What do you get when you put a buoyant artist from Torino, a sumptuous costume designer from Rome, a hot-blooded director from Naples, and a cool-as-a-cat conductor from Perth in the same room?
We caught a train down to Torino, Italy, to meet in-studio with a team of internationally acclaimed virtuosi, casa the Pop-Art-inspired painter and sculptor Ugo Nespolo, to find out. The sizzling team of artists is in the throes of constructing a brand new inédit production of an opera that hasn’t been performed in nearly 400 years, the premiere for which was recently trumpeted for America’s premier performing arts festival, Spoleto Festival USA, in South Carolina next year.
At the helm
‘Veremonda, the Amazon of Aragon’—also known as ‘Il Delio’—is an opera in three acts with prologue by the Italian composer Francesco Cavalli, and a libretto by Giacinto Cicognini and Giulio Strozzi. First performed in Venice, and then Naples, in 1652, it was political, contemporary, and, as opera director Stefano Vizioli says, full of revenge, guilt, and lusty heat. “And it’ll be even hotter under my hand,” roars the Neapolitan.
Set in Gibraltar, the plot parallels the conquering of Granada—including Gibraltar—by King Ferdinand II (King Alfonso) and Queen Isabella the Catholic (Veremonda) in 1492. With a bellicose zeal pitted against her husband’s indifference, Veremonda, sung by Alaskan mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux in her Spoleto Festival USA debut, sets out to end the war against the Moorish army by forming her own female Amazonian one to carry out the siege. In contrast to blockbuster operas like Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’, which addresses the social stigma endured by the ‘fallen woman’ who earns redemption only through abnegation, ‘Veremonda’ unearths the sensitive and relatable issues of gender rights, international diplomacy and conflict, the act of harnessing sexuality for personal recognition and political or social advancement. It explores the concept of women in power and leadership roles, highly relevant to the current political conversation. “It is my responsibility to bring opera to the people so that they can find some personal connection and discovery through it,” Vizioli says. “Pretention aside, opera is personal and slices deep into the human conscience.”
The internationally recognized director has turned out performances across the USA that include Philadelphia, Chicago, and Santa Fe; and in cities across Europe and Asia. His production of Rossini’s ‘Il Barbiere di Siviglia’ was conducted by the late and legendary Italian conductor, Claudio Abbado at the Ferrara Musica Festival; his interpretation of Donizetti’s ‘Don Pasquale’ by Riccardo Muti at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala.
Stirring the waters
The project took root when Spoleto Festival Director, Nigel Redden, planted a seed in the mind of the off-centre Australian conductor, specialist and soloist keyboard interpreter of early music, Aaron Carpenè, for an upcoming production. Carpenè is known for spearheading dicey productions such as OperaBhutan, a staging of George Frideric Handel’s ‘Acis and Galatea’, which debuted in the eastern Himalayan kingdom before going to Texas earlier this year in a signature celebration of intercultural operatic performance. Despite initial scepticism over bringing opera where no opera had gone before, the project that combined an 18th century masque with traditional Bhutanese music, dance, and visuals garnered international acclaim.
But ‘Veremonda’? Theretofore left in obscurity, nothing had ever been published about the opera, though a critical edition is in progress. With his interest piqued Carpenè flew from Rome to Venice, catching a vaporetto to the Marciana Library to study the manuscript first-hand. Out of a bare autograph score, which contains three unnamed instrumental parts, he sculpted a performance edition from scratch on which the team would base their own musical interpretation and unlock the creative process.
Start by making it pop
With an edition compiled and stage direction in the hands of Vizioli, it was time watch it come to life. Since ‘Veremonda’ was so current for its time, the engaging Nespolo—a forerunner in his genre—was a strong choice for an opera conveying a Mediterranean culture. In a spacious media room, where hang posters from the 20 films he’s made over the course of 40 years, he tosses a pile of colourful stage and costume designs on a table beside a scale-model of next year’s show. The ‘Andy Warhol of Italy’ has exhibited in exclusive environments around the world, such as the MoMA in New York City and Beaubourg in Paris. Among his notable forays into the applied arts are a 1983 Azzurra Italiana poster for America’s Cup, and a 2012 limited-edition advertising campaign for Campari.
We pass by a glass case displaying a timepiece designed for Swatch Group Ltd in 1994, and talk about last year’s collaboration with the Swiss behemoth at Baselworld. “My art spans every medium,” explains the artist as he shows us through room after room of past projects, pointing to a signed and framed copy of Warhol’s Playboy magazine cover hanging among a smattering of other relics. The studio looks more like a museum by the minute.
For ‘Veremonda’, Nespolo has designed four tall three-sided pillars that will rotate as the opera progresses. Backdrops depict a starry night, a military invasion, an unexpected gallimaufry of household items. Palaces, mosques, and gardens rise up as the settings for battles and love affairs. “I am willing to work within the confines of the theatrical world,” says Nespolo, who has designed for opera titles such as ‘L’Elisir d’amore’ in Lausanne, Paris, Rome, and Liege, and for ‘Madame Butterfly’ in Torre del Lago—both collaborations with Vizioli. “I understand that my artistic conception needs to be translated into the language of theatre.”
There is talk of rising fog and disappearing faces, of a dialogue between sun and twilight. Vizioli stands behind a painted wood model and talks us through the story using tiny props and singers, now and then motioning to Carpenè to strike up a tune on the piano. “Remember that there’s no piano in the opera,” the conductor calls over his shoulder. “This is just to give you an idea of how it’ll sound.”
The production will include not only baroque orchestral instruments used widely in Venetian opera, such as violins, harpsichord, and Theorbo; but Carpène wants to bring elements from the original Neapolitan orchestral palette of the 1650s, such as cornetto and viola da gamba, in addition to the castanets, tambourine, and percussion mentioned in the libretto. “Our aim is to capture the essence of the opera but at the same time connecting with an extant audience by means of an essentially contemporary Italian/Mediterranean style.” Interpretation by New York Baroque Incorporated will ensure an authentic Cavalli sound. On stage, Carpenè found mention of two dances in the original score, for which no music was included: the Dance of the Amazons and the Dance of the Bulls. Working closely with Italian Pierluigi Vanelli, contemporary choreography will unfold to 17th century dance music by Andrea Falconieri that includes la follia, la ciaccona, and la batalla.
Draping it in elegance
Enter Friulian-born Luigino Piccolo of Farani Sartoria Teatrale in Rome’s crusty Trastevere district. With two Oscars among their laurels for Franco Zeffirelli’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (1968) and Federico Fellini’s ‘Casanova’ (1977)—both Danilo Donati creations—the extravagant atelier has an impressive history in design that touches on everything from theatre to opera to film, with the occasional blitz into fashion for the likes of major couture label Christian Dior.
The Farani philosophy is one of experimentation, where unbridled imagination and freedom are paired with a love of Italian contemporary art.
Piccolo awakens what Nespolo dreams by inventing his own visual universe. “It is important that costumes reflect the artist,” says Piccolo. “When we see them, we want people to think ‘this is Nespolo’.” But that’s not all he has on his plate.
These days the sartoria is designing for the French blockbuster TV series ‘Les Borgia’, and did Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film ‘Marie Antoinette’–on the side, of course.
Taking tight notes on a blank stack of paper, the costume creator talks about fabric choices: silk is too translucent, cotton or velour more appropriate for Nespolo’s bold, opaque style. “The costumes tell a story,” he explains. “We want them to be historical, colourful. We want those colours to represent characters. The way colour is conveyed to the audience is very important; it should be clear, clean, and crisp—like Nespolo. It should hint at all things childlike.” Under Piccolo’s hand, the costumes are sure to be a regal affair, something not unlike a young king’s birthday party.
It’s a wrap
After a working session with Rhys Williams, Director of Production for the Spoleto Festival who spends an afternoon answering questions about technical stage limitations, the team calls it a night, each returning to his own workshop to conjure brilliance out of backstage brainstorm. Today’s scribbles and Lincoln Logs are tomorrow’s satin and finery, and visions as yet intangible will soon take the shape of so many dramatis personae emerging from the watery world of four imaginations.
‘Veremonda’ premieres on Saturday, May 23, 2015 at 7:30 pm, with four subsequent performances.
For ticket information: www.spoletousa.org
Article by Allison Zurfluh, Photography by Michel Juvet