Riccardo Zandonai is hardly a familiar name. Just about the only one of his operas that rates more than a mention is Francesca da Rimini, which seemed a noisy and unmusical bore when Scotto and Domingo sang it at the Met. But Francesca is not all of Zandonai. His Conchita was heard at Wexford this year. There’s a Giulietta e Romeo knocking around somewhere. And there’s I Cavalieri d’Ekebu.
Zandonai is important because he is pretty much the last of the line. Ekebu had its premiere in 1925, a few months after Puccini’s Turandot was completed by Franco Alfano and a few months before its premiere. Turandot is the last Italian opera to enter the repertory (Dallapiccola’s Clytemnestra, anyone?), and Zandonai was much younger than Puccini. He was pretty much the last Italian lyric composer. The fire lit in 1597 died with him, or rather, with Ekebu and Turandot. The melody that was the expression of the Italian soul has evaporated from that soul; none of it survives there today.
I Cavalieri d’Ekebu is based on the same novel by Nobelist Selma Lagerlof as the famous Swedish silent film, The Saga of Gosta Berling, that gave a zaftig teenager named Garbo her first taste of fame. The story concerns a group of vagabonds working in an iron mine for a wealthy and eccentric taskmistress, the Commandante, who has rescued each of them from a shiftless existence and keeps them at work with the aid of a riding crop. The result is prosperity for everyone in the region, and the vagabond miners, whom the Commandante fondly calls her “Knights”, live a contented and purposeful existence on her manor of Ekebu.
But the Commandante conceals a secret: the source of her wealth was an adulterous affair many years behind her now, hidden from her aged husband and everybody else. She explains this to Gosta Berling, an alcoholic defrocked priest en route to self-destruction. She enlists him among her Knights, partly tempting him with his beloved Anna (the Garbo part), who then appears with him in a play that has been staged at the manor as a Christmas Eve treat. As the play proceeds, she admits her love for him.
Unfortunately for young love, Anna’s father is the wicked landowner Sintram, who is generally believed to be the Devil, a legend he merrily encourages. Sintram despises Gosta as a drunken bum and is outraged when Anna elopes with him under the Commandante’s protection. In revenge, he tells the story of the Commandante’s inheritance by adultery to the Knights and to her husband. Furthermore, he says that she maintains her power by sacrificing the life and soul of one of her Knights to him, the Devil, each year. Drunk and out of control, the Knights revolt against their benefactress, who accepts this as just punishment for having once slapped her mother. She abandons her wealth to seek penance.
She predicts, however, that the Knights will be unable to keep the mine going without her, and she is right: A year later (in Act IV), the town is bankrupt, the Knights have drunk their way to stupid indolence, and a guilt-ridden Anna has decided to leave Gosta. At this moment the Commandante returns, dying. All beg her pardon, Anna returns to Gosta, and at the Commandante’s command the Knights rev up the forge, strike their hammers (quite an array of percussive effects, not in the least reminiscent of Trovatore), and sing of the return of their happy lives – as the old woman dies.
But who cares about plot? The point is the music. Fascinating, a highly original score, full of curious orchestral effects, recalling Puccini but also Boito and Korngold, with a lot that is obviously pure Zandonai. (The final act, with its growling bass rising to stunning percussion outbursts, reminded me very strongly of Act II of Turandot – which had not yet been heard when the opera was composed.) A virtuoso orchestra is called for, and Teatro Grattacielo provided an excellent one, led by Robert Ashens. The music easily held one’s attention for a full three hours, which was not true of Francesca, despite its gala Met production.
The “but” is the style of singing, which is not what one is used to in Italian opera. Such lyricism as exists in the score is almost entirely in the orchestral parts, and even there, striking melody is rare. The singing is almost entirely declamation in a manner that recalls not even Wagner but Gluck, a verismo Gluck, if you can imagine such a thing. It is often striking in the hands of capable singers, but there are no “arias” in the usual sense, no memorable numbers to identify characters or emotions or the themes of the drama. Pretty much the only lyrical interlude was the “play” within the play that consists of Anna and Gosta’s love duet, interrupted by happy outbursts from the chorus. There are also a couple of comradely anthems for the Knights, which strike a merry and melodious note but seem to be purposely out of place here.
This leaves the singers to make their effects by forceful declamation of rather strenuous parts, and over a blasting orchestra (and chorus). The cast assembled at Tully Hall was tremendously impressive – I can think of a dozen verismo works, nowadays, neglected through lack of singers with the right sort of flare, that this cast could bring to exciting life.
With all this against them, the cast was exceptional. Mariana Paunova, one of those deep Bulgarian contraltos, sang the Commandante. She grew uncertain at times, but her gutsy delivery of the character’s inner feelings made a thrilling centerpiece to the opera. Statuesque Lori Phillips sang Anna with force and passion, if not much subtlety. I blame the necessity to blast the music with the orchestra immediately behind her on the stage for this; she was lovely in the theatrical duet.
Gerard Powers has a powerful tenor, able to characterize Gosta’s drunken despair in Act I, his yearning in Act II, and after a full evening of this, capable of rising with little apparent effort to a ringing conclusion. Bearded Stephen Gaertner, a mellifluous baritone, sang Cristiano, the captain of the Knights, with lush authority. Craig Hart, whose shaven skull made the right effect as the sinister Sintram, sang his brief scenes with malevolent relish and an exciting way of expressing cynicism and contempt through twisting a few dark notes. Ray Karns, as the Commandante’s husband, looked the perfect aged cuckold with his walrus mustache. His singing part consisted mostly of “Oh! Oh! Oh!” in tones of anger or self-pity, and he got them out well. Small roles were well handled by Kevin Hill and Risa Renae Harman, and the little chorus of Knights performed a rousing bunch of anthems and drinking songs.
I Cavalieri d’Ekebu will never be a repertory item, but it was most interesting to hear it – I wouldn’t pass up a second hearing in a few years’ time. Teatro Grattacielo, which gives one such concert a year and has been highly praised for Cilea’s L’Arlesiana last year and Mascagni’s Iris before that, performs a tremendous service for lovers of obscure opera, and for some first-rate singers eager to show what they can do and bored with the same old repertory.