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Tuesday 13 November 2018

Bravo! Magnificent theatre - despite the selfie-sticks

Alessandro Luciano and Ekaterina Bakanova in Il Bravo.
Alessandro Luciano and Ekaterina Bakanova in Il Bravo.

Anna Hayes

Wexford Festival Opera returned to the work of Saverio Mercadante this year, for the first time since 2010's 'Virginia', with 'Il Bravo', one of the composer's better-known operas that enjoyed success in La Scala when it was first performed in 1839.

If 'Dinner at Eight' was attempting something different, 'Il Bravo' errs very much on the side of traditional opera fare, with a few notable changes mainly in design and direction. Before the first note is even played, we are hit with the striking backdrop of a cruise ship towering over Venice's Piazza San Marco, a nod towards the effect of tourism on the island.

When the curtain rises however, we are under no illusions that we are back in the 16th century where a band of thugs have entered the city on the orders of a patrician, Foscari, who is enamoured with Violetta but she is under the care of her adoptive father.

Elsewhere in the first act, the Bravo, an official assassin for the Council of Ten, sings of his own torment before being interrupted by Pisani who tells of his love for Violetta and implores the Bravo for a loan of his cloak and dagger for two days. Towards the end of the act, we learn of Violetta's guardian's death, and the Bravo takes her under his wing, fleeing the area.

We are subsequently introduced to Teodora who employs the Bravo (as Pisani) to find Violetta, revealing that she is her daughter.

The plot is about as convoluted as an opera can get but any initial attempts to figure it out as you watched disappeared with the rich, dramatic music that is the opera's main strength.

As a composer in Milan at the time when Verdi was starting out, there are little nods towards the work that would come from the latter composer in later years. 'Il Bravo' has all of the gusto that one expects from traditional opera - melodic ensembles and booming crescendos with plenty to admire in the music.

The first act drags a little, mainly due to the lack of contrast in voices; two tenors and a baritone command the first 45 minutes of the piece before our first female character is introduced. Alessandro Luciano as Pisani, and Rubens Pelizzari as the Bravo, share an impressive duet in which the former pleads with the latter for his help.

The second act, which takes place entirely in the palace of Teodora is a magnificent piece of theatre, from a musical and visual design point of view.

Yasko Sato as Teodora has an incredible range and stage presence that sets her aside as the star performer of the piece for me.

The highlight of the third act, and indeed the entire work, is the sopranos' duet between Sato and Ekaterina Bakanova as Violetta, where the duo sing of the time together that they lost out on.

With echoes of the 'Flower Duet' from Delibes' 'Lakmé', it is a wonderfully harmonic and heartfelt lament of regret, and an expression of hope.

The issue of modernisation in opera is one that rears its head quite regularly. Some will never like it, no matter how subtle, clever or effective it is.

Personally, the elements of modernisation through 'Il Bravo' didn't work for me. They felt unnecessary - tourists floating in and out of scenes, waving selfie-sticks and umbrellas - nothing that we don't already know.

Perhaps the idea was to set them up as 'ghosts' of the future but the marrying of the past and present wasn't seamless enough to be anything other than jarring.

It's a pity because the director-designer team of Renaud Doucet and André Barbe have used elements of modernisation before and are responsible for probably the best example of it that I've seen - Massenet's 'Thérèse' which was part of the Wexford festival in 2013, and was an excellent work in every regard.

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