The 13th edition of Gaulitana, a Festival of Music came to an end with Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Aurora Theatre.

This was a Gaulitanus Choir production gathering strength year by year under the direction of Colin Attard. Festival activities were spread over 30 days across various venues in Gozo. Featuring local and foreign artists, the festival ended with the opera production and a final concert at the church of St Francis, both in Victoria.

Puccini’s Manon Lescaut finally brought the composer the international recognition he had sought for the nine years since he wrote his first opera Le Villi. In view of the great success of Massenet’s opera on the same theme, Manon Lesacaut was a gamble which paid off.

It was some decades since this opera had been staged in these islands and one looked forward to Maltese soprano Miriam Gauci’s handling of the title role, one which like Mimì, Butterfly and Liù, she made her own. Great was the general disappointment when Gauci’s indisposition necessitated a last-minute replacement by Bulgarian soprano Svetlana Krasteva, who perforce did not even take part in the general rehearsal.

The gamble paid off because Krasteva’s interpretation was a very good one and she interacted very well with tenor Enrico Ferrer. The chemistry between them was more than evident. Little wonder, as I later came to know that the two had sung the roles only about a month earlier.

Manon Lescaut is the story of tragic love, of a silly but charming young woman, venal and with most of the odds against her, who almost frivolously walks into disaster and death. Despite Des Grieux’s obsession with her (“Al cuore non si comanda”, say our neighbours) her doom beckons.

All painted in the most exquisite musical brush in what is perhaps Puccini’s most melodious score, Des Grieux maddeningly puts up with her even as far as going into sharing her exile.

Ferrer’s best moments were in the love duet in Act 2 and the embarkation scene in Act 3. It is a pity that while the voice is strong the timbre was not always so warm, yet his superb and convincing acting commanded a lot of sympathy and respect.

Very good in their roles were baritone Luciano Gall, Manon’s rascally, unscrupulous and time-serving brother and guardian. For somebody who knew the role so well it was rather odd that he missed a cue and turned up late in Act2 when Manon is surrounded by lackeys, a hairdresser and a dancing  master, all intent on polishing her manners and enhancing her appearance as mistress of Geronte, the powerful Treasurer General. This was handled well by Attard, and, as noticed by many, did not end up in disaster.

Speaking of Geronte, bass Luciano Leoni started off as the quasi-buffo old character who is hoodwinked by the younger scheming chit of a girl who turns into the vengeful architect of Manon’s punishment. His was a creditable performance and I found it strange that the audience accorded him a rather cool reception in the final curtain call. Tenor Didier Pieri received a warmer accolade for the way he tackled the triple role of Edmondo, Dance Master and Lamplighter.

Minor roles were performed well enough by baritone Joseph Lia as The Innkeeper/Naval Captain, baritone Ken Scicluna as Master of the Royal Archers, mezzo-soprano Clare Ghigo as the Singer and Alvin Scicluna as the Hairdresser.

Led by Marcelline Agius, the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra was directed by Attard, who brought to life the wonderful score. The intermezzo was a glorious high point even if here and elsewhere the brass tended to be rather overpowering. Enrico Castiglione was artistic director and set designer.

Action dragged a bit in Act 1 but steadily gathered pace in the rest of the opera. The large playing cards hinting at the various ups and downs in the plot were not so intrusive, as some found them but that heart-shaped cut-out dominating the stage was rather trite. All know this is a love story gone wrong, so the thing was rather superficial.

There was nothing superficial about Mariella Cassar Cordina’s Waiting. One of the very few women composers in these islands, her brief but rather haunting mood-setting work opened the final festival concert, which featured the Gaulitana String Orchestra directed by Attard.

The director’s late uncle Joseph Vella’s Sarabanda, Op. 73 was the next piece. Based on a dance form popular in the Baroque period, there was the form with a different content always keeping the stately and serious pace of an elegantly scored piece. Speaking of elegance, Karel Stamić’s Flute Concerto in G Major, Op. 29 had it all with the very fine performance by soloist Enzo Caroli and full support of the orchestra.

Very well received by the appreciative audience, a solo flute encore followed: a bourrée by J. S. Bach. After the lovely, warm performance of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C Major, Op. 48, it was inevitable that an encore wouldfollow and this was the Waltz from the same Serenade.

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