Flavio Testi's `Riccardo III' is an ambitious opera that misses the point

IN his new opera, ``Riccardo III,'' which has just opened here at Teatro alla Scala, composer and librettist Flavio Testi failed to heed the sound advice Shakespeare placed in the mouth of one of the murderers in ``Richard III,'' on which the opera is based: ``It is better to be brief than tedious.'' Unfortunately, what Mr. Testi had given us is a three-and-a-half-hour opera long on text and rhetoric but short on drama and excitement, a work that is lengthy, loud, and frequently raucous but often dull, tedious, and irritating.

Testi - a contemporary of the two better-known composers who have dominated the field of modern Italian music internationally, Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono - created his own Italian translation and opera libretto from the original Shakespeare. Curiously, he seemed to have missed the most important point in the bard's original script. Shakespeare depicted Richard as a strong-willed monster of unparalleled villany, a conniving, clever noble intent on taking revenge on the entire court for his misshapen body.

While there is no historical documentation for it, Shakespeare conceived of Richard III as a deformed hunchback.

But what we had on stage - thanks to Testi's music and Virginio Puecher's staging - was a handsome-looking Riccardo who seemed neither villainous nor conniving in either musical line or physical appearance. True, the evil words were all there in the text, but nothing we saw and nothing we heard in the music suggested anything but a hero of the grand order, perhaps a Siegfried or a Lohengrin.

Contrasts of the most extreme kind were to be found throughout the opera. For example, the soloists either had to sing their arias without any instrumental accompaniment whatsoever, or they had to battle an orchestral sound that frequently made use of six to eight blaring trumpets, four trombones, and a tuba. The dramatic action often kept the soloists frozen in one position through an aria while, by way of contrast, the background - 30-foot tall mobile columns in Act I or an enormous tent-like piece of maroon cloth in Act II - was kept in constant motion.

Riccardo's great monologues were delivered not by Riccardo, but by a five-voice madrigal group that walked on stage in formal concert attire, music in hand, while Riccardo mimed graceful, flowing actions suggestive of Japanese Noh dramas.

In other scenes he was required to sing while being catapulted by a windlass onto the back of a 10-foot stylized horse, while being spun around in circles in a spiraling tower, and while having to drop by his hands through a trap door to a platform some eight feet below.

Flavio Testi is a composer who does not eschew the modern sound: discordant intervals, clashing harmonies, the use of a lot of brass and percussion in the orchestra, and simple, repetitive melodic figures for voice. His style, as revealed in ``Riccardo III'' (his sixth opera), is derived in essence from Stravinsky's neoclassic and polytonal/polyrhythmic periods, an expression also predisposed to rhythmic qualities somewhat akin to those of Carl Orff and Robert Kraft, including a large variety of solo drum sounds, catchy figures for the xylophone, and the use of the piano for special percussive effects. Testi's melodic lines in the arias often seemed to consist of simple sequences - short melodic figures repeated on different pitch levels - and everyday vocal exercises.

Much praise must be given to the English tenor William Lewis for his excellent performance as Riccardo. Mr. Lewis possesses a voice of rich timber with a bright, heroic quality that allowed him at least to match the sound of the trumpet ensemble even if not to overpower it.

The audience warmly and enthuiastically applauded the soloists, orchestra, and conductor; they violently hissed the composer and the director.

May the ghosts of the production not haunt the balance of the season, which includes Verdi's ``Otello'' and ``Un ballo in maschera;'' Gluck's ``Alceste;'' Puccini's ``Il Tabarro'' coupled with Leoncavallo's ``I Pagliacci;'' Bellini's ``I Capuleti e i Montecchi;' Puccini's ``Madama Butterfly;'' Hindemith's ``Cardillac;'' and, concluding the season on July 6, Mozart's ``Le nozze di Figaro.

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