Veritable verismo: blood, guts and all!
MY FIRST experience of opera as an adult was a double-bill of Stravinsky’s ‘Pulcinella’ and Busoni’s ‘Arlecchino’ in Johnstown Castle in 2007 which, for anyone who attended, was an experience on its own.
I remember greatly enjoying both offerings and when a double-bill was announced for this year’s festival I thought it was a good move that gives newcomers a digestible taster, and more regular goers a chance to see two variations on a similar style of opera.
Both Franco Leoni’s ‘L’Oracolo’ and Umberto Giordano’s ‘Mala Vita’ are verismo operas, works that are rooted in more realistic settings than the usual opera fare. That realistic world is usually a bit darker and grittier. We are shown two very different, real worlds in these two offerings.
‘L’Oracolo’ is set in early 1900s San Francisco, in the seedy opium dens of Chinatown where Cim Fen rules the streets but has his eye on a priceless jewel in the local merchant, Hu Tsin’s house. Across town, San Lui, the son of a respected doctor, is in love with Hu Tsin’s niece Ah-Joe. When Cim Fen kidnaps Hu Tsin’s son Hu Chi, however, things are headed for a bloody ending.
The most striking thing about this work, and its partnering work, is the set – a large, three-storey, rotating construction that bears all the hallmarks of a grimy back alley on one side, and a respectable neighbourhood, a merchant’s store, etc on the others. It allows for fluidity of movement that makes us feel like we are walking around the city with our characters, and gives dramatic effect to certain scenes like San Lui and Ah-Joe’s morning duet, which is also superbly lit.
Sergio Escobar as San Lui gives us a taster of his vocal range with a melodic hum; it is a precursor to his duet with Elisabetta Farris’s Ah-Joe that shows off a booming, powerfully emotional voice.
Joo Won Kang is suitably menacing as Cim Fen, skulking in and out of scenes, creeping around corners and nabbing his victim.
Leon Kim, as Uin Sci, is heartbreakingly convincing
as the bereaved father turned vengeful and his final scene is well portrayed as he first turns to brutal murder and dismemberment, before helplessly handing himself over to the police.
A special word has to go to the Children’s Chorus who bring a marvellously busy market and parade scene to life, interacting with the various stalls and vendors, all in full voice. Applause too has to be given to young Cillian McCamley as Hu Chi who, even at such a young age, commands a presence in his non-speaking role – dragging his father’s hand towards things in the market, or fleeing the evil Cim Fen.
The second offering, ‘Mala Vita’ sees some of the cast playing their second role of night, most notably Escobar as the leading man Vito, a young man dying of consumption.
Despite his tryst with a local married woman, he makes a pact with God to marry a ‘fallen woman’ if he should cure his illness, much to his mistress’s disgust. When prostitute Cristina enters the scene, the points
on the love triangle become ever sharper.
Escobar’s star shines brightly for the second time in the night in this opera, the decent, honourable man of ‘L’Oracolo’ morphing into a self-preserving and selfish one in Vito - the entire production is a calling card for his versatility and range. His duet with Francesca Tiburzi’s Cristina is rich and melodic. For her part, Tiburzi captures the vulnerability of her character, particularly in her interactions with Amalia, and in her shocking finale. She is the only character we can genuinely sympathise with in her plight.
Dorothea Spilger stomps in and out of the scene with great gusto and authority, and her vocal showdown with Cristina is a high point in the piece.
Musically, ‘Mala Vita’ is the stronger of the works with richer, more affecting moments of emotion, barring the fantastic duet between San Lui and Ah-Joe in ‘L’Oracolo’. Married together, an audience is given a nice rounded representation of the Italian realist movement.
Leon Kim, Benjamin Cho, Elisabetta Farris and Cillian McCamley in ‘L’oracolo’ by Leoni.