Ritratto Willem Jeths: a luscious soundworld that vies with Puccini

On 11 March 2020 the Dutch government decreed a lockdown to curb the spreading of the Covid-19 virus: all theatres were to be closed as of the next day. Tough luck for Willem Jeths, the premiere of whose opera Ritratto was scheduled for 13 March. Dutch National Opera quickly hired extra cameramen to capture the dress rehearsal, and the production was premiered online a week later.

Along with some 76,000 other viewers worldwide I was glued to my computer screen. I was enchanted by the enchanting music, the atmospheric staging and the intense performance of the singers and Amsterdam Sinfonietta under the baton of Geoffrey Paterson. When in October the premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s new opera was cancelled, too, Ritratto could be seamlessly slotted in, be it that now Paterson conducted the Residentie Orkest.

I wrote a review for the Dutch blog Theaterkrant, underneath you find my English translation.

Verity Wingate as Luisa Casati (c) Ruth Waltz

Amsterdam, 7 October 2020

Dazzling costumes by Jan Taminiau. Check. Ear-busting music by Willem Jeths. Check. Fascinating stage design and ditto lighting by Marc Warning and Alex Brok. Check. Spiritually stimulating direction by Marcel Sijm. Check. Breathtaking performance of Verity Wingate as main character Luisa Casati. Check. Ingenious libretto by Frank Siera. Check. Paired with a subtle choreography by Zino Ainsley Schat and a cast of top singers, Ritratto by Willem Jeths has all it takes to become a world hit.

At first glance, little seems to be different from the video premiere. The fairytale-like grey-blue stage setting with strings of soap bubbles dangling from the ceiling and the extravagant costumes of the characters have remained. Through the clever use of perspective, it is hardly noticeable that, other than in the original production, they keep a covid-proof distance from each other.

In fact this even reinforces the message: Luisa Casati emphatically and constantly puts herself centre stage, but avoids emotional involvement. When Romaine Brooks paints her portrait and describes Luisa’s eyes, breasts and femininity in a subdued whisper, the former lovers do not touch for a second, unlike in the video production. – A poignant representation of the gap between reality and art.

Because what is truth? That is the key question in Ritratto. Luisa Casati – based on the society figure of the same name who lived from 1881 to1957 – regards herself as a living work of art and thus as the embodiment of truth. She wants this recorded for posterity, and has herself portrayed by such greats as Kees van Dongen and Man Ray. Her lover Gabriele D’Annunzio seeks the truth in war, Romaine Brooks opts for true love. ‘You never loved Luisa’, she snaps at the poet.

In vain Romaine holds up a mirror to Luisa: ‘Do you want to be an object or a subject, Dorian Gray or Joan of Arc?’ Yet Luisa refuses to look in the mirror and even considers the recent outbreak of World War I secondary to her ambition. When D’Annunzio writes in a letter that he has lost an eye on the battlegrounds and has thus gained deeper insights, she stabs out her own eyes in order to make Brooks’ painting more ‘lifelike’.

Two dull blows in the percussion make this gruesome moment palpable; on the second blow, the lights suddenly snap off and we are bathed in the same darkness Luisa has incurred on herself. With such seemingly banal but effective means, Ritratto connects the popular with the sublime, placing the opera in the best Italian tradition. Jeths presents a colourful palette of sweet-voiced choral parts, rich arias with Puccini-allure and dramatically dissonant instrumental exclamations, alternating with restrained orchestral passages, pounding marches, ballroom music and Johann Strauss-style waltzes.

The score is a perfect match for Frank Siera’s clever libretto. Recurring harmonies and melodies in a predominantly tonal idiom give the listener a pleasant sense of orientation. The avid opera lover will discern echoes to Wagner, Strauss, Verdi and other predesessors. Jeths has a deep understanding of how to write for the human voice. The vocal lines are extremely graceful and are often linked to equally sensuous melodies from solo instruments such as clarinet and bassoon.

The cast of mostly young singers is superb. The South African baritone Martin Mkhize shines as Garbi, Luisa’s faithful servant. In a gold-coloured Roman suit he welcomes us to the party at the Venetian villa of his mistress, where the story is set. He has a warm timbre and impeccable diction, and can be understood verbatim.

With his steely tenor voice Paride Cataldo is the ideal macho D’Annunzio, his sturdy pose wittily emphasised by the prominent leather pouch in front of his sexual apparatus. The British mezzo-soprano Polly Leech is no less convincing in her role of Romaine Brooks. As the voice of the outside world/the conscience, she is the only one not clad in extravagant outfit but in a simple suit and top hat.

Unsurpassed star of the evening is the soprano Verity Wingate, who performs on stage from start to finish. Seemingly effortlessly she performs her demanding part. She switches smoothly from the highest to the lowest registers without missing a single note. Her dynamics are breathtaking: even in the very highest regions, she still dares to decrescendo, while her voice remains flawless and audible.

Deeply moving is the moment when she realises she has always lived a lie: art is not the truth, it is only art. Her barely audible, fading sighs ‘it is art, art, art, art…’ pierces the marrow of one’s bone. Luisa Casati may realize that there is no such thing as a living work of art, but her interpreter Wingate comes pretty close.

Geoffrey Paterson also conducted the video premiere of Ritratto and steers his singers and musicians through the score with a sure hand. Yet the live performance lacks the profound eloquence of the online original. Of course, that was created with a ‘now or never’ feeling, but the musicians of the Residentie Orkest are audibly less familiar with modern notes than Amsterdam Sinfonietta. – Fortunately the ‘all or nothing’ performance of 12 March 2020 has just been released on CD.

On Sunday 7 February between 5-6 pm CET I will broadcast the duet between Luisa Casati and Romaine Brooks in my radio programme ‘An Ox on the Roof’ on Concertzender.

Due to the pandemic, my income has dwindled to virtually zero. A donation, however small, is welcome through PayPal, or direct transfer to my bank account: T. Derks, Amsterdam, NL82 INGB 0004 2616 94. A heartfelt thank you for your support!

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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