October is Opera month with ‘Opera is Gozo’, a festival celebrating this joyous and rousing art form. Soulful arias fill our theatres and skies as international soloist’s, orchestra musicians, choristers and locals unite to perform, participate and take pleasure in all things opera.
Gozo’s Opera Month is an important fixture on the international classical music calendar. The festival includes two fully staged operas performed at The Astra theatre and Aurora Theatre in Victoria as well as recitals, opera appreciation workshops and activities for seasoned opera-goers right through to opera newbies. 2019’s event brought opera to the masses with Street Opera performed in Victoria’s streets as well as a children’s opera ‘Bo-Peep’ written especially for children, with child performers too.
But as a small Mediterranean island just 64km² why is Gozo so crazy about Opera? Well our culture is influenced by our close proximity to Italy and Sicily. Also, amazingly Gozo has two large opera houses on the opposite sides of the same street, who have a friendly rivalry spurring each other on. Not many European cities can boast to having one opera house – but to have two in one street is quite a feat!
Yet, Gozo is free from any elitism sometimes associated with opera. Our highly acclaimed operas would be impossible to co-ordinate without the support from local carpenters, seamstresses and volunteers, who donate their talents and time to build sets, craft costumes and to man theatre box offices. So, these elaborate operas are the outcome of a community effort and the culmination of a whole year’s worth of hard work. Opera made in Gozo, for the people, by the people.
The Aurora Opera House opened our opera month with a heart-wrenching production of La Boheme, an opera classic set in Paris, packed with passion and poverty to a Puccini score and an Illica and Giacosa storyline focusing on ill-fated lovers Mimi and Rodolfo. The international cast included Nino Machaidze as Mimi, Italian tenor Ivan Defabiani as Rodolfo, Maria Novella Malfatti as Musetta and Krum Galabov, Marcello. Enrico Maria Marabelli was Schaunard, Mariano Buccino was Colline and Dario Giorgele played the double role of Alcindoro and Benoit. Young Gozitan tenor Angelo Muscat got his opera debut in the role of Parpignol.
Musical director, Colin Attard led the National Philharmonic Orchestra and the Aurora Opera House Choir, whilst renowned Artistic Director Vivien Hewitt, designed the scenes and collaborated with Gozitan designer Luke Azzopardi on costumes.
Matthew Sultana, Head of Production for the Aurora Theatre says: “Vivien Hewitt, our Artistic Director knows Puccini and Illica inside out and constructed a production full of emotions, feelings and pathos. The sets and costumes transported our audiences to Paris of more than a 100 years ago in history and all of a sudden, it became so easy for our protagonists to live up to their act and for our audiences to soak up the atmosphere of poverty and merriment, because ‘they were there’… in Paris. They empathised with Rodolfo seeing his beloved Mimi’s health failing her and shed tears. La Boheme’s score and libretto were studied to the minute detail and everyone from stage director to conductor, from chorus to principals, strived to give a soul to the music, the singing, the drama and the staging.”
Homegrown talent, Angelo Muscat, an 18 year old Tenor from Għajnsielem debuted in La Boheme playing Parpignol. Angelo sings with Chorus Urbanus and the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, yet this was his first time performing in a fully staged opera. He says: “Working on La Boheme was a fantastic experience, my role was a very minor one – but getting the chance to work with internationally renowned opera singers and to watch them working was inspiring. I learnt a lot about technique from watching Nino Machaidze who played the lead role of Mimi and who was very supportive.
Still drying their eyes after the success of La Boheme, local music lovers now eagerly anticipate the festival’s closing opera, Astra Opera Theatre‘s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘Il Trovatore’ which makes a triumphant return with two performances on the 24th and 26th October after almost a 20 year absence.
Enrico Stinchelli is the Artistic Director for ‘Il Trovatore’ and 2019’s star-studded cast includes top Verdian tenor: Valeriy Georgiev playing troubadour Manrico and Soprano Joanna Parisi plays his beloved Leonora. Joanna won accolades touring the world in Verdi operas. Plamen Dimitrov plays evil Count di Luna and famed mezzo- soprano Sania Anastasia is mysterious Azucena.
John Galea ,Teatru Astra’s recently appointed resident opera-conductor leads the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra and the Teatru Astra Opera Chorus and tempts us about the plot’s high drama: “Il Trovatore has its own dose of sustained pathos, where the vocal texture impinges the basic emotions of love, hate, jealousy, grief and joy upon the audience.”
It’s no surprise then that Il Trovatore is one of the Verdi’s more renowned operas and popular with locals.
Michael Formosa, the President of La Stella society, producing the production says: “The plot is actually a battle-scene with all the usual high Verdi drama involving intricate love and hate stories. But the sets for Il Trovatore are truly sensational. The Astra is renowned for its backstage team creating sets which continually amaze audiences. I can reveal the staging for Il Trovatore features a highly visual battle scene as well as a set inside a Cathedral”.
He continues: “We are definitely living up to people’s expectations with Il Trovatore and can’t wait to get feedback from our audiences at the show. In fact, we often receive enquiries from foreign production houses wanting us to bring our sets over to Italy. The set from our Nabucco production flew up to Northern Italy to be used by an Italian opera company. So, it’s an acknowledgement for Gozo to be exporting opera sets to Italy, the home and hub of opera and it validates the quality achieved by our technical volunteers”
If you’ve not already purchased tickets for Il Trovatore then hurry. If VisitGozo has whet your appetite for Opera Month next year, then the good news is both opera houses have announced their 2020 productions; Aurora Theatre stage Giuseppi Verdi’s ‘Aida’ and Teatru Astra’s production is Bizet’s captivating masterpiece of passion, jealousy and betrayal – ‘Carmen’.
With thanks to: Michael Formosa, Matthew Sultana, Angelo Muscat, Shaun Sultana, Christine Muscat Azzopardi, Betta Bugeja.