The skies over Piazza Angelio threatened, but never parted, and a light mist only added a shade of mystery to the natural magic of an Italian Renaissance square. It was a perfect opening night for Bel Canto in Barga, the ambitious “International Singing Festival” founded and organized by our own prima diva, Sally Li. The subject was “Le Donne dell’Opera,” a carefully chosen selection of arias sung by or celebrating women — and for 150 delighted music lovers, the evening couldn’t have been better.
Following successful 2014 seasons at the venerable Opera Barga and Bara Jazz festivals, the new event reinforces the town’s growing reputation for art of the highest order. A mute but eloquent witness to the Bel Canto arias was an extraordinary sculpture now taking shape in the same piazza under the direction of the brilliant Massimo Catalani. In its way, Catalani’s steady tapping at three large blocks of Carrara marble this week was a rhythmic prelude to last night’s performances.
From the outset, the audience was captivated by Bel Canto’s cast, whose musical talents as singers were matched by unusually engaging personalities. Those talents were more than ably echoed by the accompaniment of pianists Massimo Salotti and Dario Tondelli. The prevailing mood — an implicit pact with the crowd that this was to be an evening of sheer, lighthearted pleasure — was set by Offenbach’s famous (and famously difficult) “doll’s aria” from “Les Contes d’Hoffmann.” The Livorno soprano Bianca Barsanti was superb as a wind-up toy who mimics the notes of songbirds, which fluctuate to the loosening and rewinding of her spring-driven voice.
Portuguese tenor Alberto Sousa, now London-based and already on his way to stardom, deployed a hilarious repertoire of erotic leers and gestures in his interpretation of two iconic seducers, Mozart’s Don Giovanni (with Sally singing the part of a dazzled but wary maiden) and Verdi’s outrageously randy Duke of Mantova in “Rigoletto.”
The soprano Chiara Giudice, who hails from continental Italy’s southernmost corner in rural Puglia, brought classic Mediterranean beauty and formidable poise to three memorable female characters: Mimi, the fragile seamstress in Puccini’s “La Boheme” — a role she will undertake more fully on Saturday night and again on September 12; love-torn Lauretta and her lilting “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi;” and the sultry Michaela from Bizet’s “Carmen.”
Carmen was also on the bill with that best-known of all baritone arias, the toreador Escamillo’’s arrogant toast to himself, in a swaggering performance by Ryan Hugh Ross that brought his listeners to their feet. Like Chiara Giudice, Iowa-born Ross is the scion of a rural small town who was smitten with classical music as a teenager, and set out on the long and arduous road to an exceedingly cosmopolitan profession. “I’m American and Dutch,” he told the audience, introducing his role as Escamillo. “But I live in Britain and I am here in Tuscany at the invitation of Sally, a Chinese soprano, to sing an aria written by a Frenchman and set in Spain. That’s what makes opera so wonderful.”
“Wonderful” is precisely how the opening night of Bel Canto came to its surprise finish. Riccardo Negri, Sally’s husband and the genial proprietor of the popular l’Osteria on Piazza Angelio, suddenly appeared at the foot of the stage with a tray of glasses brimming with vino rosso. The cast took them up, as Giudici and Sousa led an explosively joyful rendition of the ballroom chorus that opens Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Once again the crowd was on its feet.
Bel Canto in Barga continues with Saturday’s staging of “La Boheme” at the Teatro dei Differenti. In addition to Giudice as Mimi, Sousa will portray the poet Rodolfo, Barsani the singer Musetta and Ross the painter Marcello. An evening of sacred songs will be presented in the Duomo on September 8, musical and folk songs in Piazza Angelio two nights later, the second performance of “La Boheme” on September 12, and a gala finale in the theater on September 13. What local opera lovers hope is that we will hear more from Sally Li on that last night.
Frank Viviano is the author or co-author of seven books, including the critically-acclaimed Blood Washes Blood, Dispatches From the Pacific Century and In the Balkans (with Magnum photographer Nikos Economopoulos).