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Subject: Two Evenings at the Teatro San Carlo: Puccini's _Manon Lescaut_(Very long)
From: Harris Saunders <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Harris Saunders <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Sun, 25 Jun 2017 17:48:29 -0400

text/plain (245 lines)

I am here in Naples for three weeks to take advantage of the last few weeks
that the library of the Conservatory San Pietro a Maiella is open in the
summer (since I work during the academic year in the United States).  The
conservatory’s academic year ends on 14 July after which date the library
will be closed.  I was walking around on Tuesday afternoon 13 June (the
library is only open 9:30 to 1:30) and came upon the Teatro San Carlo right
down the street from where I am staying just off the Via Toledo.  I was
pleasantly surprised to discover their season had not ended, so I bought a
ticket to see Puccini’s _Manon Lescaut_ on Thursday evening, which—it turns
out—was the prima.

I was so excited.  I would get to see the interior of the Teatro San Carlo
for the first time.  Should I mention my anxiety that Aer Lingus lost one of
my suitcases, and I dreaded the thought of appearing at the opera house in
blue jeans?  Perhaps not.  Luckily, they managed to bring it to my hotel on
Wednesday.  I had thought all those clothes were gone forever.

I will discuss the theatre and the production.  Many of you will have
experienced opera in Italy, so what I discovered will be old hat to you, but
I have only attended opera in Italy a few times.  The entire year I lived in
Venice back in the day I only saw two performances at La Fenice, though they
were special indeed, since they involved Alan Curtis conducting Monteverdi’s
_L’incoronazione di Poppea_.  I have been to the arena in Verona twice, if
memory serves me (of course this is not an opera house).  I have been inside
La Scala only once, but I cannot remember what I saw there (if I were home I
could still dig up the program).  I believe it was a staged production of
something that is not an opera.

The prima of _Manon Lescaut_ was on the 16th, and then continued on 17, 18,
20 and 21 June.  As you can well imagine with such close dates, they have an
alternating cast.  So this, I gather, is the stagione system, of
performances of a single opera clustered together.  The singers were:

Manon Lescaut  Maria Jose Siri
Renato des Grieux  Roberto Aronica
Lesaut Alessandto Luongo
Geronte di Ravoir Carlo Struili
Emondo Francesco Marsiglia
Un lmpionaio Vincenzo Peroni
Un musico Clarissa Leonardi
Un oste Giuseppe Scarico
Il maestro di ballo Cristiano Olivieri
Un sargente degli arcieri Angelo Nardinocchi
Il comandante di marina Costantino Finucci
Lello Serao in the role of the elderly Renato Des Grieux (explanation below)

(I have omitted any diacritics.)

All my comments about the voices should be preceded by the phrase, “in my
view.”  All of the singers had voices of appropriate size.  Ms. Siri’s voice
carried well over the fortissimo swells of the orchestra, but I liked the
timbre of her voice better when she sang softer than fortissimo.  Mr.
Aronica’s voice has complex resonances that are not particularly to my
taste.  Mr. Struili had the most commanding vocal presence.  Ms. Leonardi’s
singing of the madrigal was a pleasure to hear, a firm, well placed timbre.

The other responsible parties were:

Conductor Daniel Oren
Maestro del coro Marco Faelli 
Director Davide Livermore
Set Design Gio Forma and Davide Livermore
Costumes Giusi Giustino
Lights Nicola Bovey
Video Designer D-Wok [a company, not a person]

When I walked into the box office to buy a ticket, the man at the box office
first offered me a ticket for a seat on the main floor for around 130 Euros,
which was not an amount I was ready to pay (not even for Massenet’s
_Manon_).  He then told me the range of prices, and I said I wanted
something around 50 Euros.  He offered a ticket for 60 Euros in what turned
out to be the third tier of boxes on the right side (from the point of view
of an audience member looking toward the stage).  Although he showed me
where this was on his seat arrangement, it really did not convey much to me.
 It turns out I had a box all to myself!!!  The performance began at 20:30,
which struck me as very late.  We did not get out until just before
midnight.  I asked one of the ushers whether this was usual and she said it
was, unless it was an afternoon performance, but in fact the performance
times vary.  Friday’s was at 20:00; Saturday’s at 18:00; Sunday’s at 17:00,
Tuesday’s at 20:00 and finally Wednesday’s at 18:00.  I am transcribing the
times in the style used here, so that my fellow Americans with no military
background will experience the need to make the conversions, just as I had to.

Unless you have a seat on the main floor you will need to talk to one of the
ushers.  After you enter the main lobby, there are corridors that hug the
shape of the auditorium, but I had little sense of where things were.  In
the event, when I got to the third tier, I had to show my ticket to the
usher who had to walk me to the box, because each box is locked until the
first person comes to sit in it.  (This will seem obvious to those of you
who have sat in boxes in some American opera houses, but I usually sit in
the balcony.)  My seat was the middle seat in the front row of three
free-moving chairs (without arms).  There was one more chair behind that was
taller than the chairs in front.  How ingenious!  

I realized after a sitting for a while that I did not have a program.  I
know that one usually has to purchase a program booklet in European opera
houses, but if I remember correctly from my year in Munich one usually gets
a free sheet of paper with the cast, etc.  So I went out to ask the usher
where I could get a program, and she told me I needed to go back down to the
ground level, by the entrance.  There is little marketing savvy here. 
Without it being pointed out, there is no way I would have noticed the man
to the side of the entrance with a pile of programs.  I purchased one.  It
is well worth the 10 Euros it cost.  I haven’t yet read it, but it has a
beautiful photograph of the auditorium and reproductions of the costumes and
sets, in addition to essays on Puccini and_Manon Lescaut_, and information
about the performers.  It also includes the libretto in Italian.

There were lots of firemen walking around, something I have never seen before.

The Neapolitan audience must hold the conductor Daniel Oren in high regard
because they consistently applauded his entrances.  He wears a skull cap (I
believe that is the term people use today; please do not take offense if it
is not).  I have never seen a conductor do this before.

The performance starts with an old man in a white suit walking into what is
supposed to represent Ellis Island.  The Statue of Liberty is seen in the
distance in black and white, and the water in between actually moves.  A
guard comes in and tells the man to leave.  This is in English, which is a
jolt.  The place is about to be closed, but the old man asks to stay for
five minutes; this place brings back memories.  The guard says he can stay,
but just for just five minutes.  [Later, I discovered that this “dialogo
iniziale” is in the program booklet (in English with its translation into
Italian).]  Then the opera begins.  This old man represents Des Grieux in
his old age, and he will shadow the actual Des Grieux throughout much of the
opera.  The story of Manon is the story of displaced persons coming to
America, you see, with obvious relevance to contemporary life.  There are
projections of black and white photographs of various people who—I
assume—are supposed to people who passed through Ellis Island.  I will leave
it to you to assess the legitimacy of the connection of all this to the
actual story.

The opera therefore is set in the 19th century.  Manon arrives on a train in
Act I.  In Act IV, there is a row of beds on the left hand side of the stage
with sick women; I suppose these are immigrant women in quarantine.  There
is little interaction between them and Manon and Des Grieux, who are mostly
on the right hand side of the stage.  

There are supertitles in two languages, Italian above and English below.

There were two twenty-minute intermissions between Acts I and II and Acts II
and III.  A woman announces this in Italian and English over the
loudspeaker.  The bathrooms are single toilets.  I think perhaps three (3)
on each tier and several on the lower level.  I am not sure how they manage.  

Much of what I say about the theatre will be things I already knew, but I
had never experienced this theatre first hand before.  The auditorium is in
the horseshow shape one would expect of a theatre built in 1737 (a date that
is easy to remember because it is on all the signage for the theatre).  It
has six tiers of boxes.  The main floor is sharply raked with individual
armchairs!  (I would love this, not having to share arm rests with
strangers.)  The orchestra pit is lower than the main floor, which I cannot
believe goes back to the original set up.  The pit is much shallower than
the pits at the Metropolitan in New York or the Civic Opera House in
Chicago.  The pit extends forward as far as the columns on the far end from
the stage that separate the first set of boxes from all the others. 

What I find so remarkable about the auditorium is the sense of intimacy.  I
do not know what it is like on the sixth tier, but from the third tier I
felt very close to the singers.  The acoustics strike me as excellent.

The elevators are, of course, modern additions.  They are in a strange
trapezoidal shape (I think “trapezoidal” is the correct word) that must have
been especially fitted to accommodate the space that was available.  They
are small and hold only six (6) people.  (Come to think of it, I am not sure
there is more than one elevator.)

The orchestra is arranged as follows: the first violins are to the left of
the conductor, and the second violins are to the right.  The cellos are in
front of the conductor and proceed back next to the first violins.  The harp
is behind the cellos.  The double basses are to the extreme left.  Some of
the double basses have five strings.  One double bass (the closest to the
audience) has a strange shape, its shoulders shaped like the rest of the
violin family rather than like the viol family.  The violas are the next row
in from the second violins to the right.  The woodwinds are arranged in two
rows behind the cellos; left to right, flutes and oboes (also English horn)
in front; clarinets (also bass clarinet) and bassoons behind.  The
percussion (three players, I believe) are at the back under the apron of the
stage.  The brass are to the extreme right, with the exception of the French
horns, which are at the end of the second row of woodwinds on the opposite
side of the pit.  Interesting!  I am sure I have never seen this placement
of the French horns in Chicago.

I returned on Tuesday 20 June when there were the following changes in the cast:

Manon Lescaut  Ainhoa Arteta
Renato des Grieux  Murat Karahan
Geronte di Ravoir Gianvito Ribba
Un oste Antonio De Lisio

Ainhoa Arteta and Murat Karahan impressed me as having voices perhaps a half
order of magnitude larger than the principals in the cast of the prima.  Mr.
Karahan has a lovely, bright timbre.  He is capable of singing ringing high
notes and melting pianissimi.  I am afraid Arteta did not impress me as
much.  “In quelle trine morbide” was not entirely successful.  There were
odd breaths that broke up a couple of phrases.  Also, she was not quite in
synch with the orchestra.  This was the only point in the two evenings that
I sensed the singers and the orchestra out of synch with each other.  I
think she her view of how this aria should go differed from the conductor’s.
 She held out the last notes of the aria to engender applause, which in fact
followed.  The only other time this evening that applause interrupted the
stage action was after “Tu, tu, amore, tu.”

On Tuesday 20 June, I sat on the other side of Tier 3 of the boxes.  I was
one box closer to the stage than at the prima, and the sightlines were
terrible. (Also I had to share a box with two other people and was the
closest to the stage.)  If this had been my first and only experience at the
Teatro San Carlo, I would have been rather upset.  

At the prima, there were cries of "Bis" after the prelude, but the
performance proceeded with Act III without any repeat of the prelude.  On
Tuesday 20 June, the conductor, Daniel Oren, turned to the audience before
beginning the prelude and said something about a “bis.”  I did not catch the
beginning of his sentence. After an impassioned performance, the audience
just would not stop clapping.  There were shouts of “Bis.”  The conductor
acknowledged the applause, had the first seat violist and first seat cellist
stand, so the audience could acknowledged them.  One man got out of his
second row seat on the main floor, walked over to the conductor, kissed his
left hand, kissed him on both cheeks and held a conversation with him.  I
could not believe what I was seeing.  Meanwhile, the applause and the shouts
persisted. So, they actually performed the prelude a second time!!!!  I have
never experienced this before.  His conducting was highly athletic.  He
would sometimes jump in the air for a fortissimo or crouch down for a piano.

While the players were warming up before Act II, the tuba warmed up by
playing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”  I don’t think this is an Italian
nursery rhyme.  As far as I could tell, I was the only one that laughed.

--Harris Saunders
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