On the Beat
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On the Beat

On the Beat

Carlo Rizzi dusts off a verismo rarity at La Scala.
by Brian Kellow. 

On the Beat Rizzi lg 316
Illuminating the obscure: Rizzi leads La Cena delle Beffe
© Tessa Traeger

ONE OF THE MOST INTRIGUING mysteries in opera is why some of the popular verismo works of the first quarter of the twentieth century practically evaporated, as if they had never held the stage at all. (It particularly puzzles me why Pietro Mascagni’s Piccolo Marat, a ripper of an opera, stuffed with glorious melodies, continues to sleep, mostly undisturbed.) In April, La Scala will revive another verismo rarity—La Cena delle Beffe, Umberto Giordano’s steamy tale of infidelity and vengeance set in Renaissance Florence; MARIO MARTONE’s production stars MARCO BERTI, NICOLA ALAIMO and KRISTIN LEWIS, with CARLO RIZZI conducting.

When it bowed at La Scala in 1924, led by ARTURO TOSCANINI, La Cena delle Beffe was a big success. It made it to the Met two years later, starring FRANCES ALDA, BENIAMINO GIGLI and TITTA RUFFO, then faded from view, with occasional revivals, such as one at Wexford Festival Opera in 1987, featuring a young ALESSANDRA MARC. 

During a recent telephone interview, I asked Rizzi if there is still an audience in Italy hungering for these neglected verismo gems. “The public is quite open to it,” he says, “but with verismo, the way of expressing the words or even the music is so tied to that period of the early 1900s. Only a few operas can get over that period and become universally known. That’s why there are so many ‘one-opera’ composers in the verismo period. There’s a bluntness, a directness of approach. [Chénier’s] ‘Un dì, all’azzurro spazio’ is not an aria the way we expect it from Puccini. There’s a lot of recitativo, and the words have a meaning that is much more direct. In La Cena delle Beffe, Giordano tried different things. He’s using dissonance in a very dramatic way. La Cena delle Beffe was a well-known drama by SEM BENELLI, done many times in Italy by different companies. When Giordano asked for the rights to it, Benelli said, ‘I’ve already given the rights to someone else.’ Giordano wrote it anyway, without even having the rights. So this assumes that he felt deeply about it.”

Rizzi, who served as music director of Welsh National Opera from 1992 to 2001 and again from 2004 to 2008, finds Italian audiences more willing to embrace unusual repertoire than their British counterparts. But he wishes that presenters all over the world were more adventurous. “I have the feeling that maybe years ago, the public was more open,” he says. “When I propose unusual pieces today, the first reaction I get is, ‘We have to check with the marketing department, because we have to sell tickets.’ I know it’s the reality, but in a way, it’s sad. It should be part of the experience of music-making to bring something to the audience, and they can accept or reject it. So—applause to La Scala for putting on La Cena delle Beffe.”

EILEEN FARRELL ONCE SAID that when she was singing in Il Trovatore opposite JUSSI BJÖRLING, the sound that came out of him was so beautiful that she stood dumbstruck just listening to him, missing one cue after another. Back in 1999, OPERA NEWS ran a cover-story survey by IRA SIFF, who posed the question “What’s the Greatest Voice You Ever Heard?” to a wide range of celebrated singers. RICHARD LEECH, BLANCHE THEBOM and ELISABETH SÖDERSTRÖM, among others, named Björling. If I were to choose the most purely beautiful tenor singing I have heard, I might well vote for Björling’s “Instant charmant…. En fermant les yeux,” from Manon, one of the many intoxicating moments on the recording of his September 24, 1955 Carnegie Hall recital.

Now, the Jussi Björling Society USA unveils an undiscovered Björling treasure—a Copenhagen recital from October 15, 1959. According to Sue Flaster, speaking on behalf of the Society, the recording, brought to light by British collector John Haley, has just been released on the JSP label, with the engineering entrusted to the estimable SETH B. WINNER and CD booklet essays by HARALD HENRYSSON and OPERA NEWS contributor STEPHEN HASTINGS. spacer 

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