Cilea: L'arlesiana / Cilluffo , Sicilia, Caradja, Vestri, Antonucci [blu-ray]

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A MusicWeb International Recording of the Month!

Francesco Cilea, a Calabrian, is remembered principally today for his opera Adriana Lecouvreur (1902), He wrote several other operas but these are rarely performed. Quite a discovery, this is the world première on commercial video of Cilea’s three act opera L’Arlesiana (The Girl from Arles). It is directed by Rosetta Cucchia and is a co-production with Wexford Festival Opera. The Italian libretto by Leopoldo Marenco was based on the play L’Arlésienne (1872) by Alphonse Daudet one of the most celebrated of his collection of short stories Letters from my windmill (Lettres de mon moulin). It was Georges Bizet who wrote the incidental music to the play L’Arlésienne, adapted and produced by Léon Carvalho, which flopped although Bizet’s music prospered.

Originally in four acts, Cilea’s verismo score was first performed in 1897 at Teatro Lirico di Milano with a young Enrico Caruso in the role of Federico. Nevertheless in 1898 the score was revised as a three-act opera with a prelude added. Over the next 44 years Cilea made a number of revisions. In 2011 whilst going through the collection of Cilea’s papers in Palmi the Italian tenor Giuseppe Filianoti unearthed the manuscript of Federico’s aria Una mattina m’apriron nella stanza that had been cut from the four act version. Filianoti had the Una mattina orchestrated by composer Mario Guido Scappucci and it is here included in Act 3.

This psychological drama revolves around Federico, a young shepherd, who becomes increasingly infatuated with a mystery woman from Arles (L’Arlesiana). As his mental state deteriorates Federico’s infatuation becomes a dangerous obsession which the people around him are unable to assuage. The woman from Arles is traditionally never shown but here she is depicted by an actress with long red hair as an apparition that haunts Federico. In the traditional ending Federico jumps to his death out of a hayloft window, whilst in this production by director Rosetta Cucchi, our hero takes his life by slashing his own throat. The elephant in the room, and maybe one of the reasons why this opera is rarely performed today, is that the plot includes an important character which is Federico’s brother, referred to as L’Innocente, who is cognitively impaired and is described in the booklet as “mentally retarded”. Mental health can be a difficult subject to broach as several reviewers of recent productions fail even to mention L’Innocente. Running through the score is the prevailing theme of mental illness and it seems that Cilea during his youth witnessed his own mother’s mental breakdown.

Sarah Bacon’s set and Claudio Pernigotti’s costumes are mainly contemporary with the opera’s composition date except for a few modern touches. Bacon’s set is the courtyard of the whitewashed Provençal farm-house that by Act 3 has become the inside of a ward in a mental home with an elevated caged area for confinement.

Russian tenor Dmitry Golovnin plays the role of Federico. It took me some time to warm to Golovnin’s bright vocal, nevertheless by Federico’s famous Lament the 2 aria È la solita storia del pastore (track 14) a favourite of Gigli, Di Stefano and Pavarotti, Golovnin’s voice has opened splendidly displaying fluidity and focus. It’s a moving account with the anguished Federico lying on the kitchen table and his brother L’Innocente cowering underneath. In act 3 the tenor’s aria Una mattina (track 21) receives a splendidly moving rendition and Golovnin can be justly proud of his portrayal of the tormented shepherd.

Luckless and long suffering Rosa Mamai is given a characterful and suitably anguished portrayal by Annunziata Vestri. With plenty of steel in her expressive voice the Italian mezzo-soprano excels in her Act 1 Romanza Era un giorno di festa (track 6) and the great Monologue from Act 3 Esser madre è un inferno (track 23). Designer Claudio Pernigotti sees fit to dress Rosa mannishly in a grey jacket buttoned up to the neck rather in the manner of James Bond villains Dr. No, Blofeld and Drax.

Cutting a persuasive figure on stage, if dressed rather too stylishly for an old shepherd, was Stefano Antonucci as Baldassarre. Complete with limp and walking stick the compassionate Baldassarre dispenses sage-like advice that no one seems to heed. From Act 1 the old shepherd’s aria Come due tizzi accesi (track 3) and from act 2 Vieni con me sui monti (track 6) are effectively sung, expressive and focused by the Italian baritone who acts sensitively throughout.

The part of the demure and girlish Vivetta is capably sung by the Italian Mariangela Sicilia. Dressed mainly in grey and hiding behind her winter tweed coat and hat it was a surprise when Vivetta undresses down to her underwear in a pitiful attempt to seduce Federico. From Act 1 Vivetta’s Romanza Dalle fresche pendici is sung effectively by Sicilia with a bright, flexible and warm soprano, although, I am not entirely convinced by her diction.

Looking like a fearsome pantomime villain baritone Valeriu Caradja in the small role of swarthy horse-herder Metifio is suitably dark and angry.

It’s a local superstition that a child such as L’Innocente brings good fortune on a household. In this household only Baldassarre pays the boy any attention. Marked by a shock of blonde hair L’Innocente is played by counter-tenor Riccardo Angelo Strano. In what is more of an acting role L’Innocente does slightly contribute vocally but nothing too serious.

Francesco Cilluffo conducts his Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana with verve and assurance. Similarly the well prepared 'Coro Lirico Marchigiano V. Bellini' maintains the high standard.

As I expected from Dynamic, the sound quality is satisfactorily balanced and agreeable, being clear, if a touch lacking in warmth. In High Definition the picture quality is most pleasing with an excellent definition. The accompanying booklet includes translations of a splendid essay by Giancarlo Landini and an informative note by director Rosetta Cucchi. The synopsis provided is a traditional scenario and is not totally in step with what we saw on stage under Rosetta Cucchi’s direction.

Filmed at Teatro Pergolesi, Jesi, Ancona the video direction by Tiziano Mancini is admirable, employing cameras actively. This avoids fatigue or tedium. The audience at Teatro Pergolesi is only seen whilst taking their seats before curtain up. The camera fixes on the stage action and doesn’t break to any orchestral players in the pit for solos.

This is a strong production that generates considerable dramatic tension. For those with a particular interest in verismo this Cilea work is a real find and is easy to recommend.

– MusicWeb International (Michael Cookson)

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: DYN-57688

  • UPC: 8007144576882

  • Label: Dynamic

  • Composer: Francesco Cilèa

  • Conductor: Francesco Cilluffo

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Marchigiana Philharmonic Orchestra, Marchigiana Vincenzo Bellini Lyric Chorus

  • Performer: Annunziata Vestri, Dmitry Golovnin, Mariangela Sicilia, Stefano Antonucci, Valeriu Caradja