. Lee's singing in Acts Two and Three palpably conveys both the scope of L'innocente's love for his brother and the extent to which he depends upon Federico. The fruitiness of Ms. Lee's timbre is not ideal for her rôle, but the spirit of her performance compensates, and the quality of her vocalism is self-recommending. Romanian soprano Mirella Bunoaica sings ably as Vivetta, the simple village girl who inevitably loves Federico, but her thoughts remain focused more on the notes than on her character. Her fervor is of the generic variety, and there is little romantic wonder in her performance. Nevertheless, she sings pleasantly and produces some lovely tones in the upper reaches of Vivetta's music. She partners Federico effectively, particularly in Act Three, and her singing of ‘Se, come amo, sapessi farmi amare’ and ‘Sono respinta…Tutto il mio core’ in Act Two are the most emotive portions of her performance. Were she granted the experience of a staged production of L'arlesiana, Ms. Bunoaica would likely make a very touching Vivetta. She needs only to hone her dramatic instincts to match the accomplishment of her youthfully effervescent singing.

Baritone Francesco Landolfi sings crisply and powerfully as Baldassare, launching the performance with a rousing account of ‘Come due tizzi accesi,’ the aria in which he recounts the dramatically significant tale of the brave goat who battles the wolf all through the night but loses her fight at dawn. Having already sung Rigoletto under Riccardo Muti’s direction and other Verdi rôles, Mr. Landolfi discloses an exciting voice of silk and steel, and his singing of Baldassare encompasses both great tenderness in his interactions with L’innocente and formidable strength of character in his dealings with the increasingly unhinged Metifio. Mr. Landolfi distinguishes himself in every phrase that he sings, and the distinction of his contributions to this performance of L’arlesiana suggests that he is an artist whose singing of Italian repertoire will rise to prominence in future seasons.

Had Mascagni’s Santuzza left Sicily after Turiddu’s death in Cavalleria rusticana and settled along the banks of the Rhône, she might have started a family and been transformed into Cilèa’s Rosa Mamai. In Iano Tamar’s performance, the similarities between the rôles are highlighted intriguingly. With an active repertoire including rôles ranging from Mozart’s Donna Elvira to Richard Strauss’s Elektra, the Georgian soprano is a reliably feisty performer, and the zest of her singing of Rosa Mamai in this performance of L’arlesiana ups the ante in every scene in which she appears. The character’s pride and protectiveness of Federico are vividly communicated, and from Rosa Mamai’s agitated first entrance—‘O Dio, nessuno ancora’—Ms. Tamar sings with immediacy and growing anxiety. In ‘Era un giorno di festa,’ in which Rosa Mamai tells Vivetta of the origins of Federico’s infatuation with the girl from Arles, Ms. Tamar’s singing discloses her suspicion of the mysterious girl, and the desperation in her exhortation to Vivetta to mimic the Arlesiana’s charms, ‘Stringi un po’ più il corsetto,’ is wrenching. The bitterness of Rosa Mamai’s paean to the special hell of motherhood, ‘Esser madre è un inferno,’ is potently conveyed in Ms. Tamar’s performance, but the doubt and irony of her prayer in ‘Signor! Tu che hai voluto’ are tempered by genuine longing for divine aid. Like Santuzza, Rosa Mamai is now usually sung by mezzo-sopranos—on the sparse occasions when the opera is sung at all, that is—but was first sung by Minnie Tracey, an American soprano who included among her repertoire Wagner’s Elisabeth and Isolde. Ms. Tamar is a suitable successor to her rôle’s creator, her voice still vibrant and secure throughout the range required by Rosa Mamai’s music. A few passages challenge Ms. Tamar’s stamina, but she emerges unscathed, and she offers a persuasively complete portrait of Rosa Mamai.

The rôle of Federico was created by Enrico Caruso, but it was one of the few of his preferred characterizations that he was never permitted to share with audiences at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. It is the celebrated ‘lamento di Federico’ that has granted L’arlesiana what tremors of life it has had in the past half-century, but the part contains much memorable music. It is obviously a rôle for which Giuseppe Filianoti harbors considerable fondness: as Caruso understood and Ferruccio Tagliavini confirmed, the part is a gift for an Italian lyric tenor with a plaintive timbre and an aptitude for dulcet expressivity. Mr. Filianoti’s bronzed, slightly nasal voice is at home in Cilèa’s music, and the care that he takes in creating a rounded portrait of Federico is encouraging. The ringing nonchalance of his singing of the inebriated ‘Nel colmo del piacer cantiamo, amici’ is diverting, and there is a captivating honesty in his performance of the lamento, ‘È la solita storia del pastore.’ There is not a trace of artifice in Mr. Filianoti’s delivery of ‘Oh, come dolce e grande è l’amor tuo,’ surely one of the most frank statements of filial love in opera, and it is obvious in ‘Va, disperdi ogni triste pensiero’ that his Federico’s search for salvation in Vivetta’s love is half-hearted. ‘Una mattina m’apriron nella stanza’ is a significant discovery, and the diligence of Mr. Filianoti’s performance of the aria fully justifies its inclusion. The tessitura of Federico’s music is comfortable for Mr. Filianoti, and though his singing is not without strain at the top of the range the effort dependably yields sure pitch. The tenor’s artistry is thoughtful without being ostentatious or vulgarly flamboyant: ultimately, his Federico is a small-town boy whose head has been turned by a seductive hallucination, but the probity of his performance ennobles the character and aggrandizes the opera’s tragic impact.

This recording of L’arlesiana is a gift to the listener who values the Arcadian vein of Italian lyric theatre. Fallible and at times unpolished like the score that it presents, the performance committed to disc by cpo makes a plausible case for the engrossing musical and dramatic attributes of L’arlesiana. Regrettably, the current state of the Classical recording industry prevents the documentation of the work of most of today’s gifted singers in their best rôles, but the preservation of Iano Tamar’s Rosa Mamai and Giuseppe Filianoti’s Federico is especially fortuitous. No one should be more grateful than Cilèa.