The Teatro Verdi of Pisa is one of the very few Italian musical institutions willing to stage modern or contemporary operas: a couple of seasons ago Falcone e Borsellino (by Antonio Fortunato) had its world premiere here in Pisa and now it is the turn of Il ghetto – Varsavia 1943. As it was composed in 1960, calling it modern, not to say contemporary, is a bit of a stretch. If you had a time machine and travelled back to 1914, there is no doubt that they would laugh in your face if you described operas composed about fifty years earlier such as Un ballo in maschera or La forza del destino as modern. Classical music and opera are the only art forms where such a schism between the artist and the general audience took place. Nobody would ever dream of considering the Beatles as contemporary: still relevant and influential for sure, but certainly not contemporary.

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In any event Il ghetto – Varsavia 1943 already smelled old-fashioned at the time of its creation. Its composer, Giancarlo Colombini, convinced that one of the reasons behind the split between the average opera-goer and “modern” music was the deliberate choice of most composers, or at least the “trendy” ones, to create abstract operas, featuring plots with little emotional charge, self-referential works that they were writing to impress one another, preferred to steer towards high impact and universally recognized topics, such as, in this case, the fate of a Jewish family during the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto (15th and 16th May, 1943). Colombini (1906-1991) tried his hand at many genres, but was not a prolific author: his official biography mentions twelve works and a half, the half being his unfinished Masha. His most remembered opera, out of the six he wrote, is the first one, Jade, written in 1959 but performed by RAI, the Italian radio, in 1960. His only work to be performed with some regularity was Sei momenti francescani, broadcast by RAI and the Vatican Radio. Il ghetto – Varsavia 1943 was composed in the very early 1960s; about ten years later it took part in the International Competition Guido Valcarenghi (Herbert Von Karajian was President of the Jury) and was awarded with a silver plate. And yet, it had to wait fifty-four years to enjoy the honour of a performance.

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Marcello Lippi, the artistic director for musical activities of the Teatro Verdi, when announcing the opera just before its start, spoke about the ostracism with which it was met because of its musical language rooted in the Italian Romantic tradition. Truth be told, I did not detect too much melody in this opera. Timid melodic hints pop up here and there, but they sprout and die within a few measures. The orchestra sings more than the singers, who are very frequently required to hammer away for lengthy periods at the most uncomfortable part of the voice, the passaggio and the first high notes, and this is true particularly for the tenors.   The orchestration, which can be safely called late-Romantic, echoing Strauss and Puccini (motifs related to the Mandarin or the Three Masks in Turandot are easy to detect) is massive, even in the reduction that the composer’s family commissioned from Luigi Pecchia so as to make the opera more accessible to opera houses with smaller pits. The most interesting moments are the “flower duet” in Act I, the boy’s death in Act II and particularly the macabre waltz, marked in the score as “allegretto grottesco e capriccioso” that opens this same act and helps alleviate the tension accumulated in the first one. The libretto by Dino Borlone, much younger than the composer but deceased in the same year, has a “verismo” structure: the characters express their terror, anger, grief and impotence in simple and direct terms. They are members of a Jewish family that, informed about the upcoming destruction of the ghetto, vacillates between the alternatives of escaping into the woods and remain stoically waiting for the end. Each of them is clearly delineated and above all stands Justa, a young woman with a strong, determined personality, ready to meet with certain death, even though in Act I she bitterly regrets what could have been and has not. The other woman of the opera, Sara, is a mother who, after losing her child, hides his body so as to keep receiving his food allowance, and finally veers to the brink of madness.

In line with the naturalistic spirit of the libretto, Hungarian stage director Ferenc Anger created one single set representing a cross section of the Jewish family’s dilapidated house that faces on two streets where the Nazi soldiers threateningly prowl, shooting one man and one mother with her little daughters, two coup de théâtre set at the conclusion of the first two acts with the evident intention to drop the curtain right after leaving the audience in a state of shock. Gianluca Martinenghi conducted the first-rate Orchestra Arché with a secure hand, choosing appropriately sharp and cutting tempos for the most agitated parts of the opera, as well as pathetically soft sounds in the exquisite scene of the child’s death.   Praiseworthy was also the Coro Lirico San Nicola led by Stefano Barandoni.

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Soprano Marina Shevchenko (Justa) and mezzo-soprano Laura Brioli (Sara) are two singers that have often baffled me in the standard repertoire; Colombini’s vocal writing, not requiring too much legato or suppleness, somewhat concealed their vocal production flaws allowing them to give life to plausible and convincing characters. Ms. Shevchenko, a normally placid actress, was able to invest Justa with extraordinary internal rage and aggressiveness. Tenor Gianni Mongiardino as Isacco, Justa’s fiancé, has a serious problem of voice projection: one can detect a sizable instrument with an easy top (and this role has a high tessitura indeed) that however does not carry across the orchestra. An appealing timbre, impressive good looks and stage presence make of tenor Gianni Coletta (as Feri, the traitor) a potential “leading man” and I do look forward to hearing him in a repertory opera. Veio Torcigliani gave gravitas to the brief interventions of the pater familias Samuele. Italo Proferisce (Marek) is a young baritone constantly delivering fine performances thanks to his attractive sound and interpretational intensity. The cast was effectively completed by Vladimir Reutov and Francesco Baiocchi (two S.S. soldiers) and Antonio Pannunzio performing double duty as “The Polish Man” and another S.S soldier.

Very few Post-Puccini Italian operas have managed to barely survive at the fringe of the repertory, and therefore it is highly likely that Il ghetto – Varsavia 1943 will fall again into oblivion, even though a topic of such perennial relevance may induce other companies to stage it. The quality of this opera notwithstanding, the Teatro di Pisa is to be praised for its courage to diversify its offerings and walk less beaten paths, something almost inconceivable for most second or third tier opera companies.

Nicola Lischi

three stars

photo credit: Massimo D’Amato, Florence

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