By Rebecca Schmid
BERLIN — With a concert performance of Francesco Cilea’s L’Arlesiana, the Deutsche Oper here revived a work that is rarely heard in its entirety. The opera, upon its premiere in 1897, launched the international career of Enrico Caruso, and the “Lamento di Federico” remains one of the most beloved arias in the tenor repertoire.
As heard on Feb. 24, at the second and last of two performances, the Deutsche Oper assembled an impressive cast including Joseph Calleja as Federico and mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick as his mother, Rosa. The score of L’Arlesiana expresses the characters’ torment so vividly that a full staging hardly seemed necessary, especially given the tendency of today’s productions to superimpose visuals which can distract from an opera’s emotional core.
That L’Arlesiana does not rest on the most inspired libretto would also speak in favor of a concert performance. Based on Alphonse Daudet’s play L’Arlésienne, to which Bizet wrote incidental music, the story takes place on a farm in 19th-century Provence, revolving around the infatuation of Federico with a girl from Arles who has been having an affair with the horse watchman, Metifio.
Federico agrees to marry his mother’s goddaughter, Vivetta, but cannot banish thoughts of the girl from Arles. He has a mad vision that she has been kidnapped and – despite the efforts of Rosa to stop him – jumps out the window.
Calleja first appeared with a dramatically flat expression but plunged further and further into the character as the evening unfolded, becoming by turns vulnerable and vengeful. If his voice has an unfortunately fast vibrato – sometimes referred to as a “caprino,” or little goat – he possesses many of the qualities one associates with the great era of the Italian tenor.
The voice floats seductively in the high range, while exuding warmth as it moves lower down. His diction carries to the last row of the house, with open vowels and an expansive legato that seem as natural as speech.
In Federico’s lament, he made the audience feel the pain of unrequited love, abandoning himself to the music while maintaining a careful blend of head and chest voice at the climax (“Mi fa tanto male”). Following the audience’s enthusiastic applause, one almost wished for an encore.
The revelation of the evening, however, was the young soprano Mariangela Sicilia. As Vivetta, she carried above the ensemble with a creamy but commanding voice while also bringing the right dose of coquettishness to the role. In the duet that closes Act 2, she and Calleja had so much chemistry that one wondered how he could resist her and chase after the girl from Arles (who never appears in the opera).
Markus Brück, a veteran ensemble member at the Deutsche Oper, gave an equally memorable performance as the old shepherd Baldessare. His baritone was at once soothing and incisive as he told the mentally disabled Innoncente, younger son of Rosa, a fable about the fight between a goat and a wolf (the story will come back to haunt Federico before he takes his life in the final scene).
Zajick, as Rosa, did not rise to the same standards in diction and expression. While her voice was typically arresting – soaring from grounded chest tones to ringing high notes that cut through the orchestra – her nose was so glued to the music stand that she hardly made contact with the audience.
The young ensemble member Seth Carico, often a standout in the Deutsche Oper’s productions, struggled to hold his own alongside the more mature voice of Brück upon his first appearance as Metifio but warmed up to a more robust tone and authentic diction for the third-act scene in which Federico attempts to attack him with a hammer. Mezzo-soprano Meechot Marrero, as L’Innocente, and Byung Gil Kim, as Rosa’s brother Marco, rounded out the cast.
The house orchestra provided sensitive accompaniment under guest conductor Paolo Arrivabene. If rhythmic articulation was at times so exact as to seem forced, dusky atmospheres and swelling phrases easily evoked the opera’s pastoral setting and the characters’ inner lives.
The offstage chorus of Act 2, accompanied by celeste, harp, and woodwinds, was magical in its understatement, while the brass variations on the final line of the “Lamento di Federico” following the character’s suicide burned with intensity. The male voices of the house chorus would have benefited from more controlled dynamics in the first act, contrary to the ensemble of girls that opened Act 3 with a festive, elegant atmosphere.
Such considerations aside, in an age of greatest hits compilations and YouTube clicks, the revival brings a breath of fresh air to the opera industry.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional legacy of Kurt Weill.