Corto Maltese – The Ballad of the Salty Sea Opera

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Before reading this critique, it is important to note that ‘Maltese’ is read as /mʌlteze/

A laconic individual is one of few words: a fitting definition for my sentiment after watching the world premiere of the opera, Corto Maltese: The Ballad of the Salty Sea. This was on 20th September 2018 as part of the Valletta 2018 European Capital of Culture.

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Hugo Pratt was a Venetian man with an international identity. Similarly, his graphic novel character, Corto Maltese, was born in Valletta and lived his childhood in the Jewish region of Córdoba. The opera’s promotion of Malta as ‘the epicentre of the Mediterranean that spawned the legendary Corto Maltese’ who now ‘returns home’ is incorrect . Corto was not Maltese (/mɔːlˈtiːz/), never lived on the island, and Malta had no importance to his identity. Malta was Corto’s birthplace, not his home. Sweeping statements such as these indicate little research was done to ensure authentic promotion.

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The cast consisted of young opera singers from the Teatru Manoel Youth Opera (TMYO). Part of Teatru Manoel’s Toi Toi educational programme, TMYO acts as a semi-professional space for Maltese youth to develop and pursue careers in opera. I will close an eye on the semi-professionalism of the young performers, but I am disappointed by the whitewashing of the Maori sailor, Tarao, and other Maori background characters. It is true that finding dark skinned opera singers is a challenge but there is contextual meaning behind the racial differences in skin colour. Graziella DeBattista’s gender-bent performance as Rasputin worked effectively to create humour and her voice has a remarkable range. It was baritone Ken Scicluna’s presentation that was most disappointing. Strutting around proudly, Scicluna cripples Maltese’s defining character of laconism with an arrogant sense of pride. It was no surprise that the audience clapped loudly for DeBattista but greeted Scicluna with quieter applause.

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As for the singing, the score was well-written and sounded pleasant, especially the eerie piece about the Pacific Ocean sung by the ensemble. However, the problem with writing an English score for a largely Maltese cast is that very few Maltese know how to speak and pronounce English correctly and authentically. Except for the British Tom Armitage, the cast spoke their lines with unconvincing emotions. Another issue is the unpolished, poorly-blocked scene changes and inelegant physical movement of the cast. If the director, Corina van Eijk, was aiming for slapstick comedy, the execution did not hit its target, as Corto Maltese’s world is sombre and references historic moments, such as World War I and the Russian Revolution.

Jolanda Lanslots’ minimalist scenography served the narrative, considering the maritime voyages. The video graphics were well designed but lost their atmospheric effect when played over again (the scene at sea with the shark’s dorsal fin due to the prolonged duet between Tarao and Pandora). Moritz Zavan’s lighting encapsulated the right atmosphere and moods of the different characters and their environment, whilst Dorothy Ebejer Castillo’s costumes remained true to Pratt’s original designs (and worked for this reviewer). To conclude, I feel the opera would have been more effective as a theatrical drama in Italian with English surtitles. The amateur performance depicted no Italian culture and I am displeased that Valletta 2018 has tainted Pratt’s legacy of the great Corto Maltese and lost another opportunity at aesthetically blending European history and culture with quality.

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Written by

Bledvar Albekell

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Corto Maltese – The Ballad of the Salty Sea Opera

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