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Monstrous Media

64th Settimana Musicale Senese:

Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia (July 14)

Concerto Italiano, Monteverdi's Orfeo (July 11)

Cappella della Pietà de' Turchini (July 10)
The 64th Settimana Musicale Senese officially opened on Saturday night here in Siena, with a performance of Verdi's Requiem Mass by members of the Rome Opera. It took place in the Chiesa di Sant'Agostino, now converted into a performance space, and was broadcast live on a large screen in the square next to the church. (I heard the performance but am not reviewing it.) The main event of the festival's opening was a new opera presented in the Teatro dei Rozzi, a small but charming space on the Piazza dell'Indipendenza.

The stories of Guy de Maupassant recently came up as a good source for new opera libretti, in my review of Stephen Hartke's The Greater Good. On Sunday night, another composer premiered an opera derived, in name only, from Maupassant's Poe-inspired horror story La mère des monstres (1883). Maupassant's title character was an enterprising peasant woman who tried to abort an unwanted pregnancy with a corset device that malformed her developing child by constricting it in the womb. With entrepreneurial skill, she leases the child to circus impresarios and proceeds to have more "monsters" to feed the demand for freaks. The Fondazione Accademia Musicale Chigiana commissioned Fabio Vacchi's La Madre del Mostro, a one-act opera for four soloists and chorus that updates the story to modern Italy and changes it considerably.

Michele Serra's adaptation features a mother and a father, Maria and Gianluigi, seemingly a normal middle-class couple, with a monstrous son, Niccolò. If monstrous is the right word to describe the fact that his mother indulges him and he treats his father badly, that is. The son loves the Italian national soccer team above all other things, and he enters waving an Italian flag. When Niccolò and his father have a fight, the son leaves the house and returns to the soccer stadium, where he is killed in a riot. Maria sends her husband back out after Niccolò and then watches the whole thing transpire on the television (the chorus reports that it sees a crowd, with chains and knives), and that is where Vacchi and Serra's opera is making its main point.

The real monster, the libretto eventually tells us, is the medium of television. In the first scene, Gianluigi wakes from his sleep in front of the TV. He has lost the remote, and the television is stuck on a station that broadcasts an inane mixture of shocking news and banal advertisements, represented by a disembodied (recorded) chorus heard through amplification, all in silly rhymes. In the second scene, the mysterious personage of the Antennista, or TV repairman, appears. He has supposedly come to fix the television, which is not really broken. Apparently because he represents the mass media, he is not at all concerned with the family's troubles, even after the son's death. His final gesture is to hand the remote back to Maria, which we see her holding as the lights fade, uncertain whether she will turn the television back on or throw the remote away.

Fabio Vacchi (b. 1949)
Fabio Vacchi is a highly respected composer in Italy. Although he studied at Tanglewood in the 1970s, his operas have been produced only in Europe, in Paris and Lyon and in Italy, especially in his hometown of Bologna and at the summer music festivals in Florence and Siena. Vacchi set this story in a combination of styles, with the television chorus (sung well by the Arìon Choir del Collegio Ghislieri di Pavia) in a parody of Arvo Pärt's holy minimalism of mostly static chords. The mid-sized orchestra comprised of members of the Orchestra della Toscana, combined with live electronic sounds by Milan's Studio Barzan, tended to overpower the singers, on a stage further removed from the audience. Conductor Claire Gibault did her best to keep the often sprawling, even chaotic, expressionistic textures -- clusters, dissonant clashes, clicking of woodwind keys -- in line, but it is difficult to judge a complicated new work when the sound of the performers, even within sections, is not fully unified.

The Antennista enters in the second scene to hallucinatory electronic sounds, singing in a style that recalls traditional Asian music. Exaggerated gestures, reminiscent of Noh theater, reinforced this association, to the accompaniment of wind drones punctuated by percussive strikes. The son is often characterized by choppy music, with noisy col legno attacks in the low strings adding abrasion to his character. Concertmaster Andrea Tacchi handled numerous solos, some of them very high on the E string, especially in the fifth and sixth scenes, with confident skill.

Other Reviews:

Sandro Cappelletto, Vita e morte di un tifoso (La Stampa, July 10)
In addition to the lovely white tone of the invisible chorus -- the Arìon Choir's specialty is early music -- the solo cast was generally very good. As the mother, mezzo-soprano Gabriella Sborgi was rich-voiced and dramatically appealing. Her searing realization of Niccolò's death ("Troppo pieno di cose" in the fifth scene) was musically thrilling, with ringing high notes and a beautiful bassoon solo introduction. Bass Guido Loconsolo was an annoying but stentorian Niccolò, the monstrous son, and tenor Danilo Formaggia was convincing as the lazy and fed-up father. Formaggia had the best comic touches of the ensemble and high notes that, if not always beautiful, suited the exasperation of the character. Only baritone Bruno Taddia disappointed as the Antennista, not because of his voice, but because the direction given to his meddling character was way over the top. Although his costume instantly recalled the zany top-secret plumber (Robert de Niro) in Terry Gilliam's Brazil, the Antennista was less subtle wish fulfillment and more demented demon figure. The cold-hearted irony of his lines in the libretto needs no visual exaggeration.

The 64th Settimana Musicale Senese continues in Siena all this week, through July 14, and Ionarts will be bringing you several reviews. The highlight of the festival takes place this evening: a concert performance of Claudio Monteverdi's opera Orfeo in the Chiesa Sant'Agostino. Associated concerts continue throughout August, in Siena and nearby towns, in the 76th Estate Musicale Chigiana, including performances by violinist Giuliano Carmignola (July 21), harpsichordist Christophe Rousset (August 1), cellist Antonio Meneses (August 3), and pianist Maurizio Pollini (August 12).

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