Love in a Cold Climate: Siberia at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

Giordano – Siberia

Stephana – Sonya Yoncheva
Vassili – Giorgi Sturua
Gleby – George Petean
Nikona – Caterina Piva
Il principe Alexis – Giorgio Misseri
La fanciulla – Caterina Meldolesi
Ivan – Antonio Gar
Il banchiere Mischinsky – Francesco Verna
Walinoff – Emanuele Cordaro
Il capitano – Francesco Samuele Venuti
Il sergente – Joseph Dahdah
Il cosacco – Alfonso Zambuto
Il governatore – Adolfo Corrado
L’invalido – Davide Piva
L’ispettore – Amin Ahangaran

Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino / Gianandrea Noseda.
Stage director – Roberto And

Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Teatro del Maggio, Florence, Italy.  Friday, July 16th, 2021.

Tonight, was an opportunity to hear a genuine rarity, Giordano’s 1903 opera Siberia.  Apparently the favourite of his operas, it is rarely performed and this new production, by Roberto Andò, is the first ever at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.  As with Andrea Chénier, it contains an extensive cast including a trio of protagonists with meaty roles for the soprano, tenor and baritone.  Unlike Chénier however, it doesn’t have some knockout numbers but instead feels a lot more cogently written, the musical ideas much more fully thought through and less episodic. 

Photo: © Michele Monasta / Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

The story of Stephana, a woman forced by her previous lover Gleby to become a courtesan, she falls in love with an innocent soldier, Vassili, who kills one of Stephana’s suitors at the end of Act 1.  Since Vassili was sent to Siberia as punishment, Stephana gives up her life of luxury to follow him but can’t escape her past, especially when Gleby shows up in Siberia having been convicted of a crime himself.  The music contains some big soaring melodies for the soprano and tenor, over a large and brass-heavy orchestra.  Interestingly, Giordano starts not with an orchestral prelude, but with an unaccompanied chorus and even with a large cast, this is an opera that contains much for a chorus to get their teeth into.  It would certainly be a work of interest to a house with a strong chorus that could populate the supporting roles from within their number. 

Photo: © Michele Monasta / Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

Andò has an interesting premise for his staging.  As the curtain rises, he presents a camera crew following the protagonists around.  He uses video (Luca Scarzella) to show doubles of Stephana and Vassili in various situations, illustrating the events around the plot.  And yet, this idea of Stephana as an actress acting in a movie that mirrors the plot of the opera is underplayed.  The camera crew disappear and reappear at various points, but there seems to be no logic as to how they’re deployed.  The sets and costumes (Gianni Carluccio and Nanà Cecchi respectively) certainly look handsome, the Siberian prison camp complete with guard tower is impressive, and the falling snow amplified by video of more snow works particularly well in creating an icy atmosphere, significantly different from the humid Florentine evening outside.  The large cast is moved around fluently and efficiently.  Andò’s staging certainly does the job and presents the work in a logical way.

Photo: © Michele Monasta / Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

Sonya Yoncheva took on the prima donna role of Stephana.  She sang and acted the role with passionate dignity.  There’s a fair bit of sustained higher writing where Yoncheva did sound slightly taxed in places, the vibrations broadening.  At times, her vowels also came across as rather exotic.  Otherwise, she sang with radiant tone, soaring over the assembled forces with generosity and exploited a generously smoky chest register in places.  She was alive to Stephana’s regrets and hopes, using an intelligent palette of tone colours to bring her character to life.  Giorgi Sturua is an interesting discovery in the role of Vassili.  The Georgian tenor has been developing a notable career in the Italian rep in Russia.  He’s a promising talent, if not quite the finished article.  Vassili is a massive sing and Sturua gave very generously of himself.  That said, the voice sounds currently like a relatively lyrical instrument being forced to sound a few sizes bigger than it actually is.  He has a tendency to sing sharp and some dryness entered the tone as the evening progressed.  He’s still relatively young and could have an interesting future if he looks after his instrument.

Photo: © Michele Monasta / Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

George Petean sang Gleby with a firm and rounded baritone, absolutely even in emission, and opening up quite remarkably on top.  He sang with a solid column of healthy sound and incarnated the evil character with aplomb.  Most impressive.  The remaining cast included several notable voices – far too many to go through in detail here.  Giorgio Misseri sang Principe Alexis in a healthy, compact tenor with an easy top, while Caterina Piva offered an agreeably robust mezzo as Nikona.

Photo: © Michele Monasta / Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

It was an intelligent decision to have Gianandrea Noseda, a noted Italian interpreter of Russian music, to conduct this production.  Giordano’s score abounds in Russian flavour and Noseda solicited a rainbow of orchestral colours from the superb Maggio band.  He led a reading with epic sweep, allowing Giordano’s unique combination of soaring melodies and local colour to register fully.  The orchestra covered themselves in glory, playing with both a striking unanimity of approach as well as characterful playing from piquant winds, silky strings and solid brass.  The chorus sang with admirable ensemble, excellent tuning in the unaccompanied sections, and good blend – the basses in particular underpinning the textures with agreeable resonance.

Photo: © Michele Monasta / Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

Thanks are certainly due to the Maggio for giving us the opportunity to discovering this striking work.  It was given an engaging staging that look good, was fluently directed, although didn’t quite follow through completely on its cinematic idea.  It was admirably sung, particularly by Yoncheva and Petean who incarnated their roles with the utmost commitment, and the Maggio orchestra again confirmed itself as a superb body.  Siberia is an opera that does deserve a wider hearing.  While more cogently written than Chénier, it lacks the earlier opera’s hit numbers, which could account for its obscurity.  Worth a listen, however.

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