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Arena di Verona Opera Collection – Volume 1
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)   
Charles Francois GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Romeo et Juliette
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)    
Chorus and Orchestra of the Arena Verona/Giuliano Carella (Turandot), Fabio Mastrangelo (Romeo), Omar Meir Wellber (Aida)
rec. live, 2010-13, Arena di Verona, Italy
BELAIR CLASSIQUES Blu-ray BAC622 [3 discs: 453 mins]

Film and opera director Franco Zeffirelli is renowned for his direction of grandiose stagings of operas. I have not seen all his opera productions but I suggest none has been seen by more people than his Turandot for New York’s Metropolitan Opera. It gets regular airings in cinemas, when, as is often the case, a revival performance from the run at The Met is also featured in the season’s cinema transmission schedule, as is the case as I write this. I do not know if the staging at Verona was hired from the Met, but certainly there are significant similarities in respect of the palace scenes, although the Verona stage is larger even than that at the Met and the limitations of the many dark close ups on the Verona stage make it more difficult to determine whether that is so. Whatever the case, the persons on stage in Verona seem much larger in several scenes, which are often focused on people rather than giving total stage background and aspect. This is always the case in filmed performances and, seated in the cinema, one accepts it and makes allowances for any imbalances of perspective and dramatic impact.

The strengths of this performance, where the grandeur of some of the scenes is perhaps lost, are its musical standards, particularly the orchestra under the direction of Giuliano Carella whose dynamism and management of the sound picture is commendable, as is the singing of the major roles. Although the late Salvatore Licitra was no Domingo, his vocal strength is up to an encore of Nessun dorma (CHs 21-22). Sadly, he died young in a road accident, otherwise, I suggest, we would have heard more of him on the stages of the world’s theatres. Maria Guleghina has appeared in the eponymous role in other recordings and stagings. Her basically lyrical tone can, as here, seem a little stretched on occasion, but not as to mar her vocal performance overall. As Timur, Luiz-Octavio Faria sings with sonority if not perfect steadiness. As Liu, who sacrifices herself to save Calaf’s identity, Tamar Iveri gives an ideal vocal and acted performance. The character roles of Ping, Pong, and Pang are all adequately played, and sung, and, like the animated stage animals, add to the overall quality.

Puccini died before he was able to complete Turandot, leaving behind some thirty sketches for the ending, which was undertaken, at Toscanini’s invitation, by Alfano, since which time others, such as Berio for La Scala under Chailly in 2002, have added their completions. This performance uses the more traditional Alfano ending.

Verona, in the Veneto of Northern Italy, is where Shakespeare chose to set Romeo and Juliet. I suggest that it is safe to say that the utilisation of its large Roman amphitheatre was never in his mind at the time of the play’s creation; its vast area would have inhibited his creativity in respect of the need for intimate spaces as well as town squares and the like. Gounod, however, in his 1867 setting of it as an opera which follows more or less the exact sequence as that in Shakespeare’s play, had employed various different spaces, open air and closed intimate rooms etc., in his highly successful Faust of 1859 and he and his librettists used very much the same structure, both operas being in five acts having numerous scenes. Those were according to the minimum standards in Paris in the latter half of the century, as exemplified by Verdi’s Les vêpres siciliennes of 1855 and Don Carlos where five acts and a ballet were de rigueur. In this instance it is somewhat unexpected, to say the least, that the opening shows a relatively empty stage except for a large conglomeration of ladders. Of course, a ladder can play an important role in both Shakespeare’s play and Gounod’s opera as Romeo has to gain access to Juliet’s room. The designers utilize modernistic metal structures, on wheels, to represent her bedroom and other spaces such as Friar Lawrence’s church, and move them around the stage when open spaces are needed such as a town square for fighting between the two rival clans. These structures fulfil their function adequately, although the period costumes of the opposing clans and clergy set the scene and period more convincingly.

The performance sing musically under the sensitive baton of Fabio Mastrangelo who is idiomatic, sensitive, supportive of his singers and true to the composer. The cast is adequate; the Juliette of Nino Machaidze is beautiful to look at and even better in her singing and acting. Her lover, Romeo, does not match her vocal sensitivities and strengths, being tonally penny-plain and lacking tenorial mellifluousness. Elsewhere, the minor baritone and basso roles are sung and acted adequately. The movable futuristic stage sets are do nothing to complement the ambience of Gounod’s music, but in terms of modern staging, with Regietheater and concept productions dominant, at least they do not get in the way of the evolution of the story.
The Verona Arena, the third largest Roman Amphitheatre in the world, is now utilised as the world’s largest opera theatre for around eighty nights each summer, its stage area being around three times as large as that of major theatres. The seating for nearly fifteen thousand makes it by far the largest such opera performance venue. Its use in this manner commenced in 1913 with Verdi’s Aida, the grandest of grand operas. Since that inception, Aida has frequently appeared at the annual event, interrupted only by the World Wars. That original 1913 production has been paramount throughout, with many revivals and repairs, including parallel stagings of the ultra-modernisation of this production by the Catalan theatre group La Fura dels Baus, with Carlus Pedrissa and Alex Ollé as directors, Valentina Carrasco as choreographer and Roland Olbeter as scene designer. This new production of Aida celebrated the centenary of the first opera production at the Arena in 1913 and evinced the sonic improvements implemented in 2011.

Unusually, the opera opens on an empty centre stage space, graced only by what look like a couple of cranes. That situation changes significantly as the opera proceeds to include lifelike mechanical camels and elephants during the Grand March, featuring what must be several hundred extras, and seemingly swimming crocodiles in the Nile scene. From the Spartan scenic start, no opportunity, or expense, I suggest, is missed to make this grandest of operas a visual extravaganza, albeit that it uses the latest technology to the extent that the word “gimmicky” would not be inappropriate. The eye and ear are assaulted from the rear as well as the front and side in a manner a traditional theatre could never achieve; examples include inflated simulated sand dunes and large blocks of seeming stone, too heavy to move if they had been real. 

It takes a masterful cast to compete with such an extravaganza and not all the soloists match up to that description - although none is a disgrace to Verdi’s music or the history of performances at the Arena over the years. Hui He in the eponymous role makes a good stab at it, and in a normal, or even large theatre, would be more than acceptable. However, the amplification shows up some deficiencies in vocal evenness a factor also evident in other singers. Perhaps this is the result of a tendency to over sing when faced with the vast space and Verdi’s music in full dramatic mode; I hesitate to conjecture. Suffice it to note that even the large sized Ambrogio Maestri as Amonasro is not as vocally steady as usual. Giovanna Casolla as Amneris is convincing but lacks some vocal strength, while Fabio Sartori, as Radames, has hardly the figure du part of a romantic hero, but grows into the role vocally as the evening progresses. Although he is somewhat lightweight, Roberto Tagliavini’s smooth sonority makes him a convincing King.

Despite revivals being the name of the game here, such extravaganzas as this Aida, along with the rest of its annual repertoire, cause the Verona Festival to make a tidy hole in the generous annual subsidy for opera coming from the state and other sources. However, nearly fifteen thousand paying customers bring in a lot of money to the Arena and surrounding businesses and hotels, too. Most importantly, however, the stagings and environs introduce many new faces to opera.

Robert J Farr

Performance details
Turandot [128 mins]
Princess Turandot - Maria Guleghina (sop); Calaf - Salvatore Licitra (ten); Liù - Tamar Iveri; Timur - Luiz-Octavio Faria (bass); Emperor Altoum - Carlo Bosi (ten); Ping - Leonardo Lopez Linares (bar); Pong - Gianluca Bocchino (ten); Pang - Saverio Fiore (ten); Persian Prince - Angel Harkatz Kaufman (ten); Mandarin - Giuliano Pelizon (bar)
Orchestra of the Arena di Verona Foundation; Choir of the Arena di Verona Foundation/Giuliano Carella
rec. 2010, Arena di Verona
Stage Director, and Set Designer: Franco Zeffirelli
Costume Director: Emi Wada; Lighting Director: Paolo Mazzon
Choreographer: Maria Grazia Garofoli
Video Director: Eric Pedroni
Audio formats, 2.0 PCM. 7.1 DTS Master Audio. Picture Format, 1BD50, 1080i Full HD 16:9
Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, French, German, Spanish and Japanese

Roméo et Juliette [177 mins]
Count Capulet - Manrico Signorini (bass); Juliette, his daughter - Nino Machaidze (sop); Romeo, a Montague - Stefano Secco (ten); Mercutio - Artur Rucinski (bar); Tybalt - Capulet’s, nephew – Jean François Barras (ten); Friar Laurence, Giorgio Giuseppini (bass); Count Paris, Nicolo Ceriani (bar); Le Duc de Verona, Dejan Vatchkov (bass); Gertrude, Cristina Melis (mezzo-sop.); Benvolio, Romeo’s page - Paolo Antognetti (ten); Mercutio, Artur Rucinski, (bar)
Orchestra, Chorus and Ballet of Verona Arena /Fabio Mastrangelo
rec. 2011, Arena di Verona
Stage director: Francesco Micheli; Set Designer: Edoardo Sanchi
Costume Director: Sylvia Ayminino. Lighting Director: Paolo Mazzon
Choreographer, Nikos Lagousakus
Video Director: Andy Sommer
Audio formats, 2.0 PCM. 5.1 DTS Master Audio. Picture Format, 1BD50, 1080i Full HD 16:9
Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, French, German, and Spanish
Minimal cast information, no introductory data, cast or track listings.

Aida [148 mins]
Il Re, King of Egypt – Roberto Tagliavini (bass); Amneris, his daughter – Giovanna Casolla (mezzo-sop); Radames, captain of the guards – Fabio Sartori (ten); Amanasro, King of Ethiopia – Ambrogio Maestri (bar); Aida, his daughter - Hui He (sop); Ramfis, High priest – Adrian Sampetrean (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Arena Verona/Omar Meir Wellber
Stage directors: La Fura Dels Baus, Carlus Padrissa, Àlex Ollé
Set Design: Roland Olbeter; Costume Design: Chu Uroz; Lighting: Paola Mazzon
Video Director:?
rec. live June 2013, Arena di Verona
Sound format, 2.0 PCM. 5.1 DTS HD MASTER AUDIO. 1 BD50, 1080i Full HD 16:9.
Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, German, French, and Spanish



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