Nihilistic pessimism: CO2 at the Teatro alla Scala

Giorgio Battistelli – CO2

David Adamson – Anthony Michaels-Moore

Gaia – Jennifer Johnston

Indian Temple Singer / Adam – Sean Panikkar

Eve – Pumeza Matshikiza

Serpent – David DQ Lee

Archangel Raphael – Dennis Wilgenhof

Archangel Uriel – Alain Coulombe

Arcangelo Gabriel / Mrs Mason – Orla Boylan

Archangel Michael – Alessandro Spina

1st Scientist – Nathan Berg

2nd Scientist – Miklos Sebestyén

1st Ecologist – Fatma Said

2nd Ecologist / Mr Changtalay – Ta’u Pupu’a

Coro di Voci Bianche dell’Accademia Teatro alla Scala, Coro del Teatro alla Scala, Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala / Cornelius Meister

Stage director – Robert Carsen.

Teatro alla Scala, Milan.  Sunday, May 24th, 2015.

During 2015 the city of Milan is the host city for an Expo concentrating on feeding the future and in turn the commission of this new opera was a way to mark the event.  Based around themes of climate change, CO2 is a work that seeks to bring attention to the changes the world is undergoing and highlight them.  If that sounds like a very noble aim, it certainly is, and yet by dealing with a contemporary theme that is, literally, life-changing I fear that as a piece of music theatre CO2 doesn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts.  It should be said from the outset though that the Scala gave the work all of its considerable resources and it was performed with the utmost dedication and thrilling virtuosity by the whole of the enormous cast.  I don’t wish here to enter into an argument about the themes in the opera.  Ultimately, what I seek to do here is to give my own impressions on the work as an opera rather than a political discussion although the political is indeed key to the work.

CO2 Ensemble © Teatro alla Scala
CO2 Ensemble © Teatro alla Scala

Battistelli is a superb orchestral technician.  The orchestral writing was highly imaginative from the throbbing drums of the opening to the spectral string writing as the angels appear, from the peppery electric guitar to the shrieking woodwinds – Battistelli’s ear for orchestral colour is phenomenal.  And yet, he was hamstrung by Ian Burton’s libretto that was nowhere near able to match the level of the orchestral writing.  From the 1990s song clichés in the Adam and Eve scene (‘what is love’?) to the fact that the work was interspersed by lectures breaking up the musical tension and making the piece feel episodic.  In a way, it was a limitation of the structure of the work itself in that it combined declarations by a scientist, David Adamson, with scenes from various eras of world mythology.  It was compromised also with some scenes that involved discussions of contemporary topics such as airline pollution and food miles that seemed verbally heavy-handed.  In a way, by opting for a non-linear narrative, Burton was attempting to create a way for the audience to make up their own minds.  The outcome, at least for this observer, was less of giving the audience reasons to reflect but more to feel lectured at.  I left the theatre not with a sense of being able to make a positive difference but more of nihilistic pessimism.  Consequently, the vocal writing revolved around constant leaps around the registers but when Battistelli didn’t need to set the words – as in Eve’s melismas in the garden of Eden or the beautiful off-stage choral writing – the vocal writing suddenly took on an added level of tonal variety that it didn’t quite have before.

Jennifer Johnston, Coro del Teatro alla Scala in CO2 © Teatro alla Scala
Jennifer Johnston, Coro del Teatro alla Scala in CO2 © Teatro alla Scala

Robert Carsen’s staging showed great fluency moving between the past and the present with some highly remarkable stage pictures.  Technology played a big part with a screen showing graphs and images relevant to the subject in question.  Personenregie was natural and everything worked.  It was an imaginative staging to match the imaginativeness of the orchestral writing.

Ensemble CO2 © Teatro alla Scala
Ensemble CO2 © Teatro alla Scala

Vocally the work was given full justice by the large cast.  Anthony Michaels-Moore’s Adamson varied between speech and song.  He entered into his character fully, bringing the regret and bewilderment of the scientist to life.  The vibrations have loosened somewhat in his grainy baritone but that matched the world-weary nature of the character.  Jennifer Johnston sang Gaia’s highly challenging music as if it were the most natural thing in the world.  The range of the part was enormous and she constantly had to switch between low and high registers even within the same word.  Despite that the registers were completely even and her ruby-red mezzo never showed the slightest hint of pressure.  Her diction, as indeed that of the whole cast, was superb.  Pumeza Matshikiza brought her distinctive, creamy soprano to the role of Eve.  This is a voice that I hope we will be hearing much more of – instantly recognizable, with a strawberries and cream beauty from the rich bottom to the bright and open top.  In the past I have found her to make a beautiful sound but not make much of the words.  Today was different.  Sean Panikkar also made a great impact as Adam and the Indian Temple Singer.  The voice, rich and masculine and easily-produced, he gave us a highly musical performance that truly entered the heart of the piece.  David DQ Lee’s serpent was sung in a raspy countertenor that showed no fear of descending into a ringing baritone.  In the remainder of the cast, Orla Boylan’s confident soprano had great presence and Alain Coulombe’s bass was rich and resonant.

Anthony Michaels-Moore in CO2 © Teatro alla Scala
Anthony Michaels-Moore in CO2 © Teatro alla Scala

The chorus sang with great abandon in their Sprechgesang in the Kyoto scene.  When offstage, they gave us singing of great beauty and wonderful blend.  The children’s chorus was also wonderfully blended and the voices perfectly in tune.  The Scala orchestra cemented their reputation as one of the finest pit bands around.  They played with terrific virtuosity in the percussive music and great delicacy where required.  Cornelius Meister kept the forces together and as one despite the challenging writing and also brought out all of the multiplicity of colours in the orchestration.  Any longueurs, and I’m afraid there were some, were due to the music having to be stopped for the lectures.

Ensemble in CO2 © Teatro alla Scala
Ensemble in CO2 © Teatro alla Scala

As a work CO2  promised so much and with a cast as dedicated as this, they certainly delivered the goods.  Sadly, I felt the work lacked structural cohesion and the word-setting was often unmemorable due to the nature of the libretto, perhaps simply as a result of trying to do too much given the importance of the subject matter.  It’s a work I would like to hear again and Battistelli is a composer whose music really does need to be widely heard and discussed.  I very much hope to hear more of his work again soon.

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