To inaugurate its opera and ballet season, Genoa's Teatro Carlo Felice devised an unusual double bill: Sull'essere angeli (On Being an Angel), a new work from choreographer Virgilio Sieni, and an augmented reality production of Pagliacci. The mix was odd with no common thread between the two works except that death features in both. The black-box space with few scenic elements and a single dancer for the first part contrasted with a dazzling green-screen, circus performers, and projections for the second.
The most interesting part of Sull'essere angeli was the especially adapted score by Francesco Filidei of his flute concerto. Mario Caroli, the outstanding Italian flautist for whom it was written, was on stage throughout and the highly percussive and complex piece was thrillingly conducted by the Ukrainian Andriy Yurkevych. Filidei's inspiration came from the photos of the American photographer Francesca Woodman, who committed suicide in 1981 at the age of 22 by jumping out of a loft window in New York City. Her haunting photographs of women, and her many self-portraits, are often ghostly because of her long exposures, and many are taken in abandoned rooms with the subject in distress, anxious or curious. She developed her angel motif during a period in Rome in 1977 (she and her family often visited Italy) where she photographed herself in a derelict building, semi-naked and with white pieces of cloth in the background like wings. Several photos feature a large mirror and in one there's a glass tank to create her Surrealist world. All these objects Virgilio Sieni (who also designed the set and lighting) brought into his black box and dancer Claudia Catarzi played Woodman.
Catarzi slipped and slid evasively and seductively around the objects on stage, though the story behind the piece would be impossible to conjecture without reading the programme notes. Catarzi and Sieni's intentions are probably lost on the theatre's large stage – a stage where the Mariinsky Ballet has performed La Bayadère – and this introspective piece will surely gain from television close-ups when the programme is transmitted in December. However, as a more suitable studio theatre could not house the orchestra, Sieni's concept should have probably been expanded from the outset, maybe with several dancers representing Woodman, or putting her models on stage with her.
Cristian Taraborrelli's production of Pagliacci has some interesting ideas which probably seemed good on paper but on stage thwart the focus of the piece.
The prologue (sung by Sebastian Catana who possesses a powerful, bronzed-toned baritone) is behind a gauze with lots of smoke and moody lighting producing a Neorealism-type image with a lifelike tree, sandy earth, a circus cart, a bicycle. The gauze flies out for the beginning of the first act, and images are projected on a cyclorama which is made from thousands of stage-high strips that ripple and allow the cast to enter from behind. Circus performers warm up the atmosphere and bring on a gigantic white ball on which the filmed face of Canio, made up as his second act Pagliaccio character, appears. Realistic and surreal elements mixed effectively.
Then with Nedda's aria, the cyclorama disappears to reveal a green screen and, on a stage-wide projection above her head, ‘augmented reality' shows her among trees that move slightly in the breeze. It's novel and fascinating… at first. But it continues for the rest of the opera. In the second act, even the floor is green. Presumably, it's a technique to let the director show the audience the inner workings of the characters' minds and give the drama greater depth. So what is seen? Flames that engulf the trees during Canio's Vesti la giubba (Put on the costume) at the end of the first act, some rustling of the trees during violent moments, and Arlecchino sings O Colombina on a green staircase though on the screen he's in a sci-fi starfield. Most effects are tricksy like the cast walking in and out of rooms or sitting on a chair in a green space that magically becomes a dressing room. It doesn't add but only distracts. With a giant screen where does an audience look? At the singers or at their projected image immersed in the animation above? It's like watching the telly. Maybe all will be made clear when it is on the actual telly on 16 December and the projected image will be the only one seen, I imagine.
Excellent, however, was the musical element and it was thrilling to hear Fabio Sartori's bright and penetrating tenor as Canio. Serena Gamberoni is an elegant singer, both vocally and physically, and her Nedda was warm-voiced and sexy. Sebastian Catana, as mentioned above, is an exceptionally fine singer, and Matteo Falcier was a wonderful Beppe/Arlecchino, singing his second-act aria more impressively than the slightly kitsch light show that tried to upstage him. The chorus was seated (distanced and masked) in the first rows of the theatre which, as villagers and spectators of the second act play, worked well. Angela Buscemi, who designed the costumes, did a glorious job with her inventiveness grounded in believability.
The theatre's new intendant, Claudio Orazi, took over in the middle of last year at the end of the first lockdown so many miscalculations can, and should, be forgiven though, I suspect, he has been handed various projects from the previous administration. I wish him well.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.