L’opera seria-Gassmann-Jacobs in Brussels

gassmannFlorian Leopold Gassmann, although nowadays practically unknown to most, was one of Vienna’s court composer and organized one of the first associations of public concerts. Admired by Mozart, he was a prolific Bohemian, composing 25 or so operas, more than 50 symphonies, overtures, chamber music etc., who worked with famous librettists and composers such as Metastasio, Goldoni, Salieri. He composed operas for Vienna, Venice, Florence, and was able to merge the characteristics of the Venetian style and the German taste. The opera L’opera seria, written on a libretto by Ranieri de Calzabigi, is not seria at all, but a brilliant and hilarious rendering of the rehearsal and staging of an opera, the vanity of singers, the greed of impresarios, and the whims of dancers, composers and librettists. It is part of a widespread and appreciated satirical genre that flourished between the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century and describes the inconveniences of opera companies and which has examples galore in prose, drama and opera alike (Il teatro alla moda by Benedetto Marcello, Le convenienze e inconvenienze teatrali by Donizetti, La prova dell’opera by Da Ponte, L’opera in prova alla moda by Latilla, L’impresario in angustie by Cimarosa, Prova di un opera seria by Gnecco, and many others).
castrato-illo_2013257aThe plot evolves around the impresario Fallito (!) who commissions an opera to a pretentious composer and librettist (Mr. Sigh and Delirium), three primadonnas (Miss Off-Key Trill, Miss Simpering, and Porporina, which show up with their respective mothers), the primo uomo and the dancer, and who are all only driven by their personal and individual glory. Act I and II sees them complain abut the libretto, the music , the costumes. They rehears among disastrous directions, singers complaining about the orchestra and ornamentation….chaos: The final act finally sees them catastrophically perform the opera on stage only to finally realize that the impresario run off with the money.
 

Calzabigi and Gassmann hide numerous musical gags in the opera (endless long introductions, a comparison aria, useless coloraturas, incompatibility of text and music, whims of singers) but one did not have to be an expert in musical history, so clever and transparent was the direction by Martinoty (who passed away less than a month ago), which I was lucky enough to  see during the Festwochen der Alten Musik in Innsbruck. The Austrian audience laughed with tear filled eyes throughout the performance and bestowed a triumph to music and staging. The latter intelligent and lively, with brilliant ideas and a flow in the narration which kept the public roaring laughing till the end. And except the very funny libretto, the music is amazingly rich, varied, brilliant and descriptive. Rene Jacobs (who didn’t “recently discover” the opera as stated in the Monnaie’s program) couldn’t be better suited to conduct this opera, which he performed in Schwetzingen, Berlin and Innsbruck in the 90s. He directs lively and virtuosistically and is even part of the show.

Patrick Kinmonth, on the other hand, fails miserably to bring the opera to life. The setting is nice but the direction is horribly flat and dull, and more than the dreadfully insipid ideas and piteously silly and trivial gags which have nothing or little to do with the  opera and utterly miss the spirit of the satire, it’s the missed opportunities that bother me: merely the music itself and the libretto are source of amusement.

 

Some of the singers are excellent. Spagnoli is simply wonderful, his style, his pronunciations, the nuances he puts in every line, his taste in phrasing, every inflection, every word is in its right place and his voice doesn’t seem to have lost any of its brilliance. I found Alex Penda and Mario Zeffiri equally good, both with their own qualities, they charm with actorial talent, and musically nail their hugely difficult roles, Zeffiri clearer in his diction and jauntier on stage, Alex Penda impressive with her wide vocal range. I also enjoyed Robin Johannsen, especially in her “son fatta cosi”. Sunhae Im was an acceptable Porporina, but I would have wished a more understandable Italian and a fuller voice. A vocally correct but scenically unmotivated Marcos Fink and an good Thomas Walker complete the cast with 3 decent countertenors in the role of the primadonnas’ mothers and Nicolay Borchev as dance master.

For an opera that is based so much on a  funny libretto I felt quite annoyed that so little importance was put in the text. The dreadful acoustics of the Cirque Royal didn’t help either and affected also the music, which lost its brilliance and clarity.

 Music director-Rene Jacobs, Staging, set design and costumes-Patrick Kinmonth, Lighting-Andreas Grüter, Choreography-Fernando Melo, Dramaturgy-Olivier Lexa, Fallito-Marcos Fink, Delirio-Pietro Spagnoi, Sospiro-Thomas Walker, Ritornello-Mario Zeffiri, Stonatrilla-Alex Penda, Smorfiosa-Robin Johannsen, Porporina-Sunhae Im, Passagallo-Nicolay Borchev, Bragherona-Magnus Staveland, Befana-Stephen Wallace, Caverna-Rubert Enticknap
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Una porcheria tedesca (or La Clemenza di Tito) by W. A. Mozart @ De Munt/La Monnaie

incendio-roma-64-031791 is an important year in Mozart’s life. It’s the year where he composes Die Zauberflöte, the Requiem, the clarinet concerto, his last piano concerto (nr 27) and it is also the year of his death. The clarinet concerto was written for Anton Stadler, a clarinet virtuoso who also played the obbligato clarinet parts in La clemenza di Tito (there are two of them in this opera, one for Sesto’s aria “Parto, parto…” and one for Vitellia’s rondo “Non piu di fiori”).

Prague, 6 September 1791, just a few hours after the coronation of the emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia: La clemenza di Tito, opera composed by W. A. Mozart for the coronation festivities has its premiere at the Estates Theatre in Prague (the same theatre as Don Giovanni, 4 years earlier). The public gave it a cool reception, the emperor loved it (or the soprano, more likely), his royal wife belittles it as Una porcheria tedesca (“German crap” or “swinishness”).  As does the court diarist (….: “At 5 o’clock to the theatre in the Old Town, to the opera which is given by the Estates [the government of Bohemia] […] The court did not arrive until after 7:30 and we were regaled with the most tedious spectacle, La clemenza di Tito). This was the start of a criticism hard to die.

titoThough it had some decent success in the following years, la Clemenza was always regarded as an “old fashioned”, “cold” opera, a piece of “stale routine”. This was probably due to Metastasio’s libretto, a didactic plot in which betrayal, treachery, and political machination end with the example of the ruler who forgives everybody and rules with wisdom and humanity.  Partly maybe to the two already mentioned “Non piu di fiori” and “Parto, parto“, which were regarded as mere concert pieces and therefore emotionally detached from the singers’ characters. Undoubtedly it is different to the opera’s composed by Mozart in the previous years. A nostalgic look back to the opera seria? Maybe, but the mastery with which Mozart crafts the single pieces has an astonishing dramatic approach and, as Mozart’s first biographer Niemetschek already saw…”a sense of characterization and delicate taste”. (Just listen to the Terzetto “Vengo…aspettate….”, the following quintet which closes the first act, and Sesto and Vitellia’s aria’s). This was in part also thanks to Caterino Mazzolà, who took the libretto written by Metastasio, shortened it from three to two acts, added ensembles instead of only aria’s and worked with Mozart to add a theatrical grip and emotional complexity more adequate to the time. In our time, one recognizes and appreciates Mozart’s style in almost all pieces. How not appreciate the short (less than a minute) duettino between Sesto and Annio,  the delicate and moving S’altro che lacrime, and the monstruous “Non piu di fiori“, who demands a quick coloratura, lyrical singing and an enourmous range (low G to high D). In this example Della Jones does an excellent job.

Ensemble-wise the quintet who closes Act I is a masterpiece. It depicts a fire on the Capitoline Hill. The characters enter one by one and take up the same melodial phrase as they arrive, in different keys, both major and minor. Between these fall the cries of the chorus, who is off stage. The orchestral mass breaks in, leads to various key changes to a brilliantly conceived Andante, almost a funeral march (after all Tito is believed to be stabbed to death), which closes act I in piano.

The singers are pretty good altogether. Although Alexandrina Pendatchanska (or Alex Penda as she likes to be called today) has a tight vibrato and a somewhat metallic edge  which makes her pronunciation difficult to understand, she acts very well and pulls off the role quite well, using often her chest voice, which I don’t dislike. Tito is Charles Workman who has an excellent pronunciation. His voice slightly strained in the very high notes is powerful and he moves and acts with ease. Although his coloratura is not flawless, his sings and acts convincingly. Simona Saturova is perfect. A wonderfully sweet and impeccable Servilia, her whole register is equally smooth, her voice round and fluid, and Mozart and his contempararies fit her voice excellently. Alex esposito sings in the small role of Publio which seems under his capacities. I wish Peter de Caluwe would use the fee and pay Esposito for some Rossini serio. Sesto and his friend Annio are Michele Losier who has a nice timbre and Frances Bourne who complete the sextet. They both sing acceptably

IMG-20131011-00129The setting by Ivo van Hove is one room (bedroom and bureau) with colours kept in dark brown, mostly. The whole action is also filmed. Vitellia and Sesto mainly from above, the others side wise. However, the filming adds little to the concept. Moving as it is in Servilia’s joy and Tito’s understanding looks, it is pointless in the rest of the opera. Furthermore van Hove seems to have difficulties in knowing what to do with the singers on stage. There is very little movement and the little there is is oddly conventional.
And yet this would all be acceptable, if the musical direction would be satisfactory. But Ludovic Morlot is like I remember him in Cosi fan tutte: he beats time like a Chinese lucky cat: this results in the music being tedious, slow and without pulsating vigor.

Music direction-Ludovic Morlot, Director-Ivo van Hove, Scenography-Jan Versweyveld, Costumes-An D’Huys, Video-Tal Yarden, Dramaturgy-Janine Brogt and Reinder Pols, Tito Vespasiano-Charles Workman, Vitellia-Alex Penda, Servilia-Simona Saturova, Sesto-Michele Losier, Annio-Frances Bourne, Publio-Alex Esposito, Orchestra and Chorus of De Munt/La Monnaie, 11 october 2013