The 47th edition of the Festival of Opera and Ballet Arts (FOBA) commenced on 28 November 2016 at Stara Zagora Opera House. Mr. Ognian Draganov, Director of Stara Zagora Opera House called for observing a minute of silence in remembrance of Alexander Josifov, who had a very warm relationship with the musicians from Stara Zagora, ‘the Bulgarian composer having the most fulfilling career in the field of children’s opera within the FOBA’, a city’s Citizen of Honour and Festival’s Art Director of long standing. Mrs. Krasimira Chakhova, Deputy Mayor for Culture delivered a welcome speech on behalf of the Municipality.
Traditionally, the hosts open the event with premieres. Well, if a bad day never hath a good night, then the double premieres of the opera Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni and the ballet La Giara by Alfredo Casella are full of promise of a major cultural event rather than just the Festival’s successive edition.
Cavalleria Rusticana is a popular work staged on a regular basis, but it is the set and costume design by Salvatore Russo that make it a treat for the senses. A weathered brick wall with vaulted niches and strongly contrasting white columns, remnants of ancient cultures, is used instead of the traditional curtain. The wall ‘opens up’ to a vista of a square with a massive stone church at the far end, Alfio’s two-storey house in the right and the tavern in the left: the authentic ambience of a southern village, in which the masterly set design places Sicily’s architectural symbols or that is what the brochure says.
Costumes: Usually, both in Bulgarian and foreign productions of Cavalleria Rusticana, the sole more or less brightly coloured attire is that of Lola, while the rest of the villagers are clad in garments in greyish-brown-black. Here though, we witness the advent of modern urban men’s and women’s clothing and the typification of the strata within this miniature society. The presence of children of all ages at the festivity gives the performance unadulterated colours and authenticity. The little miss with the lady and the mister wearing a topper (probably, visitors from the nearby city (R) is a far cry from the country children, the hosts, the maidens. They differ both in their clothing and manners and in their choices of dainties and entertainments, which directly suggests the complete unanimity among the producers and the directorial tasks assigned to every performer (bar none!). Even children are looking at each other’s clothes and manners excitedly. Neither have the typical of that period and of the Mediterranean beards, moustaches or sideburns escaped the designer’s notice, while Lola (Desi Stephanova) is like a doll on display in a shop window: pretty, attractive, shining. Such a dazzling beauty wouldn’t sit at home waiting for her husband; her entire look indicates her striving for entertainment and admiration. Visiting singers: Kamen Chanev (Turiddu), a tenor with an international career; Olga Romanko (Santuzza); award-winning Stara Zagora Opera House prima donna of long standing, who has performed at a number of European opera houses Eudokia Zdravkova-Horozova (Mamma Lucia). Olga Romanko is an established Russian opera singer with rich stage experience. Her operatic repertoire includes a large number of roles and interesting and exciting engagements with the best conductors are in store for her at major opera houses across the world. She also teaches singing at Giaccomo Puccini Conservatory in La Spezia, Italy; associate professor at Academia Arena, Rome. Besides, she conducts masterclasses. Valeri Turmanov plays the hard-working village carter, Alfio.
The deep feelings of Eudokia Zdravkova-Horozova, whose Santuzza though in a concert performance delighted and filled the audience with admiration at the Stars of Stara Zagora Opera House matinee paying homage to her, are especially perceptible. Still, her unadulterated emotions just ‘warmed’ the character of Mamma Lucia, rendering her human empathy with Santuzza’s agony.
The strings and the harp achieved very fine nuances as early as the introduction. The orchestra’s richness of sound was subjected to the onstage developments. Conductor Carlo Donadio, director Ignazio Occhipinti and the set/costume designer Salvatore Russo are all Italians.
Initially, the choir is slightly shattered as though lacking heights of pitch, but the spectacular scene in the square with all the vendors’ stalls, children and even a bird cage are spellbinding, Spectacularity in the finest sense of this word has been achieved also in the religious procession carrying a statue of the Madonna and gonfalons. Both the clerics and the two groups of children––the left wearing cadmium orange robes, long satin blue belts girdling their waists, white lilies in hands; the right wearing white lace tunics over red robes––look like taken from paintings by the greats.
La Giara (The Jar), a choreographic comedy in one act composed by Alfredo Casella and set to Pirandello’s The Story of the Girl Seized by Pirates, was told through dance in Bulgaria for the first time by choreographer Flavio Bennati, assistant choreographer Silvia Tomova, ballet pianist Alida Boneva, rehearsal pianist Mauro Fabbri and the same set/costume designer Salvatore Russo and conductor Carlo Donadio. Though set in Sicily once again, the general air and colour gamut are a far cry from those of the Cavalleria: much sunnier nevertheless all the moonlit scenes.
A rich landowner, Don Lollò Zirafa (Alexander Zhelev) has a big oil jar of which he is inordinately proud. The jar breaks in two pieces and he engages Zi’ Dima Licasi (Petia Vuneva), a humpbacked crippled mender of crockery to glue it. Unfortunately, after the work is done, his hump prevents his egress through the mouth of the vessel. Don Lollò’s daughter Nela (Yu-chan Iizuka), the latter’s fiancé (Stoian Furtunov) and their friends make their best to calm the enraged landlord. Zi’ Dima takes the idea of spending the night inside the jar in good part, philosophically smoking his pipe. Don Lollò refuses the vessel to be broken to release the incarcerated hunchback…
Moonlight. Nela’s fiancé (Milko Mikhailov) sings La storia della fanciulla rapita dai pirati, the story of a girl seized by a young pirate. The happily dancing lovers are joined by peasants, who make so much noise with their carousing that Don Lollò can’t sleep a wink. Infuriated, he rushes from his house and sends the jar rolling downhill against an olive tree. It breaks, the hunchback, delivered at last, is carried in triumph on the shoulders of his rejoicing friends.
Alexander Zhelev and Petia Vuneva, very popular with aficionados for a while now, are again surprising in their new roles. It is even difficult to say who of them is better! It is gratifying and promising to see more company members engaged in the production, and younger too, as well as the effortlessness and synchronization of their dance performance.
The happy smiles of the performers, the armfuls of flowers and a tremendous ovation were a well-deserved finale of the Festival’s opening night.