Francesco Cilea, libretto Arturo Colautti
Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, Sardinia

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Lionetto (Carlo Ventre) and Gloria (Anastasia Bartoli) Credit: Priamo Tolu
Gloria, the set and chorus Credit: Priamo Tolu
The return of Lionetto Credit: Priamo Tolu
Gloria and Bardo (Franco Vassallo) Credit: Priamo Tolu

Francesco Cilea’s Gloria must already have seemed somewhat old-fashioned when it premièred at La Scala in 1907, the same year as Richard Strauss’s Salome, let alone when the composer revised the music 25 years later.

Its traditional structure certainly harked back to operatic styles of the previous century, more so the conventional plot. Set during the dynastic power struggle of 13th century Sienna, it centres on Gloria, daughter of the Guelph leader, and her love for Lionetto, commander of the Ghibellines. At first persuaded by her brother Bardo to poison the latter for killing their father in battle, she relents, only for Bardo to exact his own revenge with a dagger, after which she fatally stabs herself.

Cilea is better known for his earlier works, Adrianna Lecouvreur and L’Arlesianna, but conductor Francesco Cilluffo is something of a foster father to neglected operas, having worked extensively with the Wexford Festival, and what makes the composer’s last opera worthy of interest is the score, with fluid orchestral colours reminiscent of Rimsky Korsakov, beautifully exploited in Gloria’s middle act exchanges with Bardo and then Lionetto.

In terms of voice quality alone, the cast is immaculate. Anastasia Bartoli, showing no signs of the indisposition that led her to cancel some performances, cuts a striking figure, with sweet legato in her cradle song, delivered over plaintive strings and one of the opera's showpieces, and with a confident top C that brings the dramatic second act to its conclusion.

As Bardo, Franco Vassallo, with the dark locks and darker looks of an evil monk, gives the most passionate and expressive performance, shading his resonant baritone to suit the wiles of the manipulative brother. And Carlo Ventre, as Lionetto, has a most beautifully smooth tenor voice, brilliantly clear and rock solid throughout the range.

Unfortunately, his stage presence is rock-like too. Not only does his manner come from the old park-and-bark tradition, but his expression on being reunited with his ‘adored’ Gloria after years’ separation is more of a glower, as if she has neglected the housework while he's been away.

Italian audiences may be more tolerant of such things than those elsewhere, but the absence of any chemistry in the relationship is glaring, so much so that when Gloria loosely embraces the dying Lionetto, she avoids too close a contact, for fear perhaps of smudging her heavily-applied blood-red (13th century?) lipstick.

Leila Fteita’s set resembles a classical amphitheatre—a pleasing reference to the work being staged in archaeology-rich Sardinia—on the steps of which are assembled the chorus, some curiously dressed in pleated gowns that make the men look like caterpillars.

Modest budgets and rehearsal time naturally impose limits on elaborate choreography, with no choreographer credited presumably in the hands of director Antonio Albanese, but although the setting is effective, the static line-up does make the opening ceremonial scene drag, and left some of the children brought on as celebrants drumming their fingers.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

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