New York: Teatro Grattacielo’s 20th Anniversary Gala Benefit Concert

New York, Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, Teatro Grattacielo’s 20th Anniversary 
Gala Benefit Concert
The Teatro Grattacielo Orchestra
The Cantori New York Chorus

Musical direction Israel Gursky
Chorus director Mark Shapiro
Part I – Looking back: 1994 – 2014

Italo Montemezzi:
L’Amore dei tre re” –  Act I, scene 1
Franco Alfano: “Risurrezione” – Act IV
Un voce lontana  MEGAN MONAGHAN
Dimitri  RAÚL MELO
Pietro Mascagni: “Guglielmo Ratcliff” – Intermezzo, “Il Sogno”
Riccardo Zandonai: “I Cavalieri di Ekebù” –  Act I
Giosta Berling’s aria: “La chiesetta triste”
Ruggero Leoncavallo: “Zazà” – Act III
“Lei dunque è la Signora Dunoyer!…”
Part II – Looking forward, 2015 & Beyond
Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari:
“La Dama Boba” –  Overture
Umberto Giordano: “Siberia” –  Act II
Duet: “La polootapa della Steppa d’Omsk?”
Vassili  RAÚL MELO
Ottorino Respighi: “Belfagor” – Act I
Ipsilonne’s aria, “Alichino, lo vedi”
Licinio Refice: “Cecilia” –  Episodo III, Scene 2
Cecilia’s Death, “Grazie, sorelle”
Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari: “Il Campiello” – Act III
Finale – “Biondi, Venezia cara”
New York, November 18, 2014

Teatro Grattacielo was founded in 1994 and has been presenting operas in concert in New York City since 1997. The personal brainchild of financier-philanthropist Duane Printz, the company’s founding executive and artistic director, Teatro Grattacielo presents annual concert performances of operas that held the Italian stage from the 1890s to 1930s—yet many of which failed to find root in the international operatic repertoire. This period of operatic composition has been dubbed the “verismo” era in Italian opera – yet like the term “bel canto” applied to the primo ottocento period – the phrase is misleading, simplistic and innacurate. Rather than continuing in the vein of slice of life melodramas like “Cavalleria Rusticana” or “I Pagliacci”, these late 19th century/early 20th century Italian composers utilized subject matter that ranged from Parisian soap opera (“Zazà”), Indian legend (“Sakùntala”), Swedish literature (“I Cavalieri di Ekebù”), pseudo-Japanese allegory (“Iris”), Tolstoy (“Risurrezione”), the historical tragedies of Sem Benelli (“La Cena delle Beffe” and “L’amore dei tre re”) and Gabriele D’Annunzio (“La Nave”) to comic Spanish farce (“La Farsa Amorosa”). Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano, Montemezzi, Zandonai, Alfano, Cilea and Catalani were deeply influenced by international developments in 20th century musical composition and to varying degrees came under the spell of Debussy, Wagner, Strauss as well as late Verdi. Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari composed the most typically veristic work Grattacielo presented – “I Gioielli della Madonna” – but is also known for neo-classical works that harken back to 18th century opera buffa. These verismo period operas have in common a kind of musical eclecticism and a shift away from an emphasis on vocal writing to increasingly ambitious and massively symphonic orchestral composition.
For this 20th anniversary gala concert, Ms. Printz chose to revisit the company’s past triumphs while giving a tasting menu of delights to come in the second half of the program. Rather than concentrating on arias and duets, there were extended scenes and even whole acts presented. From Act I, scene one of “L’amore dei Tre Re”, Egyptian bass Ashraf Sewailam sang Archibaldo’s ode to Italy “Italia! Italia! É tutto il mio ricordo!” with a firm expansive but grainy tone that lacked the sonorous richness of a Pinza or Nazzareno de Angelis (the role creator). Israel Gursky conducted Montemezzi’s orchestration with a heavy bombastic hand – this opera has been described as a sort of Italianate “Pelleas et Mélisande” with transparent shifting harmonies. Alfano’s “Risurrezione” was first presented by Grattacielo in 2001 with a notably weak cast – including a tenor who was a last-minute substitute. The rich imposing soprano of Kerri Marcinko as Katiusha and the Italianate, sturdy-toned Raùl Melo as Prince Dimitri were better equipped to do justice to Alfano’s most successful opera. Alfano gives the most beautiful solo vocal music in the opera to the character of Simonson, the heroine’s savior and fiancé, who only appears in the final act set in Siberia. Stephen Gaertner’s rich baritone filled out the humanity and decency of the character while doing full justice to the broad, expansive melodies.
The heroes of Umberto Giordano’s “La Cena Delle Beffe” and Pietro Mascagni’s “Il Piccolo Marat” and “Isabeau” subject to the tenor to relentless declamation that sit squarely in the passaggio. The titular protagonist of “Ratcliff”, a raving psychopath, has a ranting voice-wrecking solo aria in Act II that lasts over ten minutes.   The intermezzo “Il Sogno” is the real highlight of Mascagni’s score with a yearning lilting melodic motive that echoes the first notes of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” while also evoking the more famous “Cavalleria” intermezzo. The Teatro Grattacielo Orchestra is an ad hoc group of New York-based freelance musicians but they were skilled and well-rehearsed and Maestro Gursky brought out the shimmering beauty of the piece. Raùl Melo returned with Giosta Berling’s aria, “La chiesetta triste” from Zandonai’s “I Cavalieri di Ekebù”. Melo’s secure technique and commitment to the material was evident here and elsewhere – he was the hero of the evening. A little tonal congestion in a few climactic forte phrases aside, he is a fully equipped professional with an attractive bright tenor sound. “Ekebù” which was presented complete in 2000 was something of a revelation. Zandonai created a distinctive musical tinta and vividly offbeat musical characterizations for Selma Lagerlöf’s strange tale of the defrocked minister Gösta Berling’s encounter with the dominating Commandante who takes in lost souls as pensioners in her all-male collective at her manor at Ekeby.
Soprano Aprile Millo in the latter part of her somewhat disjointed thirty year career has become something of a verismo specialist. Millo seems to be in permanent comeback mode – she disappears for long periods giving her fans cause to think she has retired. Then she will reappear out of obscurity to show us all how it should be done in between the phantom projects and cancellations. Her performance as the cabaret singer heroine of Leoncavallo’s “Zazà” in 2005 was a brilliant highlight of her career and Grattacielo’s. “Zazà” is a tearful melodrama of a naughty girl who reforms herself but it’s also a story of finally growing up by taking responsibility for your own choices and gaining control over your life. In Act III, Zazà discovers that her lover has a wife and innocent child in Paris who don’t know that she could shatter their secure happy lives as some other “other woman” did to her own family years ago, breaking up her home and turning her mother into an alcoholic wreck. Millo’s rich pomegranate tone, vivid textual pointing and a face that mirrored every nuance of the text and music all provided a master class in how to perform this kind of personality driven vehicle. As Zazà’s friend Natalia, Megan Monaghan displayed an attractively fruity lyric soprano that created a positive impression here and throughout the evening. Unfortunately the child who recited Totò’s lines into a microphone seemed to be parroting Italian words she did not comprehend nor could impart the meaning of to an audience.
The second half of the program began with Wolf-Ferrari’s sparkling overture to “La Dama Boba” – an attractive lyrical theme gives way to a sparkling allegro melody that resolves into an majestic finale. Maestro Gursky who had excelled in the Zandonai and Mascagni pieces needed a little lighter touch and more contrast between the musical sections here. He was much better handling the second act of Giordano’s “Siberia”. Tiffany Abban whose lush soaring soprano created such a positive impression in the killer role of Basiliola in Grattacielo’s exhumation of Montemezzi’s “La Nave” again impressed as the repentant seductress Stephana. Along with Ms. Millo, she provided the truly gala singing of the evening. Her rich soprano glowed in the exultant reconciliation duet with the hard-working Raùl Melo as Vassili.
Ipsolonne’s Act I aria from Respighi’s “Belfagor” seems to be a tour de force for a character baritone who catalogues various gastronomic delights in a patter type number. Stephanos Koroneos’ dry tenorial baritone lacked any kind of vocal glamor and Respighi composed more rewarding vocal music but it certainly intrigued the listener and piqued one’s curiosity about the piece.    
Aprile Millo has always seen herself as the successor to the great Italian spinto sopranos Claudia Muzio and Renata Tebaldi. Both these sopranos performed the title role of Licinio Refice’s “Cecilia” (as did Renata Scotto in 1976). Millo has been programming Cecilia’s two solo arias “Grazie sorelle” and the “Morte di Cecilia” in her piano recitals and concerts – but this was her first performance of the final death scene with orchestra. This was an extroverted, highly dramatic reading that I felt lacked spiritual repose and legato smoothness in places. A few high notes emerged rather thickly with more vibrato than I would have liked. In several passages, I felt that using more pianissimo dynamics would have given emotional and musical contrast. The final death throes were almost hysterical whereas I would have imagined more spiritual resignation building into ecstasy in this scene. This saint seemed to be defiant at the end loudly declaiming that she confides her soul to Christ.   Hopefully Teatro Grattacielo will provide Millo the opportunity to perform the entire opera soon and we will see how her interpretation evolves. In both her contributions, Millo was off book and totally in command of the material. Unlike many American singers in Italian opera, Millo gives a unique sense of owning the role and the style – a lost art these days. Even many contemporary Italian singers give off the aura of well-drilled students dutifully performing assignments.
The evening ended on a joyous note with Megan Monaghan leading the assembled soloists and chorus in the lilting waltz-like finale of Wolf-Ferrari’s “Il Campiello”. Though there were passing imperfections, conductor Israel Gursky handled the wide-ranging styles of the music extremely ably and kept firm control of the carefully rehearsed orchestra and chorus.
A century ago, conductors like Arturo Toscanini and Tullio Serafin and impresarios like Giulio Gatti-Casazza championed these works and brought them to the world’s stages. Unfortunately today this repertory is orphaned except for isolated revivals in the smaller Italian theaters and at the Wexford Festival. Most New Yorkers hear an endless loop of “Cavalleria”, “Tosca”, “Pagliacci” and “Andrea Chénier” with the occasional “Adriana Lecouvreur” thrown in. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Duane Printz for her personal vision, industry and love for this repertory. Not only does she bring these operas to the stage but she creates work for local musicians. These concerts have provided showcases for promising young singers like Tiffany Abban and in previous seasons Michelle Johnson, Stephen Gaertner and Manon Feubel not to mention seasoned vets like Aprile Millo looking to widen their musical horizons. Getting to know the other operas Mascagni, Leoncavallo and Giordano composed and the work of neglected composers like Riccardo Zandonai and Italo Montemezzi as well as forgotten composers like Primo Riccitelli and Franco Leoni is a precious gift to the opera lover. To hear these operas on old pirate recordings is one thing, but an unstaged live concert performance gives one a truer sense of how these pieces work (or don’t work) than any recording ever could. Here is to twenty more years of Teatro Grattacielo!