The Spoleto Festival's usual opera offerings are a mix of popular pieces like Don Giovanni and Lakme, brand-new operas such as this year's Matsukaze and the recent Feng Yi Ting and Émilie, and occasional long-lost treasures like the colonial-era, Charleston-connected Flora and Christoph Willibald Gluck's Merlin's Island.
This year's older operas, being performed together on a double bill, fall into the latter category. Giacomo Puccini and Umberto Giordano are well known, but their one-act operas Le Villi and Mese Mariano are not. While the two operas are very different in style, both are about jilted women. In Le Villi, the spirit of a woman haunts the man who betrayed her; the "villis" of the title are the spirits of all abandoned women. The woman in Mese Mariano has been seduced and left to raise her son alone. The man she eventually marries forces her to leave the boy at an orphanage.
"These are characters who, although defeated by life, are courageous and are fighters, in existential contexts filled with immense melancholy," says Stephano Vizioli, who is directing both in his Spoleto debut.
Premiered in 1884, Le Villi put the 26-year-old Puccini on the map, but it isn't often performed, being overshadowed by the composer's 40-year string of hits including Edgar, Manon Lescaut, Madama Butterfly, La Bohème, and Tosca. Giordano was no Puccini, but his Fedora, which starred a then-unknown tenor named Enrico Caruso and Andrea Chenier, guaranteed his place in opera history. Those rare folks who know Mese Mariano say appreciation of it is long overdue.
Spoleto's Mese Mariano will be the first time it has had a full staging in the U.S. Neither Spoleto Festival General Director Nigel Redden nor Jennifer Rowley, the soprano singing the lead, had ever heard of it. Vizioli discovered it 15 years ago when he staged a student production in Italy.
"At the time, it was completely unknown to me, and when I studied it, I fell in love with the plot and the music," says Vizioli, who has directed at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Teatro dell'Opera of Rome, and the Santa Fe Opera Festival, among other places. "Working with Spoleto gives me the opportunity to propose this opera in more prestigious and courageous contexts."
In conceiving Mese, Vizioli was inspired by the great post-World War II Italian actresses Anna Magnani, Silvana Mangano, Sofia Loren, and Titina de Filippo, "who gave an unforgettable interpretation" of Mese Mariano in a television production, he says. "Prepare your handkerchiefs, because I want to see everyone crying at the end," he says. "Otherwise I will have failed in my intentions." The opera is also close to his heart because his grandfather was friends with Giordano and Mese libretto writer Salvatore di Giacomo.
Le Villi is very different from Puccini's big hits. "It is the only time that Puccini explores the themes of fantasy and dreams with the appearance of ghosts, the resurrected dead, and other horrors typical of German Romanticism," Vizioli says. "Le Villi has always interested me for its magical aspect."
The opera also provides an opportunity to explore more contemporary social and psychological issues, he says. "These ghosts of deluded women, killed by the indifference of men — how much does it instead not refer to the internal remorse of the male protagonist? I mean, the ghosts are none other than our own anguishes of remorse and regret."
The opera will be set in the "flowery and saccharine world" of the 1950s, where the anguish of the lead character is gradually revealed. The two operas will be conducted by Maurizio Barbacini, former conductor of the Finnish National Opera and the Opera Company of Philadelphia, who has led orchestras at the Metropolitan Opera, Vienna State Opera, and Deutsche Oper Berlin. Both are being designed by Neil Patel, who has designed for the Santa Fe Opera, the Houston Grand Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the Gate Theatre. He's also won two Obie Awards.
The lead female roles in both operas will be sung by Jennifer Rowley, who didn't even have to audition. Working as the "cover" or understudy for Desdemona in Otello at the Metropolitan Opera, Rowley caught the eye and ear of Lenore Rosenberg, associate artistic administrator of the Met and Spoleto Festival, who recommended her for the operas.
"I don't think they were written just for me, but they could be," says Rowley, who is making her Spoleto debut. "The women are nearly polar opposites in what they go through emotionally ... two different kinds of love and abandonment. Both are great juicy emotional roles and I really feel like I can get to the core of each woman. Emotionally and vocally, they fit just right, like a glove."
Recently, Rowley has gotten a lot of attention for winning the top prizes at the Opera Index Vocal Competition, William Mattheus Sullivan Musical Foundation Awards, and Gerda Lissner Foundation International Vocal Competition. She also makes her Met debut next year as Musetta in La Bohème. All this from someone who didn't even seriously consider a singing career until college.
Rowley studied ballet for many years when she was young, and she liked singing so she began doing musical theater. Her high school choir director in the suburban Cleveland town where she lived told her she had a good voice and should take lessons at the nearby Oberlin Conservatory, but she remained just as interested in playing volleyball and softball as singing.
"I was like, 'OK, I'll try it," she says. When she started college, she was studying music education, not performance. Then she finally saw an opera while in Argentina on an exchange program. "I saw La Traviata in a boxing arena with jumbo TVs and cameramen on stage and I wept through it," Rowley says. "That made me completely fall in love with opera."