Battistelli – Le baruffe
Padron Toni – Alessandro Luongo
Checca – Silvia Frigato
Madonna Pasqua – Valeria Girardello
Lucietta – Francesca Sorteni
Titta-Nane – Enrico Casari
Beppo – Marcello Nardis
Padron Fortunato – Rocco Cavalluzzi
Madonna Libera – Loriana Castellano
Orsetta – Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli
Padron Vicenzo – Pietro Di Bianco
Toffolo – Leonardo Cortellazzi
Isidoro – Federico Longhi
Il comandador – Emanuele Pedrini
Canocchia – Safa Korkmaz
Coro del Teatro La Fenice, Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice / Enrico Calesso.
Stage director – Damiano Michieletto.
Teatro La Fenice, Venice, Italy. Saturday, February 26th, 2022.
Today’s performance of Giorgio Battistelli’s new ‘teatro di musica’, Le baruffe, was preceded by a short speech by the Sovrintendente, Fortunato Ortombina, who reflected on the house’s solidarity with the people of Ukraine. He then invited the audience to mark a minute’s silence in honour of the victims of the invasion. It can be hard at a time like this, with horror on our doorstep, to give room to art. But do so we must, as art is a source of strength and consolation. Today also marked my first visit Teatro La Fenice, and indeed to Venice itself, and it is a handsome venue indeed. A relatively intimate theatre, with a capacity of 1126, it’s a house of stunning beauty and home to an impressive chorus and orchestra.
Freely based on Carlo Goldoni’s 1762 play, Le baruffe chiozzotte, Battistelli co-wrote the libretto with the stage director Damiano Michieletto. They use Goldoni’s Venetian dialect with surtitles above the stage in Italian and English. The action takes place in the lagoon village of Chioggia, where characters spend most of the evening mocking, brawling, and eventually flirting with each other. It’s a large cast, with 14 principal roles in a running time of around a hundred minutes, combined with the full chorus and an orchestra consisting of a generous quantity of percussion. Battistelli combines frequent percussive edges, using piano and harp also like percussion, with hazy string clusters. The orchestral writing consists of recurrent brassy jabs, with woodwind occasionally commenting on the textures through florid interjections. The presence of two accordions adds a piquant tinge to the orchestral sound. The chorus is used imaginatively, whether in the opening scene adding disembodied voices from around the room, or by adding a wall of sound as the work approached its dénouement – the commitment and tuning of the Fenice chorus was second to none. I found Battistelli’s work to be interesting. The sound world felt darker, more serious, than the text would suggest, with his writing skirting around the boundaries of tonality rather than within it – although there was one moment where I was expecting him to segue into La Valse. His vocal writing consisted of some significant leaps, exploring the extremities of the registers, with some of the cast sounding rather more taxed than others.
Michieletto’s staging gave the text room to tell its own story. Indeed, it felt that we were watching a piece of theatre more than an opera, in the way that the dialogue encouraged more interaction between the cast, and in the way that they genuinely interacted with each other. The set (Paolo Fantin) consisted of a series of large wooden blocks that were manoeuvred around to create a variety of visual settings. As the evening developed, these were knocked over and then raised back up, before being dismantled and used as weapons during a brawl. The presence of large industrial fans offered a visual incongruence to the historical costumes (Carla Teti). Of course, Michieletto is known for giving us views of Italian provincial life – one need only think of his superb double bill of Cav & Pag seen in Brussels. Here, what he offers us is something very different. Yes, there is visual interest – the constantly-changing settings of the boxes or the projections of clouds on the set reminding us of Chioggia’s proximity to nature – and yet, the sparseness of the staging very much focuses the attention on the individual characters and the chemistry between them.
In the extensive cast, it would almost be injudicious to highlight individual contributions. Leonardo Cortellazzi sang Toffolo with his focused, well-placed tenor, bright and easy throughout the range and with considerable stage presence. Enrico Casari sang Titta-Nane with a burly tenor, also handsome of sound, darker in tone compared with Cortellazzi, but also with strength on high. Rocco Cavalluzzi sang Padron Fortunato with a velvety bass, with warmth around the core of the sound. Valeria Girardello sang Madonna Pasqua with a rich contralto, coping admirably with Battistelli’s angular vocal writing. Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli sang Orsetta with an agreeably creamy soprano, occasionally taxed by the extreme leaps, but certainly the owner of an attractive instrument. Checca was sung by Silvia Frigato who had to contend with some very high, declamatory writing and did so with confident assurance. Alessandro Luongo sang Toni with his handsome, burnished baritone.
Enrico Calesso had clearly galvanized his forces with confidence. The evening had clearly been exceptionally prepared on both a musical and dramatic level – not just on stage but also in the pit. The Fenice orchestra proved themselves on this occasion to be an exceptional band. They relished in the uniqueness of Battistelli’s sound world, attacking those razor-sharp brass chords with impressive unanimity. Calesso also ensured that the stage-pit coordination worked seamlessly and allowed the text always to be heard. His tempi seemed sensible and he drew out an extensive range of colours from the band to do justice to Battistelli’s vision.
This made for a stimulating afternoon in the theatre. We were given a new opera with a stage production and vocal performances that undoubtedly did the work justice. There was something very special in the way that Michieletto’s staging seemed to be at one with the score – the way that the characters on stage moved with the music gave the evening a sense of a work of art that had truly been conceived as one. Getting to see a work set in this part of the world, in the local dialect, was also a privilege. And yet, I left in admiration of Battistelli’s score perhaps rather more than appreciative of it. It’s the work of a master craftsman certainly, and yet it feels in its musical language somehow oppressive in its percussive force, though that isn’t to say that it doesn’t have moments of delicacy. It was, however, received with a generous ovation by the Fenice public – and seeing a new work received so warmly is always reason for celebration.