‘Semiramide’ at Opera di Firenze: notable, but not memorable

Semiramide was my first opera experience in Italy, but the second opera I’ve ever seen, my first one being Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (which I can never seem to pronounce) at the Metropolitan Opera in New York earlier this year. This was actually pretty funny, mostly because of the orientalist way the Ottoman Empire were portrayed through the costumes (namely of the Pasha) and the two-dimensional set. The set was actually quite a disappointment compared to other grandeur productions at the Met Opera (I’ve been able to watch a few online. The sets are absolutely stunning! My personal favourite so far: their production of Simon Boccanegra). Opera is certainly different to the kinds of theater I’ve been exposed to. I’d love to be able to understand it musically (my knowledge of music is close to nothing but hey, I’m trying to learn), since opera is of course nothing without music. Semiramide was a lengthy experience, to say the least. They made some interesting choices (let’s not talk about Semiramide’s hair though) but it just wasn’t exciting. This is one of those operas where you have to come prepared already knowing the plot and the plot twists, else nothing is going to make sense. Quite frankly though, kudos to you if you’re able to follow the synopsis of an opera because golly – them plot twists are really something (it’s like a soap opera…. oh wait. Well that makes sense now….). Here’s my short review of Semiramide, which kicked off the season 2016-17 for Opera di Firenze.

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Semiramide and Arsace in Act II – I really love the shattered mirrors, but does it really add anything to the plot? Does a set need to extend from the plot or can it just be cool? (that green hair though)

Rossini’s Semiramide concludes its run at the Opera di Firenze on October 4th, 2016. The opera is directed by Marina Bianchi and Marie Lambert, though they adapt the direction of the late Luca Ronconi as a tribute to him.

When the curtain opened, my breath was taken away by the magnificence of the stage. It is daring in its simplicity, but the set design coupled with the costumes and presence of the attendants seen to be emerging from the earth, is striking. Oroe (Oleg Tsybulko) is as white as a marble statue, standing on a pillar with a flame hanging above him. The backdrop looks like a cracked stone wall, giving the sense that the opera seria is set in another world and another time.

Oroe, with his costume resembling that of a statue, represents the trajectory of the entire direction taken with the opera because of its static nature. The opera lacks movement; characters frequently cross the stage by being moved by the floor of the stage but their bodies remain still. This can be seen as interpreting a kind of pure opera, where singers would stand still and face the audience. However I found this interpretation of Semiramide to be quite stale. In fact, the singers are at times upstaged by the conductor in the pit who moves with such passion in directing the orchestra. There is no real purpose for characters to be moved by the stage itself. Such a technical decision works well between scene changes, but serves little purpose to emphasizing any meaning to the opera. This reminded me of a production I saw of A Streetcar Named Desire earlier in the year at St. Anne’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York. For the entirely of the performance, the set, which was staged as theatre in the round, rotated. This I believe added no meaning to the play. The only thing it did was to add a dynamism to the performance that was lacking between the actors. It seemed as though the director did not trust in the ability for his actors to deliver, and so had to turn the actual set into a dynamic spectacle. Much like Semiramide, the moving cubes the singers would stand upon and be transported by, does nothing to elevate the plot. There is no real purpose for the stage floor to move; what it does is simply make obvious how still the opera is. Azema (Tonia Langella) makes her entrance and exit by simply lying and sitting down on a block that moves along the stage. It is as if her body is rendered useless, her voice being of sole value. Perhaps the only real effective use of this is when Semiramide (Jessica Pratt) and Arsace (Silvia Tro Santafe) embrace, and then are instantly torn apart by the floor. Though effective, such a scene shows how necessary movement is to a contemporary adaptation of Rossini’s piece.

The characters that intrigued me the most were the attendants, their bodies half sunken into the earth. I particularly recall when Jessica Pratt makes her entrance as Semiramide, and behind her are the attendants reaching out to her as though she was a Goddess of the seas and they the waves kissing the shoreline. I admired the physicality of their near-naked crawling bodies and outstretched arms. They added a dynamic quality to the opera that was lacking. The choice to leave the chorus physically absent, hearing their voices offstage, is an interesting one. Their absence however is made up for by the presence of the attendants, who speak no words. Whenever they make an appearance, one can assume that an aria with the chorus will commence within the scene.

I was impressed by Silvia Tro Santafe as the contralto. She instantly grasped my attention as Arsace when she began her cavatina and opening aria, “Ah! quel giorno ognor rammento”. She had such power to her voice, more so than the male opera singers, and had a presence that truly commanded the stage. Perhaps her most striking aria with fine coloratura was in Act II when she sung “In si barbara sciagura”.

Act I ends with an impressive stage with the introduction of Nino’s ghost. Nino’s ghost was physically represented on stage with a body in a tomb or coffin, suspended over the stage. Changyoung Lee however, who sung the part of the ghost, was in the pit unseen with the chorus. The second act commences with a memorable duet between Semiramide and Assur (Mirco Palazzi). At the opening of Act II, there is a confrontation between them where they sing “Se la vita ancor t’e cara”. This is also likely the scene with the most movement taking place in that the actors physically move their bodies. Assur climbs on the structure of broken mirrors Semiramide stands upon, and she in turns climbs down. Their physical movements depict the sense of a confrontation between them. Their voices work well together as a duet between a soprano and bass.

The revival of Semiramide by Opera di Firenze is notable, but perhaps not memorable. Although the directors treated the performance as a tribute to the direction of Ronconi, the opera is let down by some of the decisions in stage design that make such a long opera seem stale.

 

 

Desperation in Vittorio de Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves” (1948)

I’ve recently moved to Florence in Italy and one of the classes I’m taking is “History of Italian Cinema”. We’ve been focussing on Italian neorealism, which has been absolutely exciting for me. Analyzing the films and writing reviews on them has been quite a joyous experience because once I have an idea, all these connections start to appear and the film(s) takes on a whole new meaning filled with intertextuality, symbolism, and greater depth to the chosen shots I hadn’t considered before.

It’s not so great when your professor hands you back your essay, having underlined terminology and interesting points and written “ok” in the margin. So I thought I’d use my theater blog to spend some time looking at Vittorio de Sica’s Ladri di Biciclette, or as it is known in English, Bicycle Thieves (1948) and put my two cents in (the title is often mistakenly translated as Bicycle Thief, minor but significant detail). My ideas may or may not be original, but dang it – I had things I wanted to say. This is by no means extensive because really an entire book should be written about the film, but it’s a snippet looking at particular shots. So here we go:

 

What struck me about Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) was the portrayal of desperation. There is a sheer feeling of desperation in the reality that Ricci faces, knowing that the bicycle affects his entire life. In a snowball effect, the loss of his bicycle means he is unable to work and therefore unable to provide for his family.

As much as the story follows Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) in his quest to find his bike, it is also about following his son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), and observing their relationship. When Ricci is about to head off for his first day at work, there is a two shot of him with Bruno as they put their omelets into their pocket. They dress almost similarly, and the gaze they exchange between them within this shot depicts a loving relationship between them. This two shot is important, as it is the first shot where the audience has a look at both of them as father and son, without a bike between them (see featured image of the post). Prior to this, dialogue between them has had them existing on different frames. Bruno actually works on cleaning the bicycle and talks to his father, but they are never in the same shot with the bike before stepping out of the house. Though most of the film proceeds to revolve around finding the bicycle rather than it being constantly seen visually, the bicycle is present in the psychology of Ricci, which then slowly creates a sense of distance between father and son. Finding the bicycle becomes more important than the immediate care of Bruno, who is seen falling down and even almost getting hit by a car.

De Sica employs the use of wide-angle shots in order for the audience to follow the action and contextualize the scenario with the location, Rome. This then creates a visual emphasis of trying to find a needle in a haystack, of trying to find one bicycle in the city of Rome. These wide shots, however, are also an opportunity to see Ricci’s son trailing behind him. The first moment Bruno is first seen following his father, is when Ricci carries his bike out of the house. Bruno trails behind him for an instant, before turning back to realize that his baby sister lies on the bed. He closes the window so his sister (I assume sister for some reason) will not feel cold, a moment that also alienates the audience and creates this sense that the viewer is observing the lives of Ricci and Bruno unfold. The second instant that the audience is alienated, which is almost immediately after the first, is when there is a two shot of Ricci and Bruno standing by the door of their house. Ricci bids his wife farewell and closes the door. Both moments of alienation, first by the son then by the father, serve to inform the audience that both characters are equally important to the story. They also are used by De Sica to emphasize the role of the audience as an observer.

The camera often stays with Bruno, catching the moments when he is on his own. The audience is also frequently shown his point of view. This has a strong emotional weight to the film, most notably when Ricci decided to steal a bicycle. This moment is marked by an asymmetrical shot divided by a street post, making it seem as though Ricci is literally crossing the line from victim to thief and there is no going back when he does. Bruno sees his father riding off with the bike and then getting caught. Bruno makes his way through the crowd of people to be near his father, tight shot which serves to elevate the anxiety of the scene. As they hold hands and walk through the crowd of people around them, De Sica restrains using a two shot for this scene and only does so from behind them. They walk with a crowd of people, a moment that recalls the beginning of the film where Ricci stood amongst a crowd waiting for news of work. Seeing individual shots of the father crying and the boy in despair heighten the desperation and sense of complete loss that a two shot would shatter. What is important is to see them holding hands together, their faces visibly showing their utter loss and uncertainty of what is to come.

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The moment before Ricci steals a bicycle. The composition reminds me of some of Lee Friedlander’s photographs.