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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Haendel dyptich in De Munt, Brussels

Tamerlano3_2005_1600x900Two operas by Haendel were given on two consecutive evenings in Brussels, Tamerlano and Alcina, both staged, directed and conducted by the same team. I did’t enjoy Tamerlano half as much as Alcina. Andronico (Delphine Galou) didn’t show a very colorful voice especially approaching the low register but has a good coloratura as shown by the aria “Piu d’una tigre altero“. Jeremy Ovenden as Bajazet is far too short in the lower register to properly sing some of his arias, some of the notes are just not there anymore. With his unrefined singing I find him quite misplaced in baroque. Musically much better I find Sophie Karthauser as Asteria although i missed a proper characterisation of her role. I much enjoyed Ann Hallenberg as Irene and Christoph Dumaux as Tamerlano. Both showed affinity with the baroque style, an even and warm voice, and decent coloratura.
The cast of Alcina was in average much better and homogeneous. Above all the Alcina of Sandrine Piau, who, although with good runs and trials, excelled especially in the lyrical and slower passages. I much enjoyed the rest of the cast and although not perfect, the team spirit sparked life to the score. The only big disappointment : the precious little interest the singers gave to Italian pronunciation. With subtitles that were turned off for the da capo part, it would have been nice to understand some of the text. Hélas.

Both operas were well directed by Christophe Rousset. Staging was a bit monotone in Tamerlano with narrowing panels on both sides of the stage to give a perspective depth. The same panels are used for Alcina (with foliage this time) with as only prop the same chair as in Tamerlano. And same descent of clouds shortly before the end. A change of set came 20 min before the end: the panels disappeared and wooden boxes remained on wooden floor all in warm colours and timeless white clothing. This staging by Pierre Audi was originally conceived for the famous Baroque theater in Drottningholm, which still uses original decors. But overall it was bit boring, considering that baroque operas are hard to listen to with their endless sequence of recitativo and aria (and even more so Haendel, who was rarely inspired in the orchestral part, unlike Vivaldi). So a visual activity in sets would have been welcome (and which was surely intended in Haendel’s time thanks to the famous theatre machinery). Pierre Audi’s stage directions were very varied with people entering and exiting frequently, easing some of the monotony. The question remains to why such operas like Tamerlano and Alcina should be played with the same set as they have little in common.

Tamerlano: Conductor-Christophe Rousset, Director-Pierre Audi, Set design & costumes-Patrick Kinmonth, Lighting-Matthew Richardson, Tamerlano-Christoph Dumaux, Bajazete-Jeremy Ovenden, Asteria-Sophie Karthäuser, Andronico-Delphine Galou, Irene-Ann Hallenberg, Leone-Nathan Berg, Zaide-Caroline D’Haese
Alcina: Conductor-Christophe Rousset, Director-Pierre Audi, Set design & costumes-Patrick Kinmonth, Lighting-Matthew Richardson, Alcina-Sandrine Piau, Ruggiero-Maite Beaumont, Bradamante-Angelique Noldus, Morgana-Sabina Puertolas, Oberto-Chloé Briot, Oronte-Daniel Behle, Melisso-Giovanni Furlanetto, Astolfo-Edouard Higuet