A pretty girl milking her cow

clari_amazonIf I had been handed Clari’s score without being told the name of the composer, I might have thought it was a lost Rossini opera, albeit a minor one.  I would have probably assigned it to the early period of Rossini’s career, because it shows more similarities with works like La pietra del paragone and L’inganno felice than his later masterpieces, particularly in the first act.

When Fromental Halévy’s Clari was premiered in 1828 in Paris, the renowned music critic Fétis called it a “Rossinade”, summing up with just one word the essence of this opera. Halévy had no choice.  Rossini was the most fêted living composer, and audiences in all Europe could not have enough of his operas and their imitations.  In addition, he wrote it in Italian for the Théâtre des Italiens in Paris, where the Swan of Pesaro was venerated as the Messiah himself.  And finally, he was specifically composing for one of the most acclaimed divas of the time, Maria Malibran, a Rossini specialist, as was also the tenor, Domenico Donzelli. 

Despite their presence, Clari was not an overwhelming success, and had only six performances.  After an extensively revised revival the following year, it vanished into thin air, to become no more than a mere title in Halévy’s long but uneven canon.

Clari is a semiseria opera, its plot strictly following the conventions of the genre.  There is a damsel in distress, in danger of losing her honor, and a couple of servants who provide comic relief.  The slight variant is that here the amoroso and the villain are represented by the same person, the tenor.  This is the plot in a few words: Clari (mezzo-soprano) is a poor girl who falls in love with a Duke (tenor) and leaves her family.  The Duke avoids commitment; he loves her but is hesitant about marrying below his status.  He keeps her in his place, passing her as her cousin.  Clari’s father (bass) goes almost insane and suicidal because of the shame she has brought upon him.

During Clari’s birthday party, the Duke’s servants, Luca, (bass) Germano (bass) and Bettina (soprano), the latter two forming the typical buffa couple necessary counterpart to the seria pair of lovers, stage a play within the play that eerily mirrors Clari’s story.  The poor girl goes insane and causes a scene.  The furiously embarrassed Duke tells her he will not marry her.  Clari returns home to face her father’s wrath, but the Duke, in prey to remorse, follows her and declares in front of her father that he will keep his word and wed the girl.  Happy end.

After almost two centuries of oblivion, the Zürich Opernhaus has exhumed Halevy’s score as a vehicle for their biggest star, Cecilia Bartoli.  The Roman mezzo-soprano (soprano?, who knows, who cares at this point…) happened upon this opera while researching material associated with Malibran during the preparation of her CD dedicated to the Spanish primadonna, and the Zürich Opernhaus was more than happy to provide her the means to fulfill her wish.

When dealing with the semiseria or sentimental genre, producers tend not to trust their material; they believe it cannot be taken seriously and that modern audiences will find it silly, implausible and dated.  Therefore they do not take it at its face value and believe they have to reshape it, re-fashion it, update or parody it.  Producers Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, with the collaboration of costume designer Agostino Cavalca and set designer Christian Fenouillat, set the action in modern times.

During the long introduction to Clari’s cavatina, Leiser and Caurier adopt the technique of the “photo-novel” by projecting slides portraying the events that precede the beginning of the action. Thus we learn that Clari is an Eastern European farm-girl eager to escape her harsh life by sending her photographs to one of those Internet sites providing wives to Western men.  The Duke clicks on her photo, fancies her and sends her a plane ticket.  The mailman delivers the envelope to Clari while she is milking a cow; Clari leaves her humble adobe amidst her father’s curses.  The Duke is waiting for her at the airport carrying a sign with her name and a bouquet of roses.  Then the real plot begins.

Clari’s birthday party occupies most of the first act, which concludes with her breaking down and losing her senses.  In pure “metaphor for dummies” style (remember: for everybody she is the Duke’s long lost cousin) there is a giant gorilla in the room, upon which the protagonist climbs in her “mad scene”.    Among so many ideas, the producers however do not find anything to do for soloists and chorus in the long concertato of the first act finale.  The second act, which according to the libretto should take place in Clari’s room, is here set in a hospital, most likely a psychiatric ward, where the chorus of nurses check Clari’s heartbeat while singing “oh, come il cor le balza”.

Then the girl, rejected by the Duke, injects herself with some kind of drug and sings the Willow Song from Rossini’s Otello (and the unintended result is to highlight the inferiority of Halévy’s music), first moving like a zombie and gradually giving in into a sort of frenzy.  After this drug-induced mad scene, she manages to escape, with the intent to go back home and beg for her father’s forgiveness.  In the third act the action takes places in and around Clari’s shanty.  The Duke arrives in a muddy luxury sedan and sings his big aria.

Inside the shack, the girl’s father, Alberto, is still devoured by the feeling of shame for his daughter’s behavior.  As mentioned before, happy end ensues, but not before Clari sings another interpolated aria, this time borrowed from the only other Italian opera Halévy set to an Italian libretto, the much later work La tempesta.  Obviously Bartoli could not end the performance with a simple concertato.

In my opinion, the production, albeit entertaining, it emphasizes the “semi” to the detriment of the “seria”.  In a few words, it puts excessive stress on the comic element of the story.  Everything is fodder for laughter, from the purposely garish sets to the outlandish costumes: the Duke, clothed in tight gold lame pants with suspenders and a long shiny coat of the same color, looks like a cross between Elvis and Liberace, or something one can see only in Las Vegas.  Even the most heartbreaking and sincere music of the opera, Alberto’s long lamentation in the third act, is an excuse to stage a small comic play.

The DVD director, Felix Breisach, seems to belong to another era, with very straightforward, simple, minimal camera movements, completely alien to the cinematographic effects of the latest Met HD broadcasts and their hoards of imitators.  If this is good or bad depends on one’s taste.

Adam Fischer shows great feel for this music.  Under his direction, the Orchestra La Scintilla, an ensemble playing on original instruments, is bubbly, scintillating, vaporous without being vapid.  The Hungarian conductor manages to make this music more substantial than it actually is, and this is no small feat.   He especially succeeds in the Overture, which contains a pleasant clarinet solo, makes an interesting use of tubas and trombones, and is probably the most intriguing part of the opera.  He also displays considerable talent in following and often taking a back seat to the singers; one can presume that if this were not the case, Ms. Bartoli would have vetoed him.

The cast of comprimari is not first-class.  Oliver Widmer (Germano) has a rough-edged bass uncomfortable in the patter-style of his long buffo aria, while Eva Liebau, whose second act couplets, the only music of true Gallic flavor in the opera, are eliminated (with so many interpolations, something had to go, and it wasn’t going to be any of the primadonna’s music) is a shrill, soubrettish Bettina.  Carlos Chausson is a powerful and moving in the short but essential and mostly declaimed role of the father.  Giuseppe Scorsin (Luca) and Stefania Kaluza (Simonetta, Clari’s mother) do not have much to sing.

John Osborne, an adept belcantista, is quite admirable in the challenging role of the amoroso/villain Duke.  His timbre is somewhat generic, not immediately recognizable as Florez’ or Brownlee’s, but he has very good technique and taste.  This part however, having been composed for baritenor Donzelli, lies too low for him.  Both the bipartite first act cavatina and the tripartite third act aria require a canto di forza that is not Osborne’s best feature.  Just like any other singer of the belcanto era would have done when dealing with a score not completely congenial to this or her own strengths, the tenor adds puntature towards the upper regions as often as he can, capping for example his second solo with a glowing D natural.

Clari is a typical Malibran role, with a very wide range, from a low G in the concertato of the act I finale, to a sustained high C in the dramatic act II duet with the tenor.  While it lingers mostly in the middle register, it does not shy from sailing in the territory between G and B flat for long stretches of time, particularly when the situations gets more heated as well as in the ensembles: after all Malibran wanted to make sure she could be heard over the other soloists and the chorus.  It basically calls for a mezzo-soprano with extreme facility in the high register, and thus a perfect fit for Cecilia Bartoli’s vocal characteristics.

Thought I have never warmed to Bartoli’s talent, over the years I have almost begrudgingly come to admire nad respect her for the original, unorthodox and noncomformist way she has managed to build one of the most striking and longer lasting careers of these past few decades.  It takes considerable determination and confidence in one’s own skills to manufacture such a career defying conventions and expectations.  It is certainly this type of meticulous career planning that has allowed her to maintain her instrument virtually intact twenty-six years after her debut.

I have never been fond of the combination of a vinegarish timbre and saccharine ligne du chant, that boasts a whole arsenal of tricks like sighs, whispers and miaowing, not to mention her trademark machine gun agility.  Her mannerisms include a tendency towards an artificial hyper-articulation, as if she feels she has to spell every single syllable.  I believe that this habit has something to do with her performing mostly for non Italian audiences and that she thinks, consciously or not, that such a precious overplayed fraseggio should play in some way the same function super-titles normally do.

To her credit, she sings an unusually unaffected, sincerely moving Willow Song.  Otherwise, it’s feast of gratuitous fireworks, where a cadenza (like the one in the interpolated act III rondo) can last almost two minutes.  As an exegete of belcanto, I cherish my coloratura like nobody else, but I do believe it should have a hint of dramatic purpose and be in syntony with the general atmosphere of the piece.

This performance finds Bartoli with her usual merits and failings.  Her fans will treasure it and her detractors will abhor it.  It will not be Clari to make either camp change their minds.