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Subject: Pacini's SAFFO at Wexford (Review)
From: Andrew Cooper <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Tue, 7 Nov 1995 13:18:11 GMT
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Here's my final report from this year's Wexford Festival.

SAFFO by Giovanni Pacini (seen on 28 October 1995)

Saffo:  Francesca Pedaci
Faone:  Carlo Ventre
Alcandro:  Roberto de Candia
Climene:  Mariana Pentcheva

Conductor:  Maurizio Benini
Producer and designer:  Beni Montresor

This was a most interesting evening.  I have never knowingly heard a
note of Pacini before.   He seems to have been principally famous
for his cabalettas.  According to the programme- note by Philip
Gossett, SAFFO was written in 1840 after a five-year lay-off - the
composer had felt that he wasn't as good as Rossini, Bellini or
Donizetti and had grown disheartened.  Encouraged by Cammarano, and
with the benefit of five years' reflection, he attempted to write in
a more modern style.  Gossett points out that the score really
consists of only eight extended numbers, only three of which are
arias in the conventional sense.  In this, I was reminded of ERMIONE
(1819) and others of Rossini's Naples operas; SAFFO was commissioned
by the San Carlo.  Pacini's memoirs ("Le mie memorie artistichi",
Florence, 1875) look like a good read.

The music was very enjoyable.  It didn't sound a bit like
Rossini.  Nor was there much Bellini, to my ears (except when
the soprano and mezzo launched into the first three notes of
"Mira, O Norma" before moving off in another direction).  The
Donizetti of LUCIA (1835-9) certainly came to mind from time
to time, as did early Verdi, especially NABUCCO (1841-2).
Gossett singles out the second act finale of SAFFO as an
influence on Verdi, and one can see what he means.

There was much interesting writing for the wind instruments,
including a lengthy clarinet solo before Faone's aria.  The
other two things I particularly noticed about the music were
i) a number of what I think of as Verdi-esque "silly tunes"
which are enjoyable though bathetic (cf King Duncan's entrance
in MACBETH) and ii) that the music often seemed to change
direction (key, time-signature) suddenly - much more
noticeably than in the works of the same period that I know.

The story:  Saffo the poetess angers the High Priest Alcandro
by denouncing the barbarous Leucadian leap (people jumped off
a rock in the hope that Apollo would heal their sorrows).
Alcandro turns her lover Faone against her, and he marries
Faone's daughter Climene (whom Saffo has befriended without
knowing about the impending nuptials).  Saffo runs amok at the
wedding and then decides to take the leap that she'd earlier
denounced.  Hardly has she sworn a solemn vow to do this, then
she turns out to be Alcandro's long-lost daughter (yes, folks,
the strawberry birthmark strikes again).  But it is too late,
and she just has time to forgive everyone and sing a farewell
to the world before she jumps.

Conventional stuff, and pretty static to look at.  Sets and costumes
were of the glittery variety (you'd never have known that Act 3 is
set in "a remote place"), and the marriage altar that Saffo is
supposed to desecrate was a rather vulgar gold curtain hanging from
the flies which she ripped down.

All the singing was very satisfactory.  De Candia and the Uruguayan
Ventre were both burly figures.  I liked de Candia's well-focussed
baritone and stage presence;  Ventre was of the stand-and-deliver
school, but he coped well with the high tessitura of his aria (I
have to say, though, that I do not have perfect pitch and cannot
confirm that he sang the D flat and E flat mentioned in the
programme). Francesca Pedaci sang soundly but not excitingly.  Lucia
Mazzaria was originally announced for Saffo;  Pedaci was down for
four performances and Nicoletta Zanini the other two.  Mariana
Pentcheva displayed a luscious even mezzo-soprano.  Her aria and the
duet with Saffo that followed brought the house down (Wexford
audiences are always noisier on Saturday nights, I find;  on this
occasion they applauded absolutely everything).

Altogether, I enjoyed SAFFO best of this year's three operas.
The Mascagni was better than I'd expected and the Rimsky-
Korsakov not as good.  But the old Wexford cliche that each
year there's a smash hit, an interesting curiosity and a
turkey did not apply, for once - all three works were well
worth doing and each was well done.

Andrew ([log in to unmask])

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