Veranstaltungen & Kritiken
Baroque Jewel with a Splendid Ensemble
By Charles Jernigan / photos by Rupert Larl
In the last decades, the operas of Handel, once almost unknown, have gradually entered the repertory of major opera houses the world over. Now Vivaldi's operas, also once unknown, are being produced with increasing frequency. But who knows an opera by Nicola Porpora (1686-1768)? And yet Porpora was once as well known as Handel and his operas were produced all over Europe. For awhile, he was Handel's major rival, mounting his works in London at the Opera of the Nobility while Handel was writing for his own company. Porpora also ran the most famous singing school in Europe during his years in Naples, and counted the castrati Caffarelli and Farinelli, probably the most lauded singers of their day, as his pupils. Porpora was also instrumental in assuring the spread of the Neapolitan style in opera, which emphasized recognizable melodies appropriate to each aria or singer rather than declamation.
Arminio (David Hansen)
Porpora brought the Neapolitan style to conservative Rome with his opera Il Germanico, which has now been performed for the first time since the early eighteenth century by the forces of the Innsbrucker Festwochen der Alten Musik in Austria. This Festival of Early Music, which takes place in August each year, always includes two or three operas, and the principal one this year was a production of Il Germanico. Il Germanico or Germanico in Germania premiered in Rome on 1 November, 1732. At the time the Vatican banned the appearance of women on the stage in Rome (but the use of mutilated men, the castrati presented no moral problem to the randy Cardinals), so all the roles were taken by men, including the women's roles of Rosmonda and Ersinda. Cafarelli had the leading role of Arminio while an alto castrato, Domenico Annibali, played Germanico. Two boyish castrati at the start of their careers played the two female roles. Segeste, the father of Rosmonda, was a tenor while another castrato played the Roman Cecina.
Ersinda (Emilie Renard) loves Cecina (Hagen Matzeit).
The story, based on Roman historians, concerns the wars between German tribes, led by their General Arminius and the Romans, led by Germanicus, culminating in a battle in 14 A.D. when Germanicus decisively defeated the Germans. In the opera, Arminio, supported by his faithful wife Rosmonda, is all for battling the Romans to the end, but her father, Segeste, the King, wants to make peace with the Romans to avoid bloodshed. In this he is supported by his other daughter Ersinda, who is in love with Germanico's aide Cecina. Germanico defeats Arminio in battle, but the latter will not yield and accept Roman rule in spite of Segeste's demands, so Arminio is condemned to die. Rosmonda, who has been faithful to him and to her country through everything, also finally tries to persuade the proud general to yield to Rome. In the end, he accepts the pleas of his wife and Germanico, and for the safety of his little son, he agrees to accept Roman domination. Everything ends with a chorus of rejoicing, so typical of baroque opera.
As for the da capo arias (I counted 23), many of them are very long--going on for 12 minutes or more with many da capo restatements indeed. The best of them was a beautiful lamenting aria for Arminio, "Parto, ti lascio," sung to his wife before he goes off as a prisoner. Segeste, a tenor, gets a couple of fine "tempest" simile arias as well. One aria, Rosmonda's "Priva del caro sposo," quickly made its way to London where Handel used it (along with three other Porpora arias) for his 1732 pasticcio Catone. There are also several passages of accompanied recitative, including a remarkable one towards the end when Arminio is contemplating his steadfast resolution not to yield. The accompaniment consists of plucked strings, turning the orchestra into a giant lute. Since this was my first experience with this opera, I am sure that there was much more that repeated hearings would reveal.
My overall impression was after the first act was that it was very long (90 minutes) and showed why we now know many operas by Handel and Vivaldi, but not much by Porpora. That first impression of competent but not very exciting music was corrected by Acts II and III, which contained many beautiful pieces. The whole performance lasted almost five hours with two intermissions (had I stumbled into the Ring by accident?). I would imagine that a production outside of festival conditions would make many cuts to the recitative and probably cut at least a few of the arias, especially in Act I.
Desperation in the prison: Rosmonda (Klara Ek) and Arminio (David Hansen) (on the right side: Segeste (Carlo Vincenzo Allemano)
Certainly the success of the evening, making five hours seem more like two, was due to the performers and the production, which might be characterized as semi-historical, that is it used sets similar to those one might have seen on a baroque stage, and the singers were costumed in early eighteenth century dress, complete with wigs such as one sees in paintings of Handel--and Porpora. The sets and costumes were both by Alfred Peter. But the acting was modern (no baroque stances with fixed arm and hand gestures), and the set was on a revolving stage. On one side it portrayed a Roman triumphal arch; turned, it could become a garden or an interior room or the bare walls of a prison. There were also sets of stairs for the singers to move around on so that they would not have to stand in one place, making the long arias seem static. In fact, the Director, Alexander Schulin, did everything possible to keep the action lively in what is essentially a stand-and-sing form where the singing is the action. On the other hand, the direction never got in the way of the singing since singing is what baroque opera is all about.
Rosmonda (Klara Ek) begs Germanico (Patricia Bardon) to release Arminio.
In the first two acts, a life-sized costumed doll represented the young son of Rosmonda and Arminio. This doll, suggesting a child of about 10 years of age, was carried, cuddled and left to "sleep" by Rosmonda, until finally taken away by her father. It emphasized the artificiality of the opera seria form, intentionally or not, but towards the end of the third act, the "child" is carried in again and put down, and this time it is a real child. Now it seems, the humanity of the drama in the last act is expressed by the change from a mannikin to a living being. Another directorial touch was some serious love play between the minxish Ersinda and her lover Cecina that the Papal Court would certainly not have approved of on stage: as the two of them get cozier and cozier, Cecina looks under the dress of the inviting, recumbent Ersinda, and shouts (as best as I could understand) "Viva Porpora!" No longer worried about the reaction of the Cardinals, the Innsbruck audience laughed and applauded appreciatively.
If the physical production and the stage direction were part of the success, an opera like this is really carried by the voices of the singers. As castrati are hard to come by these days, in Innsbruck we had two counter tenors (for Arminio and Cecina), a mezzo-soprano for Germanico, a tenor for Segeste, and a soprano and a mezzo for the two female roles. The title role was originally announced as going to Sonia Prina, but she withdrew, and Patricia Bardon amply filled her shoes, hose and wig. Ersinda was mezzo Emilie Renard, the liveliest of all the singers on stage, and her Cecina was Hagen Matzeit. Rosmonda was soprano Klara Ek. Carlo Vincenzo Allemano sang the old King Segeste. To single out any of these fine singers would diminish the ensemble nature of this production, and the fact that all of their roles are quite demanding. Porpora was a composer who expected the best, and got it. I do have to single out Australian countertenor David Hansen as Arminio, however. This was the Caffarelli role, and Hansen was up to it in every way. He could (and did) expand a note endlessly from piano to remarkable volume. He could sing amazingly powerful high notes, and he could hold a note forever. His gorgeous singing in his "Parto, ti lascio" aria could make grown men weep, and the beautiful duet he sang with Ms. Ek was just stunning in uniting the sound of the soprano and the countertenor. It is hard to imagine that it would have been more lovely with two castrati in the roles. The singers were encouraged to improvise and embroider their vocal lines in the da capo repeats, and presumably they did. Vocal practice of Porpora's day required a constant collaboration between the composer and the singers with the composer charting the way, but the singers bringing their own inspiration and improvisation to their lines.
Best of all was the wonderful baroque orchestra Academia Montis Regalis under its leader, Alessandro De Marchi. They may be the best baroque orchestra using original instruments in the world today, and on this occasion they played flawlessly. De Marchi brought out every nuance, every featured instrument. We saw the final performance on August 16, and the capacity audience was enormously enthusiastic. There was a standing ovation, much less common in Europe than in the States. The applause at the end went on and on until De Marchi, standing on the stage with the singers, cued the orchestra and everyone performed the final Coro again. There is a recording on the Parnassus label, out this month, but with different singers (except for Alemanno), and I understand that the production will tour. It is a lovely production, simple and unencumbered by some alien directorial "concept" that has little to do with the story. Trust the singers and the instrumentalists, but most of all, trust the work. Otherwise, why do it in the first place?
Alessandro De Marchi
Set and Costume Design
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