Thursday, April 29, 2010

Gian Carlo Menotti's 90th Birthday (RAI, 2001)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Afterwards Charles and I watched something from the rest of our video backlog: a concert in Spoleto, Italy from 2001 to mark the 90th birthday of composer Gian Carlo Menotti — a binational Italian-American opera composer and librettist who spent most of his life shuttling between both countries and launching the Spoleto Festival in 1958 (and a U.S. branch of it, Spoleto West, in Charleston, South Carolina in 1977). I was wondering whether this would be a documentary on Menotti, but in the end it turned out to be a simple concert film, directed by Francesco Pompoe and photographed by Giorgio Soccodato for Channel 1 of RAI, Italy’s state-owned radio-television network. The stars were singers Plácido Domingo and Renée Fleming, with a few lesser operatic lights (sopranos Susan Bullock and Carmela Remigio), and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet (the second half of his first name was spelled “Ives” on the credits), who opened the festivities with a beautiful version of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, with the Spoleto Festival Orchestra led by Richard Hickox.

The only sign of Menotti was a quite well preserved man sitting in the front row who was occasionally photographed as a standout member of the audience — he looked in his late 60’s rather than 90 — and the only music of his that was performed was an aria called “Steal Me, Sweet Thief” from his opera The Old Man and the Thief (his second opera, composed for radio in 1939). The other selections were pretty standard stuff for opera concerts — the Song to the Moon from Dvorák’s Rusalka, sung by Fleming; “Dich, teure Halle” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, sung by Bullock; one of the most hackneyed soprano arias of all time, “Si, mi chiamano Mimì” from Puccini’s La Bohème, sung (surprisingly well) by Remigio with Leone Magiera (a well-known accompanist and the husband of the great soprano Mirella Freni) spelling Hickox at the podium; the Act I love duet from Verdi’s Otello, “Già nella notte densa,” radiantly sung by Domingo and Fleming (15 years after they performed it together at the Met in a telecast of the entire opera); and an aria from a zarzuela, “No puede ser!” from Pablo Sorozabal’s La Tabernera del Puerto, sung by Domingo in perhaps his most impassioned performance of the night. (Domingo has always had a particular interest in zarzuela, the Spanish form of operetta, because his parents were touring zarzuela singers who relocated from Spain to Mexico to perform in a new market for that music.)

The show ended with an elaborate brass-band fanfare from the balconies surrounding the courtyard in Spoleto where the performance took place, that soon resolved into “Happy Birthday” as sung by the entire orchestra and chorus to birthday boy Menotti (who would live another six and one-half years before dying in February 2007). The music was mostly first-rate and so were the performers — though Thibaudet’s nose seemed big enough (on an otherwise attractive face and body) he could probably play Cyrano de Bergerac without makeup and Bullock looked oddly dykey even for a Wagner singer. This is the sort of classical music show that gets telecast all the time in Europe (where they have a long tradition of public broadcasting and where the idea that radio and TV exist to serve the people is actually taken more or less seriously instead of given lip service, as it is here) but is all too rare in this country.