The Maggio Music Festival: A May Preview

A scene from “La Straniera”

Music lovers can look forward to the start of the 82nd edition of the Maggio Musicale Festival. “Power and Virtue” is the leitmotif, one that will be reflected in 130 appointments over two months involving 50 cultural institutions throughout the region of Tuscany.

The Festival will be inaugurated on May 2 and the day is rich with offerings, free of charge, beginning with a concert by the Maggio Musicale Brass Ensemble at Piazza Signoria’s Loggia dei Lanzi at 12 noon. Later, to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci (d. May 2, 1519) a new commission by Luca Logi titled Aphorisms for Children’s Voices and Piano on Texts by Leonardo da Vinci, in addition to works by Verdi, Puccini and Mozart, will be sung at the Zeffirelli Foundation in Piazza San Firenze.  The headliners will be the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (MMF) Children’s Choir conducted by Lorenzo Fratini (recitals at 3 pm and 4:30 pm).

Always on May 2, two performances of a new work composed by Giorgio Battistelli again in tribute to Da Vinci, this time for 500 brass and percussion instruments, will be held in Piazzale Vittoria Gui, in front of the Teatro del Maggio, at 5 and 6 pm.  The evening brings the debut of the first opera of this year’s festival, Lear, by the German composer Aribert Reimann (b. 1936), based on the Shakespeare tragedy (Teatro del Maggio, 8 pm, tickets available online).

The great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau dreamed of interpreting the role of King Lear and at his request Reimann finally wrote the opera, on a commission by the Munich State Opera, which premiered in 1978.  The music can be considered expressionistic, echoing the pathos and passion of the characters.  The production comes from the Opéra National de Paris, with stage direction by the Spaniard Calixto Bieito and Fabio Luisi as the conductor.  Repeat performances are scheduled on May 5 and 9.

The next opera is Bellini’s rarely performed La Straniera on May 14, 16 and 19.  A melodrama in two acts, the opera is inspired by the novel “L’Étrangère” by Charles-Victor Prévost d’Arlincourt: at the heart of the plot is a complicated series of historical events which begin at the end of the 12th century. The protagonist is Queen Agnes, abandoned by the King of France for political reasons and forced to live in disguise along the shores of Lake Montolino in Brittany, with her brother Leopold. She wanders incognito in the forest arousing the fears and suspicions of the villagers, yet Arturo, Count of Ravestel, falls in love with the solitary stranger although he is already promised to another woman. The dramatic consequences of this forbidden and impossible romance are at the center of this work, encouraging Bellini to compose some of his most dramatic music.

The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity ’is a new opera commissioned by the 82nd Maggio Musicale Festival. The title and inspiration come from the homonymous text by Carlo M. Cipolla (1922-2000), an Italian economic historian. After a long academic career in Italy at various universities, in 1953 he was invited was invited to the University of California, Berkeley, where he became a full professor in 1959. One of his essays there explored the controversial subject of stupidity and is considered as helping to create an illuminating theory on the subject. This new piece, created by the composer Vittorio Montalti (b. Rome,1984) and the librettist Giuliano Compagno, will be staged by Giancarlo Cauteruccio and interpreted by Florence’s ContempoArtEnsemble, which dedicates its activity to 20th and 21st centrury music, conducted for the occasion by Fabio Maestri.

The ContempoArtEnsemble returns to the Teatro del Maggio on May 21 with a program that includes pieces for or inspired by classic films: Philip Glass’s Suite from “Dracula” (1998), and Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho, A Suite for Strings (1960).

The calendar in May continues to showcase styles as diverse as baroque to contemporary with varied concerts.  There will be a number of guest orchestras on stage with world-class directors, including the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai led by the American conductor James Conlon in an evening which concludes with the brilliant “Pictures at an Exhibition” by M. Mussorgsky (May 15). Contemporary composer Salvatore Sciarrino will oversee his own works with the Orchestra Sinfonica Siciliana (May 27) and on May 28, Riccardo Muti will lead the Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini in the Missa defunctorum by Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816).

The Maggio Musicale Orchestra will give a rendition of Franz Schubert’s Symphony n. 2 and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony n. 4 headlining soprano Marina Rebeka (May 4). Myung-Whun Chung, formerly Principal Guest Conductor of the MMF, will lead the orchestra in an evening of German symphonic works by Beethoven and Brahms (May 23).

The Maggio’s well-loved Honorary Music Director, Zubin Mehta, returns for two concerts in May.  In the first, Zakir Hussain, Indian tabla drum virtuoso, is both composer and the soloist of Peshkar, Concerto for tabla and orchestra (2015), to be followed by the Symphony n. 9 in C major, the Great, by Franz Schubert (May 26).  Soloists Pinchas Zukerman, violin, and Amanda Forsyth, cello, will join Mehta and the orchestra in a program of works by Alexander Zemlinsky, Mozart and Johannes Brahms (May 30).

These are but a few of the highlights of the 82nd Maggio Musicale Festival, which continues through June 26.  Details and ticket info can be found on the website.  (anne lokken)