In today’s opera world, run over with esoteric opera directors pushing their entangled symbolic productions on to operatic stages, the musical and vocal values, the two most necessary components in presenting opera, often get lost in the shuffle. But not on November 12th and 13th, 2005, when two concert opera performances in New York City took on the frenzy of old- fashioned revival meetings causing their audiences to stand up and give a rousing toast to the musical dramas the Teatro Grattacielo Opera and the Opera Orchestra of New York bestowed on their public. For it was in the performances of Ruggerio Leoncavallo’s Zaza by Gratacielo and Gioachino Rossini’s William Tell by OONY that proved to be the special gifts their devoted fans have been hoping for and were finally delivered to them in bravura style.
The route of the delivery of each performance took different paths. The opera, Zaza, performed in the intimate setting at Alice Tully Hall was no doubt a starring vehicle for soprano Aprile Millo, who portrayed the musical theater singer, Zaza, with a true grasp of the role’s emotional turmoil, and who has on more than one occasion suffered the slings and arrows of music critics and a section of the operatic public. As with any performer who steps into the operatic spotlight, criticism has been both accurate and exaggerated, particularly comments about her emphatic acting style. The bottom line is when Millo is at her best, she displays a warm, lyrical voice capable of filling the house and has a particular vocal quality which is often associated with Italian sopranos of an earlier vintage with whom she identifies. When “on” the soprano cannot only be effective in performance but downright moving and in this performance she was able to give full value, not only to the musical expression so necessary in verismo but also delineate the beautiful Italian text.
There’s a good reason why Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana hold the distinction of being the best of verismo opera. Their stories catch the audience’s attention immediately, have strong dramatic content and are overflowing with abundant melodies that fit their passionate plots as they unfold. Their main strength is that the operagoer doesn’t have to wait very long for the personal conflict or seething jealousies to catch up with their driving fatalism. As with many verismo works like Zaza, one has to wait at least until the middle of the story for the drama to kick in and the pulse to quicken. For verismo lovers-and those who attended Zaza certainly were—the waiting seemed to grow into an emotional anticipation which then erupted into a burst of tormented exhilaration at the opera’s end, evolving into a sort of legal insanity.
One had to wait until the end of the third act of Zaza’s four acts for the pulse to climb. In a touchingly written scene between Zaza and Milio’s daughter, Toto, Leoncavallo developed an unusual mix of vocal expression filled with legato with interjected lines of dialogue. Milio, of course, is Zaza’s lover, and the singer, learning of his infidelity, has come to his home to confront him. Instead, Zaza finds his young daughter there alone. Here, Millo combines vocal security with emotional delineation to bring the opera to its really first notable conflict. The soprano was aided by a young performer, Angelica Asaro, who, appearing to be around ten years old, and apparently a native speaker, declaimed her lines with a natural aplomb reminiscent of those child actors in a Victorio De Sica film, allowing for Millo and the youngster to develop a poignant exchange of each other’s feelings. Underscored by Toto’s tender but cautious approach to her music at the piano, Zaza begins to reflect on how she can no longer hold on to Milio now that she has met his open-hearted and loving daughter. It was at this moment that Millo floated into the “down right moving” aspect of her talent with an introspective, lyrical evocation of the dissolute life she has lead up to her encounter with Toto and thereby creating the verismo character which the audience has been hoping for. And luckily there was more of Millo’s Zaza to come with the duet between Zaza and Milio which ends the opera.
Leoncavallo understood the dynamics of opera as theater and knew how to write a finale which would hit that emotional pitch longed for in a successful conclusion. Here, as Millo expressed Zaza’s hurt and despair as she is about to dismiss her lover for good, the soprano’s voice opened up into round tones filled with intense, heated longings that soared out into Alice Tully Hall. With her final words to Milio, “Ma parti…metti ribrezzo,” “But go, you disgust me,” Millo, standing quite still, and looking out just to her left, all the while imagining that she sees Milio’s last steps as he turns the corner of the street, lets out a sob filled with sorrow, regret and despair, creating a cataclysmic sound that almost shook the house and brought the fervent verismo crowd to its feet.
The next evening, concert opera moved from the intimate setting of Leoncavallo’s story of a forlorn singer to OONY’s presentation of Rossini’s William Tell, an opera on the grandest scale at Carnegie Hall. Music Director, Eve Queler, using the critical edition from the “Fondazione Rossini di Pesaro”–in the original French–gave her artists many opportunities to engage in some valiant singing. An exciting addition to the performance was the New York Choral Society which sang the opera’s diverse ensembles and choruses with such clear attacks and natural aplomb projecting the chorus into the spotlight in Rossini’s last but most monumental work for the lyric stage.
Starting off, Queler proffered a balanced reading of Tell’s well-known overture. As the opening section moved from the pastoral warmth expressed so eloquently in the cellos and double basses and then to the violins, oboes and piccolos, we finally meet the famous galloping section where Queler seemed to hold back the trumpets not wanting them to sound overly bright or aggressive. It was as though she was trying to escape the vestiges of the music familiar to many as the Lone Ranger’s radio and television theme. Her reluctance seemed to rob the overture’s finale of its dynamic and wonderfully hectic quality that Rossini invested so adamantly and which everyone seems to love. But from then on, Queler and her performers dove in and rendered William Tell as the Grand Opera it truly is.
One of the chief musical innovations Rossini used to fill out his concept of Grand Opera was the rich and varied way he involved the chorus in so many of the opera’s scenes. Starting with the opening scene we first hear the chorus as Swiss villagers celebrating the Shepherds’ Festival in their idyllic and picture book landscape typical of many Swiss cantons. But as the story progresses, we find the villagers facing the soldiers of the tyrannical Gesler, the Austrian Governor of Switzerland. Rossini increases the dramatic tension by ending the act with two choruses: one, expressing the dominant hand of Gesler’s forces, and the other, Tell’s patriotic band of freedom fighters. By producing this striking musical conflict, it not only accentuates Tell’s bitter struggle in lifting the heavy yoke of the Austrians, but also fulfills one of the basic tenets of grand opera, dramatic heroics.
In Act Two, Rossini’s inspiration took him to a new level of melodic insight for which he not only composed some of his most beautiful choral music, but deftly placed the ensuing drama in three equal sections, each one representing the three clans who have gathered in the picturesque Swiss countryside to join Tell and his compatriots in their communal desire for freedom. Rossini musically varied each chorus, underscoring their appropriate emotional yearnings. The first clan, the men of Unterwald, anticipate the dangers inherent in overthrowing their Austrian oppressors; the second, the men of Schwyz, reflect on their sorrow and loneliness that oppression has brought to their idyllic life; and, finally, the clan from Uri, arriving by boat, bolder in their determination than the others, stand ready for the challenge that awaits them. Here, Rossini’s particular brand of patriotism comes to full flower as an expression of love of country buoyed by an idyllic way of life in alpine Switzerland. In the finale, all join in a call to arms with music that is both courageous and full of heroic sentiment. Here, the chorus shined in clear, delineated French that matched Queler’s overall prowess in uniting all three: orchestra, soloists and chorus in Rossini’s paean to freedom. The audience, also swept up in this robust affirmation, brought forth the first of three thrilling ovations that made up one glorious evening of live opera.
In Act Four, the aural parameters of live opera almost set off a volcanic eruption within the space now known as Carnegie Hall’s Isaac Stern Auditorium. Marcello Giordano as Arnold, a Swiss patriot, arrives at his family’s home to express his sorrow over his father’s murder at the hands of the Austrians. In the aria, “Asile hereditaire,” a piece of tenor splendor and touching musical refinement, he recalls his deep love for his father. Then in a rousing allegro section, Arnold calls on his compatriots to assist him in his plan for revenge. The scene, known throughout the opera world as possibly the severest test of a tenor’s vocal prowess, is written in a flowing line that is not only demanding in regards to its repeated phrases but is interspersed with 6 high C’s, two of which are sustained for a full measure that can easily tax the breath in the worst way or float on the breath in the most joyous .
On this night, Giordano and joyful singing became synonymous.
The tenor, pacing back and forth as if to gather strength in order to propel those clarion notes out into the house, discovered to his delight that the Choral Society’s clear and full-bodied responses to his “Amis, amis, secondez ma vengeance,” in his great opera scene was ecstatically emerging as a duet. And heaping pleasure upon pleasure, he repeated the cabaletta with the same dynamic force and pitch-perfect high C’s as before, driving the audience to a
heart-pounding, thunderous ovation. It all came together as grand opera, the moment Giordano turned to his chorus and applauded their stalwart singing, turning this glorious moment into a clear demonstration of how great singing never fails to produce such a singular, highly-charged reaction from an appreciative audience.
Of course, we can never know for sure whether Rossini knew that this would be his last opera, but what we do know is that he concluded his opera with one of the most beautiful and musically sonorous endings that the opera world has ever been privileged to hear. The composer brought his unblemished hero, William Tell, his loyal soldiers and fellow citizens, his family and Tell’s beloved Mathilde, the Austrian princess, now a Swiss patriot, together for the last scene, to sing Rossini’s vibrant, densely harmonic ode to liberty — one that began with heavy rain clouds that hovered over the sweeping purge of their Austrian oppressors, soon revealing a bright, azure sky highlighting the dioramic snow-covered mountains and lush green valleys. This finale, certainly a tribute to Rossini’s musical genius, also became a tribute to Queler, her orchestra, soloists and chorus from the audience who in its final ovation, stood and cheered showing that this concert opera had fulfilled everyone’s desire for a great night at the opera.