Obsession is Basis of Rarely Done Opera 

 A-OP-Arlesiana A collection of short stories by Alphonse Daudet titled “Letters from My Mill” appeared in 1862. A decade later, Daudet used one of the short stories as a play titled “L’Arlesienne” (The Woman from Arles), with incidental music by Georges Bizet. The play flopped but Bizet’s score appeared in two suites and they are the most frequently played CDs in my collection.

The story of a man obsessed by a woman is an ancient one. When Francesco Cilea decided to base an opera on the play, it was decided that the titular female would never appear and the psychological tale would revolve around the obsessed Federico and his mother Rosa Mamai. Premiered in 1897, “L’Arlesiana” had a mild success, but not enough of one to keep Cilea from making many changes. Nevertheless, the opera is seldom performed in major opera houses.

Cilea in his early 30s

So it is a Good Thing to see the first video production as it was performed in 2013 at the Teatro G.B. Pergolesi, Jesi on a Dynamic DVD. The conductor is Francesco Cilluffo. The program notes are quite informative and make a good case for this opera, which is still tonal and melodic but has no “big tunes” that linger in the memory. Indeed, the success of any production of this work lies in the acting abilities of the singers—and of course their voices. Here, the cast does not fail on either ground.

Tenor Dmitry Golovnin makes the crazed Federico believable, while Annunziata Vestri really makes Rosa the main character. Despairing over her younger mentally challenged son, she devotes herself to curing her older son of his obsession. The young Vivetta, in love with Federico, is not given a strong enough character in the script; but Mariangela Sicilia does her best to be at least sympathetic.

The most intense music, dramatically and musically, are “Federico’s Lament” and Rosa’s monologue “It is hell to be a mother.” As the program notes point out, the setting in the lovely Midi region of France is never exploited musically.

The Director could not resist bringing on a mute Arlesiana (so the unimaginative audience could see what Federico was thinking) and even a second Federico locked in a cage in the third act, which seems to be set in some sort of a mental hospital. It is never wise to take an unfamiliar opera and stage it with a “concept,” since it invariably confuses the audience. Even here, what one sees at the last minute contradicts the synopsis given in the program notes.

The running time is 105 minutes and there are subtitles, but no bonus material.

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