Opera: A new Italian opera: it's a family affair

Opera: Magma Teatro Rossini, Lugo
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Opera: Magma

Teatro Rossini, Lugo

No country in the world is more intimately associated with opera than Italy, which makes the life of any contemporary Italian work bearing this title all the more complex, indeed fraught.

Magma, or The See-Through Wilderness, a new opera by the young composer Lamberto Coccioli, could not, obviously, be further from Verdi, but it presents a music of such lambent sensuality and richly dramatic colour that it cannot but convince even those weaned on an exclusive diet of bel canto. Magma refreshingly avoids any hint of populist Po-Mo Romanticism, twinned evils of quotation and pastiche, whilst proffering the traditional lure of melody unabashed. Magma is utterly modern, even Modernist, in its rigour and uses a full battery of techno-electronic sound, a veritable tagliatelle of wiring, yet remains radically engaging.

Coccioli is perfectly placed for such a breakthrough with this first major work, as the right-hind man of Luciano Berio, whose own emphasis is on the manipulation and celebration of the human voice.

To see Berio in attendance at opening night, reverently addressed as "Maestro" by every usher, was to understand the pleasures of continuity in Italian musical life, as well as the burdens of that history. Rossini spent two years in Lugo, a tiny town near Ravenna, and visited the theatre now named after him, a delightful 1761 structure that holds scarcely 400 in its boxes.

The opera's success was aided by an unusually strong libretto commissioned from the Germano-Irish poet Sebasban Schloessingk, who has long commuted between London, Rome and Wales. If the feisty chop of the English original, "slum it and clear it ..." was softened and sensualised by translation into Italian, it still maintained a balance between linguistic bravado and commonplace exposition, if not exactly providing a plot that created a convincing portrait.

For Magma is essentially an intimate psychodrama of a single female alone with a chorus of ghosts from fantasy or memory, not unlike the film Repulsion. The actor Francesca Brizzolara embodied her with the energy, physicality and vocal intensity to be simultaneously victim and star, while a soprano and mezzo also sang her thoughts and moods.

The sophistication of the music was entirely in the hands of Denise Fedeli, a young conductor of exceptional subtlety and precision. Eventually, it seemed, there were only two women facing each other over the footlights, conductor and actor building together a fictional female written by two men.

If the production sometimes seemed over-busy, amplification too strident for a theatre of this scale, the solution is a bigger venue. It would be a treat to hear the words sung in English with all their jagged lyricism: "Trees and nerves and lungs and needs ..."

But it is Coccioli's music, from the shimmering soundscape of the Introduzione to the pounding heartbeat of the Finale, that insists that this work find a place in the international repertoire, redefining "Italian opera".

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