Carlo il Calvo? The name appears in small italics in some booklets of CDs of Baroque arias, so I'd vaguely heard of it. But there it was, as a concert performance in La Scala's season calendar. If I had been better informed, I would have already read about the opera's success at the Markgräfliches Opernhaus in Bayreuth in 2020 and its subsequent well-received studio recording.
Carlo il Calvo (Charles the Bald) is a little-known opera by Nicola Porpora first performed at the Teatro delle Dame in Rome in Rome in 1738. Charles II was king of the Kingdom of the West Franks which was part of the Frankish Empire established by his grandfather, Charlemagne, and later became part of the Kingdom of France. It seems that he wasn't bald at all, with one theory stating that as he was extremely hairy, his nickname was applied ironically.
The libretto tells of Charlemagne's Europe disintegrating during the Middle Ages at the hands of his quarrelling heirs. The opera's title role is for a child and in the full version he sings a few verses, though in the slightly reduced concert version at La Scala – coming in at just under three hours – the boy was left at home. With a Bayreuth public used to Wagnerian running times, Max Emanuel Cenčić countertenor, stage director and artistic director of the Bayreuth Baroque Festival, staged and starred in the full opera in 2020 (3h 20m plus interval) and it was a hit. It was remounted the following year, and the complete opera came out on 3 CDs from Cenčić's Parnassus Arts label last year. The cast seen at La Scala was almost the same.
The multitalented Cenčić showed his shrewdness as a casting director by courageously choosing ‘rival' countertenor Franco Fagioli – for me, the best in a very strong field – to share the stage with him. Fagioli (Adalgiso) gets the best arias, steals the loudest and longest applause, and is joined by the spirited Russian soprano Julia Lezhneva (Gildippe) for an exquisite 16 minutes of sheer pleasure in their beautifully detailed and layered love duet – it was clear that they had performed it together on stage.
Lezhneva (off score like Cenčić) sparkled in her fiendish coloratura arias and showed an appealing theatrical flair as she laughed, teased, and tripped offstage. Cenčić (Lottario) has a warm sound that was especially suited to the introspective aria ‘Quando s'oscura il Cielo'. In other roles, soprano Suzanne Jerosme was very sure (I won't continue listing the characters' names for, after a while, it became apparent that trying to follow the subtitles and the convoluted plot just took away from the pleasure of watching the singers and orchestra), the gloriously pregnant Ambroisine Bré warmed the theatre with her rich mezzo, and a lovely surprise was the young and personable countertenor from Honduras, Dennis Orellana, who has a large, penetrating voice. It is a promising start to a career – he was born in 2000. The weak link was tenor Stefan Sbonnik who has a lovely tone, but the extremes of the coloratura were beyond his abilities.
However, it was Fagioli who stopped the show. Literally. Applause was kept short by the singers and conductor with rapid exits after arias (it was already a long evening without pausing for bows) but the unbending insistence of the audience's applause forced Fagioli back on stage. From baritone depths to soprano heights (in ‘Saggio Nocchier che vede', which closes the first act, he travels from a B♭3 up to a C#5) with dazzling leaps up and down the pentagram, to the rapid-fire coloratura and fine trills in his second showcase aria ‘Spesso di nubi cinto', he thrilled, yet was equalling captivating during the intimate and contained nature of ‘Taci, oh Dio!'.
The conductor George Petrou was on fire leading the baroque ensemble Armonia Atenea, which plays on period instruments. How wonderful it was to see the oboe player mouthing the words to an aria, the constant complicity between two of the violinists, the admiring looks when one of their number had a solo moment… and the drama when a violin string broke and was replaced and tuned – silently – during a recitative.
Without the veneer of an opera director's ‘revelatory' concept risking being an irritating distraction to music lovers (though presumably providing some form of distraction to tourists counting the minutes before being able to resume taking selfies) – no oil drums, trench coats, disco lighting, machine guns or miniskirts – time flew by and, suddenly, the entire audience was on its feet applauding.
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.