On Friday 13th March, one day before the scheduled premiere, it was decreed that all theatres in the Netherlands were to close their doors. As a result, all four operas in Dutch National Opera’s Opera Forward festival had to be postponed. However, for almost the whole cast of Ritratto, Willem Jeths’ new opera, there was to be a happy end: after a seven month delay – and the release on video of a March performance to an empty house – yesterday saw the long awaited world premiere in front of a live audience.

<i>Ritratto</i> © De Nationale Opera | Sanne Peper
Ritratto
© De Nationale Opera | Sanne Peper

Willem Jeths and his librettist Frank Siera (who lives on the Dutch coast in the nearby village of Katwijk) have written an opera that has it all. It depicts Luisa Casati, one of the richest women in Italy at the beginning of the 20th century, and her life ambition “to be a living work of art”. In pursuit of this, she gathered around herself an illustrious collection of artists, all of whom appear in the opera: Romaine Brooks, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Sergei Diagilev, Jacob Epstein, Kees van Dongen, Filippo Marinetti und Man Ray, whose four-eyed photo of Casati has earned her a place in history.

Verity Wingate (Luisa Casati) © De Nationale Opera | Sanne Peper
Verity Wingate (Luisa Casati)
© De Nationale Opera | Sanne Peper

Jeths’ music is packed with quotations (amongst others, Ravel’s La Valse, Tchaikovsky’s Onegin and Strauss’ Salome). Jeths’ eclecticism is a good match for the theme of the opera. Casati clothed herself in attributes from a variety of stylistic directions. She led an extravagant lifestyle and inspired artists in spite of having little creativity of her own. Jeths mimics this attitude to a point that borders on self-denial. He finds other ways to demonstrate his outstanding composing skills: he lets Italian tenor Paride Cataldo shine with a sensitive aria in his mother tongue and composes dazzling a capella pieces for the whole ensemble of singers: these are a true joy.

<i>Ritratto</i> © De Nationale Opera | Sanne Peper
Ritratto
© De Nationale Opera | Sanne Peper

In a small formation, the musicians of the Residentie Orkest tackled the shifting moods and musical styles tastefully and convincingly. Conductor Geoffrey Paterson accompanied the young singers gently, radiating calm and allowing Jeths’ music to breath. Marcel Slijm bases his staging around the loneliness of his heroine. The ludicrous and imaginative costumes by award winning fashion designer Jan Taminiau force the singers into unnatural movements, the artificiality of which is underlined by the choreography inspired by the Vogue dance style.

In this visual power play, Verity Wingate sung Casati’s arias powerfully and expressively. The nature of her role is such that only towards the end of the opera was she able to truly touch the audience’s feelings. At this point, inspired by the insane idea of making her portrait by Brooks more realistic, she gouges out her own eyes. With this gruesome act, she also closes her eyes to the financial ruin which she has brought upon herself with her extravagant lifestyle. Only her servant Garbi, sung with excellence by Martin Mkhize, remains with her. Mkhize’s great moment comes at the very beginning of the opera, in front of the red curtain, when he greets the audience to Casati’s Ball with his wonderful baritone timbre.

Verity Wingate (Luisa Casati) © De Nationale Opera | Sanne Peper
Verity Wingate (Luisa Casati)
© De Nationale Opera | Sanne Peper

With coronavirus concerns, Mkhize always kept a proper distance from his co-star until the closing scene. The production was originally designed for a much smaller stage and has now been expanded to fit the Amsterdam opera stage. Similarly, Marc Warning’s sets are also adapted to fill the space, complemented by the playful costumes and Zino Ainsly Schat’s choreography.

Verity Wingate (Luisa Casati) © De Nationale Opera | Sanne Peper
Verity Wingate (Luisa Casati)
© De Nationale Opera | Sanne Peper

What is the meaning of Art? Shall we follow Nietzsche – “We have art in order not to die from the truth”? Or shall we permit Jeths’ and Siera’s Ritratto to shake us awake? Casati dared everything and lost everything. As Garbi sings in the last number: “You found comfort in both truth and fantasy: fantasia e verità.”


Translated into English by David Karlin.