Arthaus Musik


FrateGiovanni Battista Pergolesi - Lo frate ‘nnamorato

Teatro G.B Pergolesi, Jesi - 2011 | Fabio Biondi, Willy Landin, Nicola Alaimo, Elena Belfiore, Patrizia Biccirè, Jurgita Adamonyte, Barbara di Castri, David Alegret, Laura Cherici, Rosa Bove, Filippo Morace | Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

It’s remarkable. Up until only a year or two ago, Pergolesi’s reputation rested mainly on a few important sacred compositions (notably his Stabat Mater) and a few comic opera works that were perhaps more famous for the historical significance than for their musical qualities. Now, thanks to the work of the Pergolesi-Spontini Foundation and the release of all his operas on DVD (only his earliest religious drama Le conversione e morte di S. Guglielmo has yet to be released), we have a much more complete picture of a composer who tragically died in 1736 at the age of only 26. It’s been something of a revelation.

The two most famous Pergolesi operas prior to these new editions of his other work - La Serva Padrona and Lo frate ‘nnamorato - now actually prove to be among the lesser of Pergolesi’s compositions when compared to his achievements in the opera seria style (particularly his incomparable version of L’Olimpiade). The place of these two works in opera history however is still assured and significant on account of the part they played in the Querelle des buffons, with the Italian opera buffa style moving away from the rigid formalism of royal entertainments on classical themes. Dealing with subjects relating to common people, they can undoubtedly be seen to have had an important influence on Mozart in this respect. Written in the Neapolitan dialect, the ‘commedia per musicaLo frate ‘nnamorato has an even more down-to-earth quality and a more complex arrangement than the Intermezzo origins and the domestic revolutionary sentiments of La Serva Padrona.

The plot of Lo frate ‘nnamorato - which is one of Pergolesi’s earliest works - now seems quite typical of the genre that he helped create. There’s a complicated web of romantic entanglements where everyone is in love with someone who doesn’t love them, a situation that would likely end in unhappiness for all concerned were it not for some late revelations about lost relatives, secret identities and unexplained mysterious backgrounds. The social context however doesn’t appear to be particularly significant - the marriages being arranged are more for convenience than for gaining of social status. The primary mover, for example, is an elderly gentleman, Marcaniello who hopes to marry one of his friend Carlo’s nieces Nina along with his son Don Pietro marrying the other niece Nena, in exchange for a match being made for Carlo with his own daughter Luggrezia. Unfortunately Luggrezia is in love with Ascanio, so that messes up the arrangement somewhat, particularly since Ascanio is more drawn to Carlo’s nieces.

The significance of Lo frate ‘nnamorato of course is that this complicated set of affairs is played not for the sentiments of melancholy and despair over betrayal and unrequited love, but for the humour implicit in the situation. Little of that however comes from the main characters, although Don Pietro is certainly a bit of a joker who likes to flirt with the maids and tries certain unconventional methods of romantic persuasion while the others just seem to prefer bemoaning the lot that fate has drawn for them. It’s actually the maids Vanella and Cardella however who are the real heart of the work - down-to-earth, a little more realistic about life, taking no nonsense from Don Pietro or indeed any of the other men and masters, two “serva padronas” irreverently making fun of their self-indulgence, false hopes, illusions and self-deceptions.

Without the seemingly minor contributions of Vanella and Cardella, Lo frate ‘nnamorato would indeed be a rather conventional account of characters in the throes of despair over the trials of unrequited love, but the work also gains from Pergolesi’s musical arrangements, his inventive comic writing and the earthy character of the libretto’s Neapolitan dialect. That’s given a fine account here in the 2011 production at Jesi by Fabio Biondi leading his Europa Galante ensemble on violin. It’s a small ensemble of about 12 musicians, but as such the precision playing is all the more evident, as is the inherent warmth and lyricism within the score itself. It’s a beautiful performance of the work that, unfortunately, isn’t entirely matched by the production itself or the singing, which often feels rather lacking in life.

The singing on all the Pergolesi performances from Jesi so far has been of an exceptional standard, but their Lo frate ‘nnamorato isn’t the strongest. The problem could be that there are quite a number of demanding roles to fill here that require strong singers experienced and capable enough to handle the lyrical coloratura, and that’s a bit lacking in some places. The young cast however are all good, the voices fresh, lyrical and distinctive, particularly in the roles where it counts. Patrizia Biccirè’s Nena is one of the best performers here and Elena Belfiore - the mezzo-soprano used for the Ascanio countertenor/castrato role - is also excellent. The Act II trio between Ascanio, Nena and Nina (’Se ‘l foco mio t’ infiamma‘) is accordingly one of the highlights.

If the coloratura is tricky and shows up weaknesses in some of the singers, the staging itself isn’t particularly helpful. The sets for Willy Landin’s production are attractive however and the updating of the period to what looks like the 1950s doesn’t do the work any harm at all. It’s beautifully lit and coloured with warm sepias, oranges and browns, a provincial Italian village with gossipy neighbours and maids looking on and flirting with Don Pietro who arrives on the set on his moped. The stage directions however, although they try to keep the singers involved in some occupation, don’t really succeed in making it come to life. The best performances then tend to be the ones then who manage to strike a good balance between the singing requirements and entering into the spirit of the work. Fortunately, in that respect the maids Vanella and Cardella played by Laura Cherici and Rosa Bove are both excellent, keeping the work vital and entertaining to such an extent that it drags a little when they are not on the stage.

Arthaus provide another quality BD release for Lo frate ‘nnamorato. The image quality is superb, clear with warm colouration, and the audio tracks capture all the detail of the musical arrangements and the singing. The disc is a BD50, compatible for all regions. Subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean. There are no extra features other than Trailers for the other Arthaus Pergolesi titles and a booklet with an essay on the work. There is no synopsis, but the plot is covered briefly in the essay and there is a full track listing that helps initially identify all the characters.

HugenottenGiacomo Meyerbeer - Die Hugenotten

Deutsche Oper Berlin, 1991 | Stefan Soltesz, John Dew, Angela Denning, Lucy Peacock, Richard Leech, Harmut Welker, Camille Capasso, Martin Blasius, Marcia Bellamy, Lenus Carlson, David Griffith, Otto Leuer, Friedrich Molsberger, Iván Sárdi, Josef Becker | Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

Poor Giacomo Meyerbeer. The once highly regarded titan of the 5-Act Grand Opéra is now not only long out of fashion, but on the rare occasion when his work is revived it is scarcely treated with the seriousness and sincerity in which it was undoubtedly composed. I didn’t see the Royal Opera House’s recent widely derided production of Robert Le Diable, but judging it on the merits of the performance alone via its broadcast on Radio 3, it at least sounded interesting and probably deserving of a more sympathetic staging than the one devised by Laurent Pelly. Meyerbeer’s follow-up to Robert Le Diable (1831) was another beast of an opera, Les Huguenots (1836) and, unfortunately, it’s another work that - even more so now - that most opera houses would consider too expensive to risk putting on and no doubt also difficult to cast. This performance, dating back to 1991 at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, casts the work well and tried a novel approach to the difficulties of staging the work.

Conducted by Stefan Soltesz and directed by John Dew, this is inevitably not a version that will satisfy purists (should such a thing as a Meyerbeer purist exist in this day and age). As imperfect as it is in some respects, the Deutsche Oper Die Hugenotten is at the moment the only opportunity you have to see one of the big important opera works of yesteryear, and it’s worthwhile for that alone. The first thing you will note about this Blu-ray release however is that the title has been rendered in German (unlike its previous DVD release) to reflect the fact that it is a German-language edition of the original French Les Huguenots performed here. That’s not so much of an issue, since Meyerbeer was actually of German origin and this version dates from an 1837 edition prepared by Ignatz Franz Castelli, so it should be close enough to the original work.

Les Huguenots does actually suit the German tongue surprisingly well, but of more concern is the fact that Castelli’s version to a large extent played down the conflict between the Catholics and Protestants that is critical to the work’s historical account of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572 during the reign of King Charles IX. That historical content is furthermore all but abandoned in the German version of Castelli’s translation prepared by John Dew for the Deutsche Oper, which sets the work in the Berlin of the period that was then divided by the Berlin Wall. This recording of the production dates from 1991 after the breaking down of the wall, but even then it still dates from a period when the imagery still held real significance to the people of Berlin.

Quite how the situation in divided Berlin corresponds with religious conflict in Les Huguenots is however difficult to establish. In Meyerbeer’s opera - with a libretto from the illustrious team of Eugène Scribe and Émile Deschamps - Marguerite de Valois is to marry the Protestant King Henry of Navarra as a gesture of peace between the two sides. To further strengthen this union, the Count de Nevers accordingly invites the Huguenot Raoul de Nangis to his castle in Touraine and offers him marriage to Valentine de Saint-Bris, but Raoul has already seen a beautiful vision of loveliness and fallen in love unwittingly with Marguerite de Valois herself. After some romantic complications Raoul agrees to marry Valentine, but when he gets wind of a plot by the Catholics to massacre the Huguenots it only deepens the conflict between his duty and his heart.

How do we know this? Because just in case we miss it, Raoul tells us directly - “Duty… my heart… a difficult battle“, and Meyerbeer’s scoring only emphasises the obvious conflict even further. When there is something of a lack of subtlety (or taste), you can see why modern directors feel the need to play up the unintentional campness of Meyerbeer’s work. How else, for example, are you meant to stage Marcel’s “Piff, paff, poff!” aria nowadays other than having everyone skip around the stage in a half-dance? I’m not sure, but I think I’d like to see a more serious-minded director try it and not necessarily in a traditional context, since even in this shortened version (only two and a half hours for a 5-Act Grand Opéra?) Meyerbeer’s management and control of the number opera is evidently masterful, presenting a broad scope of melodrama, romance and entertainment in its varied situations with an abundance of melody and drive.

Are the Royalist Catholics meant to represent the Communist forces of East Germany and the Protestants the small population of the surrounded West Berliners? How will a marriage smooth relations in such a situation? The production might not correspond perfectly to its Berlin setting but neither does it really detract from the strength of the work or indeed from the performances in this production. The singing is exceptionally good from all the main performers. Richard Leech has the right kind of strong, resonant lyrical voice for Grand Opéra, reminding me a little of Roberto Alagna in places. He copes well with all the high-Cs thrown his way, but it’s Angela Denning who has the difficult role of Marguerite de Valois. Her opening Act II aria is fiendishly difficult and it shows her limitations, but she is good elsewhere. Lucy Peacock’s Valentine is marvellous and there’s good work also from Harmut Welker as the Comte de Saint-Bris and Camille Capasso as the Page. Only Martin Blasius’ Marcel isn’t up to the mark. To say the least.

Brian Large directs the production for the screen. I’m not sure what technology was available at the time in 1991, but the widescreen image is certainly HD quality and it looks excellent. The audio isn’t quite so good. Only a PCM stereo option is available and the lower-frequencies can be a little booming if you are playing this at any volume using a subwoofer. On headphones, the sound dynamic is better distributed to the L-R channels. The detail in the orchestration is there, if it’s not as clean and precise as we’re now used to with HD recordings, and the singing is relatively clear also. There are no extra features on the Blu-ray. The disc is all-region with subtitles in English, French and Spanish.

LabyrinthPeter von Winter - Das Labyrinth

Residenzhof, Salzburg, 2012 | Ivor Bolton, Alexandra Liedtke, Christof Fischesser, Julia Novikova, Malin Hartelius, Michael Schade, Thomas Tatzl, Regula Mühlemann, Anton Scharinger, Ute Gfrerer, Nina Bernsteiner, Christina Daletska, Monika Bohinec, Klaus Kuttler, Clemens Unterreiner | Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

Such is the supremacy and brilliance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute that it’s tempting to think of Peter von Winter’s sequel as something of a novelty. Written in 1798, only seven years after the original, both librettos were however the work of the same man, Emanuel Schikaneder, so in reality there’s no reason why Das Labyrinth shouldn’t be seen as a legitimate work on its own terms. Rossini’s Barber of Seville after all is a worthy prequel to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro since both works are drawn from the same source in the plays of Beaumarchais. De Winter’s opera is no novelty, but rather a fascinating work that has languished in obscurity for far too long. It’s still nowhere near on a par with The Magic Flute, but then what is?

Well, it has to be said that unfortunately Das Labyrinth does indeed try too hard to be The Magic Flute, and on that level it can’t help but struggle. Schikaneder’s approach to writing a sequel for an immensely popular success is much the same as the one usually employed by movie studios today. He and de Winter simply repeat the formula of the original with emphasis on the bits that the audience enjoyed the most. As an entertainment this is a foolproof method and there is consequently much to enjoy in seeing these wonderful characters revived and put through new situations. On the other hand, without Mozart to bring his unique vision to the work and dignify the libretto with some internal musical consistency and his deep humanism, the plot of Das Labyrinth more often feels like a lot of random incidents haphazardly strung together with little in the way of originality.

Certainly, the central element that drives the plot doesn’t initially appear to differ greatly from the original. Picking up straight after the events in The Magic Flute, the Queen of the Night - who is apparently called Luna, we discover here - is plotting to get her daughter back. You didn’t think she would give up that easily, did you? With the help of the Three Ladies and Monostatos, who evidently holds a grudge against Sarastro for his treatment in the earlier work, the forces of darkness intend to disrupt the wedding of Tamino and Pamina, wrest the young woman away and marry her instead to the despicable Tipheus, King of Paphos. For some not entirely explained reason, Sarastro also requires Tamino and Pamina to undergo a further trial and find their way through the labyrinth. It’s there that Tipheus and his men, the Three Ladies having failed in their previous attempt to carry out the abduction, capture Pamina and take her to the Queen’s hideaway on the Moon.

In addition to the main plot, there are evidently other random exploits for Papageno and Papagena, whose marriage is also put on hold until Pamina is recovered and their relationship is likewise challenged. This involves many of the same kind of “trials” that were in The Magic Flute, with the Three Ladies appealing to Papageno’s baser instincts and Monostatos also getting in on the act to lead him astray. He disguises himself as Papageno and his blackamoor origins played upon in a way that makes him the butt of some dubious jokes. To get her own back on Papageno however for flirting with ladies of darker skin colour, Papagena runs away with Monostatos. This means that Papageno must be involved in the rescue of Pamina if he wants to ensure his own happiness is restored.

There are just as many musical references to match the familiar plot elements, with plenty of glockenspiel playing, Papageno bird whistles and acres of pseudo-Mozart arrangements. The music is consequently often quite light and charming, even if has none of the memorable melodies of Mozart and little of the composer’s carefree imagination, grace and dignity to elevate the pomposity and the silliness of much of the plot. Ivor Bolton however conducts this work with just as much respect, affording Von Winter’s compositions the same loving care and attention that he would Die Zauberflöte. This certainly contributes towards making Das Labyrinth feel truly Mozartian and consequently a more interesting work than it might otherwise have been. At the very least it makes this a delightful curiosity that’s hard to resist.

The production at the Salzburg Festival isn’t quite so compelling. The costumes are lovely, but the sets are not the most suitable for the work. These are limited to some extent by the venue, which is the open-air courtyard of the Residenzhof, meaning that there is only room for a few narrow platforms and an all-purpose backdrop. The backdrop consists in the main of a wall of lights, which is nonetheless versatile enough to represent the canopy of stars of the domain of Königin der Nacht, flicker with storm effects, and break up into columns to represent the labyrinth. It comes into play more as the evening darkens, and there are a few nice additional mechanical effects such as Pamino seated on a crescent moon, but it is otherwise quite limiting.

Christof Fischesser is a wonderful Sarastro, his warm and comforting tones assuring you that this is a character who is powerful and can be trusted. Michael Schade’s lovely lyrical tenor similarly presents a warmer and more sympathetic Tamino than is often found in the Magic Flute, and that’s all to the benefit of Das Labyrinth. Julia Novikova cuts a suitably impressive figure as Luna, Queen of the Night, but she struggles a little with the challenging coloratura that has been written for the character’s extended role in this work. As Pamina, Malin Hartelius often finds that the tessitura of the role is beyond her comfort zone and the timbre of her voice isn’t always the most pleasant at those heights. She seems to gain in confidence in Act II however and handles her individual arias quite well. Thomas Tatzl is an excellent Papageno and Regula Mühlemann a charming Papagena.

The Blu-ray release of Das Labyrinth is region-free with subtitles in German, English, French, Spanish, Italian and Korean. The filming isn’t as polished as it might be, but undoubtedly there are difficulties presented by the unconventional location. The video looks reasonably good even though it only uses a BD25 disc. The audio tracks however are excellent, with good wide use of the surrounds on the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix.

AdelaideGioachino Rossini - Adelaide di Borgogna

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, 2011 | Dmitri Jurowski, Pier’ Alli, Daniela Barcellona, Jessica Pratt, Bogdan Mihai, Nicola Ilivieri, Jeanette Fischer, Francesca Pierpaoli, Clemente Antonio Dalotti | Arthaus Musik

Composed in 1817 for Rome between the writing of Armida and Mosè in Egitto for Naples, Adelaide di Borgogna has all the signs of being a commission hastily filled by the composer to a classic template of war, revolution and romance, with a historical background of Italian significance. It’s the kind of subject that Verdi would later make his own and, without underestimating the importance of the Rossini influence, often do it with considerably more character than it is done here in Adelaide di Borgogna. It’s not the composer’s greatest work then, but being Rossini it’s not entirely without merit either, and the right kind of singing and staging could certainly bring out its qualities. Recorded at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro in 2011, director Pier’ Alli and conductor Dmitri Jurowski certainly make the best of the work and are assisted with some fine singing performances, but overall the work still remains problematic.

The main problem with Adelaide di Borgogna is that proves to be a difficult opera to stage dramatically. There’s a solid historical foundation to the work, which is based around the year 951 on the campaigns of the German Emperor Otto the Great, even if it has all the usual operatic mannerisms, coincidences and twists that we have become familiar with in historical romances. The opera opens with the defeat of Adelaide (Adelheid, Queen of Burgundy), besieged in Canossa on Lake Guarda (the geography is a bit imprecise), by Berengario on the pretence that she is responsible for the murder of her husband Lothario (King Lothar). Bergengario wishes to use the situation to his advantage and gain access to the throne by having his son Adelberto marry Adelaide.

Berengario however fears the intervention of Ottone and his German army who have been making progress over the Alps on the invitation of Iroldo, the governor of Canossa, and tries to head off a confrontation by asking Ottone to come and judge the situation for himself. Ottone however falls in love with Adelaide the moment they meet and proposes marriage to bring resolution to the conflict. The people are delighted, singing choruses of praise and joy, but Berengario and Adelberto use the moment to launch their strike against the Emperor and make their claim for the rule of Italy.

There’s not much wrong with the set-up of Adelaide di Borgogna then, the strong historical situation with its Italian patriotic sentiments and the various romantic entanglements giving Rossini plenty of material to work with. The principal pleasure of the work then is indeed in listening to Rossini’s spirited musical arrangements for the piece, and the performance of it here under Dmitri Jurowski is simply wonderful. Regardless of whether the music is the most expressive - sometimes it’s fairly conventional, repetitive and monotonous - Jurowski varies the pace and seems to pitch the tone perfectly for demands of each scene. You could hardly ask for a more sympathetic account, and it makes all the difference. Dramatically however - particularly in Act II, which consists of a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between Adelberto and Ottone gaining a hold over the battle for Canossa and Adelaide with almost all of the action taking place off-stage - the work is still a little creaky and it also needs some theatrical assistance to bring it across.

Pier’ Alli’s production is also a little creaky in places and a little baffling in others, but it does manage to enliven the proceedings somewhat. The approach to the sets and costume design is classically traditional for the most part, with some ravishing gold and green colour schemes. To give it a little extra dimension however, Alli uses back projections of filmed sequences and some 3-D modelling, with an emphasis (I’m not sure why) on water and rain. Although there are one or two questionable touches - soldiers in raincoats duelling with umbrellas - the visuals are striking enough to give some dramatic focus to the work and help it get through some of the duller or less inspired sections of the work. Even if they don’t entirely succeed, the musical performance and the staging do their best to bring this work to life. So too do the singers, and rather more impressively.

As Adelaide, Jessica Pratt gives a strong performance of a tricky role in terms of its dramatic and singing demands, and she manages to bring the role to life with some degree of character. The drama might revolve around Adelaide, but Ottone is another critical role and it’s in safe hands with Daniela Barcellona. If there are any minor weaknesses in delivery of one or two notes, it’s entirely down to the demands of live performance, as otherwise they are most impressive individually and in how the voices blend and complement each other. The Adelaide/Ottone Act I duet ‘Mi dai corone e vita’ is just marvellous. Similarly, Bogdan Mihai and Nicola Ilivieri are good fits for the roles of Adelberto and Berengario and work well within the whole ensemble. This is demonstrated most notably in the quartet at the end of Act I, which is typically well-organised in Rossini’s management and orchestration of the rising drama. Even if it never entirely comes together convincingly as a whole, it’s such moments that make Adelaide di Borgogna well worth viewing as an enjoyable minor Rossini opera.

Arthaus give us another nice Blu-ray package for this 2011 Rossini Opera Festival production. On a BD50 disc, the image is fine and detailed, with the usual fine PCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks. There is a wonderful rich, fullness of sound in this production from a relatively small orchestra that comes across well and gives the production an extra musical boost. There is a 17-minute Making Of feature on the disc, which has interviews with Jurowski and Alli, with emphasis on the unique elements of this production of the work. The disc is all-region compatible, and subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean.

SalustiaGiovanni Battista Pergolesi - La Salustia

Teatro G.B. Pergolesi, Jesi, 2011 | Corrado Rovaris, Juliette Deschamps, Vittorio Prato, Serena Malfi, Laura Polverelli, Florin Cezar Ouata, Giacinta Nicotra, Maria Hinojosa Montenegro | Arthaus Musik

There are one or two aspects of Pergolesi’s La Salustia that immediately mark it out as quite different from the previous rare opera works by the composer (Adriano in Siria, Il Prigionier Superbo and Il Flaminio) recently revived and subjected to new critical editions by the Fondazione Pergolesi-Spontini in Jesi. Most obviously, as the composer’s first opera, written to a libretto that had been reworked from an earlier work (Alessando Severo), La Salustia (1732) fits more conventionally into the standard opera seria style than any of Pergolesi’s later work in the dramma per musica category. It’s interesting nonetheless to see how Pergolesi operates even within this more restrictive format, particularly when the singing performances presented here at this production in Jesi surpass the already exceptionally high standards already achieved on the earlier DVD/BD releases of his other works.

Even though it is set in ancient Rome, La Salustia doesn’t really take advantage of the specific period and the setting (other than an interesting development in Act III where one of the main characters is thrown to the lions in the arena - and wins!), but rather uses it to present a fairly generic power struggle plot. What is interesting about the plot and conflict that develops in La Salustia however is that the rivalry and jealousy that exists here for the love of the Emperor Alessandro is between his wife, Salustia, and his mother Giulia. This leads then not so much to the usual long anguished arias of anger, jealousy and betrayal (although similar sentiments are indeed expressed, da capo style), but a rather more complicated state of affairs. Giulia isn’t at all happy that her son’s marriage has elevated Salustia to the throne, relegating her own power and influence, and it leads to a fierce rivalry between the wife and her mother-in-law that eventually builds up to a plot to murder Giulia.

It might not be the typical Metastian plot of rulers displaying wisdom and clemency and reuniting lovers who have been separated by cruel twists of fate or the whims of kings, but that doesn’t mean that the plot of La Salustia is any less improbable in its dramatic developments. Giulia’s plan to regain influence is simply to trick her son the Emperor into signing without reading a document that removes Salustia from the throne. Alessandro, not unexpectedly, is torn with remorse for what he has done, but far too weak to do anything about it except sing long arias of anguish. Salustia’s father Marziano however is prepared to go further, and taking advantage of Giulia’s attraction to him, he hatches a plot with Claudio, the Captain of the Guard, to poison her. Albina, who is in love with Claudio, overhears their plotting and warns Salustia, who - despite the enmity shown towards her - saves Giulia’s life, and thereby condemns her own father to death. The outcome of his sentence to be thrown to the lions, as indicated earlier, isn’t any more realistic than what has come before, but it does of course bring about the necessary happy ending for an ensemble finish.

There may be plenty of occasion then for the requisite interchangeable and largely indistinguishable opera seria number arias reflecting generic emotions of anguish and torment, and in order to move the plot forward, there is evidently a requirement for more recitative than we’ve seen so far in Pergolesi later operas, but the composer’s approach here has nonetheless some interesting musical touches of its own. By and large, La Salustia is quite Handelian in arrangement, with a few stormy Vivaldi-like flurries to reflect spiralling emotions. It might not have the elegance and attractiveness of either of those composers (and the performance here, it has to be said, doesn’t seem quite as polished as other Jesi productions), but by the same token, the musical writing isn’t quite as conventional in its arrangements and orchestration. There are some interesting discordant sounds and effects introduced in particular in Giulia’s Act I aria, ‘Se tumida l’onda‘ (”When the tall wave threatens the shore”) and in the Act II ‘Odio di figlia altera‘, that reflect the nature of the character and associate them with weather conditions, but the primary expression in those arias and the strength of this particular work as a whole is in the writing for voices.

In that respect, La Salustia may be more reminiscent of the often extravagant singing demands of the typical opera seria work - and in marked contrast to the less elaborate and more cohesive ensemble approach of Pergolesi’s later work - but his writing and expression through the voice is quite thrilling and invigorating nonetheless. As if recognising the importance of the voices used here and in the contrast between them, Jesi employ a countertenor for the first time (previously using female sopranos for the castrato roles in the other works) for Alessandro (although they retain a soprano for Claudio), and it really does give the work the necessary dynamic, particularly when there is such strong singing demanded of the soprano (Giulia), mezzo-soprano (Salustia) and baritone (Marziano) roles. (The accompanying booklet notes that the role of Marziano was revised from a castrato to a tenor for the first performance, and although the first version has been performed at Jesi in an alternative critical edition, it’s the first performance edition that is presented in this 2011 production - albeit that the tenor and soprano roles (Marziano and Salustia) are sung by a baritone (Vittorio Prato) and a mezzo-soprano (Serena Malfi).

The contrast in voices works well however, the casting of the majority of these roles given to up-and coming young singers, and they are all most impressive. More than meeting the demands of the challenging arias written for each role, there’s a purity of tone and clarity of diction from each of them and a refreshing lack of mannerism that allows for a wonderful sincerity of expression. If the improbable mechanics of the plot and the conventionality of much of the music don’t always make as much of an impression as later Pergolesi work, the quality of the vocal writing and the expressiveness of the singing performances gives the characters considerably more credibility than might otherwise be the case. The static stage design and straightforward direction by Juliette Deschamps - the mechanics of the Teatro G.B. Pergolesi seemingly not really allowing for any elaborate scene changes - doesn’t seem to have much to contribute to the success of the production, but despite a few odd and jarring touches (it’s more 18th century than ancient Rome) it does actually work quite well through some effective lighting and a few bold gestures.

The staging and the lighting are well represented in High Definition on the Blu-ray release, the sound recording less so. The clarity and detail is all there in the singing and the orchestration, but there’s considerable reverb and a harshness that lacks the warmth and roundness of tone on previous Pergolesi releases. Other than perhaps one instance in Act III where countertenor Florin Cezar Ouata’s radio mic seems to pick up some interference, there are however no other real problems. The 3-hour opera requires a BD50 disc, and subtitles are provided in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean. Apart from trailers for the other Arthaus Pergolesi titles (Il Prigionier Superbo and Il Flaminio), there are no extra features on the disc itself and no synopsis provided, although the background to the work and a very brief outline of the plot are covered in an essay in the enclosed booklet.

FlaminioGiovanni Battista Pergolesi - Il Flaminio

Teatro Valeria Moricone, Jesi, 2010 | Ottavio Dantone, Accademia Bizantina, Michal Znaniecki, Juan Francisco Gatell, Laura Polverelli, Marina De Liso, Sonia Yoncheva, Serena Malfi, Laura Cherici, Vito Priante | Arthaus Musik

So far we’ve had two excellent productions from the Fondazione Pergolesi Spontini at Jesi that have extended appreciation of Pergolesi’s opera seria work - Adriano in Siria and Il Prigionier Superbo - and in the process shed a little light upon the practices of 18th century Neapolitan opera with their Intermezzo comedies. For anyone who has enjoyed the lighter side of Pergolesi’s work seen in these shorter pieces, Il Flaminio is a real treat. A full length 3-act commedia per musica, first performed in 1735, it’s every bit as delightful as the great Intermezzos seen so far - Livietta e Tracollo and La Serva Padrona - and, in its own way, quite sophisticated and just as revelatory as the composer’s more serious works

There is, it has to be said, nothing that appears to be exceptional about the plotting of Il Flaminio. The widow Giustina has been set on an engagement to the noble but rather frivolously-minded Polidoro, but has fallen instead for his friend Giulio, who she recognises as Flaminio, a Roman gentleman she once knew before she met her husband. Back then however, she despised Flaminio, which may account for why “Giulio” is reluctant to accept that her feelings might have changed in any way. To complicate matters - always essential in such a situation - Polidoro’s sister Agata is in love with Giulio and cruelly rejects her intended Ferdinando, but her feelings are not reciprocated by Giulio. On the sidelines, watching and intervening in the situation - not disinterestedly, since the possibility of their union depends to some extent on a resolution of these issues - are Checca and Vastiano, the maidservant of Gustino and the manservant of Polidoro.

Il Flaminio therefore still adheres very much to the Metastasian baroque opera seria situation - one not dissimilar to the one played out in Pergolesi’s Adriano in Siria - where various incompatible couples have to find their right arrangement over the course of the opera, usually on a wise ruler coming to his senses (it’s a nobleman Polidoro here), but only after a great deal of emotional soul-searching and pouring one’s heart out through anguished, repetitive arias. The difference here in Il Flaminio is that this time the situation is explored for its comic potential, playing the situation for laughs certainly and with a lightness of touch, but not to the exclusion of the finer sentiments that lie within it either. That in itself is a significant development and influential in terms of the impact the Neapolitan style would have on opera buffa, but in Pergolesi’s hands, one can also see a significant development of the writing and the scoring that goes way beyond the Baroque conventions.

The comic elements may be partly based around class issues, but the comedy in Il Flaminio proves to be rather more sophisticated than La Serva Padrona (as important to the history of opera as that work remains). Much of the humour is tied to the use of Neapolitan dialect and customs on the part of the lower classes, with obscure satirical references and musical allusions to popular songs of the time, to puppet shows and commedia dell’ arte traditions that are impossible to translate or even fully appreciate. One can at least - having been in a position to see similar situations played out in the Baroque works of Handel and Vivaldi - appreciate how the complex relationship drama is satirised by the comedy. “I forsee suffering and misery for me“, Guistina observes at the start of Act I - “Why worry?” responds her maidservant Checca, “Everything will turn out fine in the end“.

There’s only so much humour to be derived from this really though, particularly over a three-hour opera. To be honest, I lost interest in following the plot by the middle of the second act, but thankfully there’s more to Il Flaminio than mild comedy and satire, and Pergolesi’s beautiful music makes such light work of the situations and is filled with such playful invention and sophistication that there is never a dull moment. It’s way ahead of its time, Pergolesi’s handling of material we are familiar with from Handel and Vivaldi only highlighting just how much more musically advanced and innovative the composer really is above his contemporaries. It’s not just the stormy accompaniment to Giulio’s vigorous Act I aria ‘Scuote e fa Guerra‘ (”May shake and make war the ruthless wind“), or even that Pergolesi imitates the mewling of a cat in Bastiano’s Act II aria - delightful though those kinds of little touches are - but there’s such a lightness and brilliance of sophistication throughout Il Flaminio that it could easily pass for a Haydn or an early Mozart opera. It really is extraordinary.

It’s even more delightful then that we have Ottavio Dantone and the Accademia Bizantina to bring out the sparkling brilliance and delicate beauty of music that is so full of life, vigour, wit and sensitivity. The wonderful set design moreover places the orchestra behind the performers on the stage in a venue that has been reconfigured with extensions that take balcony scenes down the sides of the hall to make it even more intimate and involving. It looks great and it evidently works marvellously since the singing and acting performances are also highly engaging and entertaining. Although there are pieces written to give each of the singers the opportunity to shine, Il Flaminio is very much an ensemble piece that gives equal value to almost all the roles and - as with each of the Jesi Pergolesi releases so far - the casting and singing is perfect. Recognising that the strength of the opera is in its ensemble arrangement, the production also attempts to keep all the main figures around on the stage - along with the orchestra - even when they are not called upon to sing.

As with the previous Pergolesi releases - from both Opus Arte and Arthaus - the recording quality is superb, with a beautiful High Definition image and remarkably good sound quality. Really, it’s hard to imagine how you could improve on the performance or presentation of this rare work, a work that fully merits such a wonderful interpretation. There are no extra features on this release however, which is a little disappointing, but there is some useful background information on the work in the booklet that comes with the release. The Blu-ray is all region compatible with subtitles in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish and Korean.

PelleasClaude Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

Opernhaus Zürich, 2004 | Franz Welser-Möst, Sven-Eric Bechtolf, Rodney Gilfrey, Isabel Rey, Michael Volle, László Polgár, Cornelia Kallisch, Eva Liebau, Guido Götzen | Arthaus Musik

The 2004 Zurich production of Pelléas et Mélisande is a curious one, but then Debussy’s only complete opera is a strange and enigmatic work. It’s a work that is founded on ambience and ambiguity, as much in the libretto - Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist drama brought over almost intact - as in the haunting qualities of Debussy’s music, which do not underscore or emphasise specific emotions in the traditional manner as much as suggest otherworldly mood and mystery in the hidden depths that lie within it. The production design consequently also goes for a non-specific, otherworldly location within a snow-bound world that seems to work well with Debussy’s floating lines, the coldness and detachment of the expressions, as well as the enclosed intimacy and oppressiveness of the subconscious passions that underlie them.

By far the strangest element of Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s production however is the use of life-size dummies, looking uncannily like the characters themselves, which are carried around by them or maintain a presence throughout the performance. Not only are these dummies carried around, sometimes propelled around the stage in wheelchairs, but the characters interact more with the dummies than the actual people they represent. The key to this, of course, is that they are indeed representational and symbolic - the word symbolism deriving from a separation into halves between the real and the representational - and this feels entirely appropriate within an opera that, derived from a symbolist drama, is about much more than the surface interaction between the characters. The idea emphasises not only a failure to connect meaningfully with the other characters, but that they even suffer from a sense of detachment from their own sentiments and feelings.

This is expressed wonderfully within the drama itself in a number of enigmatic scenes that rely on creating resonances and sensations, and Debussy adds to the growing sense of unease through his unsettling scoring and linking musical interludes. Rolf Glittenberg’s set designs for the Zurich production, although strange, create an equally unsettling and ambiguous atmosphere that works well with the nature of the work, while even the strange marbled stone suits worn by the inhabitants of the royal castle (but not Mélisande) raise questions or create impressions about their inner nature.

The minimalism, the symbolism and the obsessive repetition, all emphasised in this production through the division between the disembodied figures and their mannequins, seems to reflect a similar haunted quality to the one in Robert Wilson’s distinctive production of this opera, where the characters seem to be ghostly figures acting out roles and gestures that have been played out many times before, perhaps at the instigation of Golaud - or even obsessively inside his own head - though his inability to discover, or recognise “the truth”. There’s a fatalistic quality in the work that bears out this idea, Arkel in particular for example mentioning, at the news of Golaud’s marriage to Mélisande - the woman with no past - that “we only ever see the reverse side of destiny, the reverse even of our own”, that Golaud “knows his future better than I”, and that “perhaps nothing that happens is meaningless”. These figures all seem to be searching for meaning and significance in objects, in rings, in towers (a Citroen car here), in a golden ball, and even in the indecipherable blank expressions of dummies. By the end they seem to be no nearer to an answer and the eternal mystery of Pelléas et Mélisande persists.

The production design won’t be to everyone’s taste, but this is a good all-round performance of the opera. Franz Welser-Möst conducts the Zurich orchestra marvellously through the beautiful floating score with a mood and tempo that matches the ambience of the snow-smothered production and the fluid revolutions of the set. The singing and the performances are excellent, particularly Rodney Gilfrey, who seems to delve deeply into the character as Pélleas, but Isabel Rey is also a fine Mélisande, Michael Volle a particularly tormented Golaud, bringing a remarkable intensity and much needed dynamic to the work, and László Polgár brings deep beautiful tones, to a dignified but somewhat opaque Arkel.

The Blu-ray release from Arthaus is a repackage of the previous TDK release, retaining even the label on the disc itself and the original TDK menus. The HD picture quality is very good, the sound well distributed with a cool tone on the PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 7.1 mixes. There are no extra features on the disc itself, which is region-free. Subtitles are in English, German, French, Spanish and Italian.

DemetrioGioachino Rossini - Demetrio e Polibio

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, 2010 | Corrado Rovaris, Davide Livermore, María José Moreno, Victoria Zaytseva, Yijie Shi, Mirco Palazzi | Arthaus Musik

There’s a wonderful double-take moment at the start of this 2010 Rossini Opera Festival production of Rossini’s Demetrio e Polibio, which turns out to be a thoughtful way to present the work and at the same time manages to strike the perfect balance between the traditional performance and more modern conceptual. The stage curtain draws back at the opening to reveal a final curtain call of a performer for an unseen audience out the back of the stage. His self-congratulations out of the way, the stage hands having moved the sets to the wings, the scene is set for some ancient ‘ghosts of opera past’ to arise out of the packing cases to re-enact a historic performance of the drama of Rossini’s Demetrio e Polibio.

It’s a clever and effective compromise between traditional and conceptual that works well for this one particular Rossini opera that needs a thoughtful and considered approach. Demetrio e Polibio, a ‘dramma serio‘ in two acts, is Rossini’s first opera, which he started to compose when he was only 14 years old. It was composed piecemeal in individual sections as a commission for the Mombelli family’s quartet of singers - some parts perhaps written by the Mombelli father - customised to meet the requirements of the particular characteristics of the singers, but also written to adhere to standard classical opera drama arrangements of arias and duets, with familiar plot devices that involve mistaken and hidden identities. It’s also one of those Metastasian-style dramas where a significant part of the dramatic action has already to a large extent taken place before the opera starts, leaving the characters in a position to bemoan their fate as they strive to find a resolution over the two acts of the opera.

Before the opera even starts, you need to know that Demetrius, the King of Syria, has entrusted his son to a loyal friend Minteus while he is involved in a terrible struggle over royal succession. Minteus however dies before he can reveal the nature of his royal identity to the boy, Siveno, who is taken in by Polibius, the King of Parthia, as his adopted son. As the opera starts some years later, Polibio plans to marry Siveno to his own daughter Lisinga, but Demetrio, having resolved matters in Syria, has come looking for his son, in disguise (of course) as Eumeno, a Syrian ambassador. Polibius - believing that Siveno is the son of Minteaus - doesn’t accept Eumeno’s claims on the boy, forcing Demetrio to make plans to abduct his own son. By mistake, it’s Lisinga who is abducted, which leads to a stand-off confrontation between Demetrio and Polibio over their respective offspring.

The nature of this ‘dramma serio‘ dictates that Rossini’s first opera leans more towards the model of composition of the 18th century rather than towards the new Italian opera model of the 19th century that Rossini would play such an important part in establishing. The influence of Mozart is also evident in the musical approach in an early La Finta Giardiniera or Apollo et Hyacinthus style, if somewhat less adventurous in arrangements and technique, but it’s surprising just how much of the Rossini sound is evident even at this early stage. The first act is made-up almost entirely of duets, with only the bare minimum of recitative, allowing the bonds to be established between the characters much more effectively than solipsistic arias of emotional turmoil, and it builds up wonderfully towards the quartets that mark the confrontation of Demetrio and Polibio (Siveno and Lisinga are not passive figures in the drama by any means) and the brief ensemble finale. The arrangement may have been tailor-made for the Mombelli family, but it also works to the advantage of the musical drama.

Demetrio e Polibio would still however be little more than an early Rossini curiosity, a pleasant but dull and conventional drama, were it not for the wonderful effort put into every aspect of the work for the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, the first modern production of the work in 150 years. As well as evoking the spirit of the Mombelli family through the period costume ghosts that inhabit a modern opera stage and thereby taking the origin of the work into account, director Davide Livermore also uses the haunted stage element to make the opera something wonderful to watch by employing plenty of Illusionist trickery. There’s relevance in this as well as entertainment, acknowledging the “old-style” theatricality of the work, but also using handheld flames to evoke the sparking of love and anger, while the proliferation of doubles, mirror images and disappearing acts all reflect the shifting identities of the characters. It makes a rather academic work seem much more meaningful and consistently entertaining.

The consideration given towards the presentation of this extremely rare work is also reflected in the delightful performance of the musicians, directed by Corrado Rovaris, and the singing performances. Bearing in mind that the difficulty of the roles as written was determined by the capabilities of the original cast, the singing is good across all the roles. Lisinga has the most challenging singing and María José Moreno takes in all the high notes - sometimes a little effortfully - but with great expressiveness. Demetrio has the most active role in the work as the villain of the piece (or perceived villain) and Yijie Shi demonstrates a fine Rossinian Italian tenor style that suits the role perfectly. The breeches role of Siveno doesn’t have quite so many demands placed on it in terms of singing but mezzo-soprano Victoria Zaytseva is absolutely fine for the part, while Mirco Palazzi’s reliable bass fulfils the requirements for Polibio with characteristic Rossinian verve. In terms of duets and ensemble work, the combination of their voices works beautifully in these lovely little arrangements.

On Blu-ray, this is another lovely package of a Rossini Opera Festival production. The High Definition transfer looks superb, and the stage design and direction is so strong that Tiziano Mancini doesn’t have to resort to video trickery to make it any more interesting. The usual high quality audio tracks in PCM Stereo and DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 give a detailed account of the fine music and the singing performance, making this curiosity all the more fascinating to listen to. The subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean. The English subtitles have some curiosities of translation - “No more husband have I, a villain has subtracted him from me” is one example, but they are mostly fine if a little stiff and literal. As well as some words on the production and a full synopsis in the accompanying booklet, there is a fine 14-minute ‘Making Of’ with interviews and behind the scenes footage on the disc itself.

RigolettoGiuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto

Opernhaus Zürich, 2006 | Nello Santi, Gilbert Deflo, Leo Nucci, Piotr Beczala, Elena Moşuc, László Polgár, Katharina Peetz, Kismara Pessati, Rolf Haunstein | Arthaus Musik

Judged on its own merits, this 2006 production of Rigoletto from the Zurich Opera House is a good traditional production, more than competently played and sung, even if it doesn’t have any great qualities to distinguish it from countless other productions. Packaged here however as a budget-priced promotional release, including a full-length opera alongside 45 trailers from the Arthaus Blu-ray catalogue, this is a good value option that serves as an introduction to just how good opera can look and sound in the format, as well as providing samples of other catalogue titles. As one of the most impressive works in the repertoire, Verdi’s Rigoletto is also a fine accessible opera that sits well alongside the previous Arthaus catalogue samplers - La Traviata and Tosca - all good solid productions of works with proven dramatic and musical qualities and plenty of familiar melodies.

Gilbert Deflo’s staging is traditional then but it looks good, keeping things simple but effective in how they relate to the drama. The opening scene, for example, captures a sense of the decadence of the Duke of Mantua’s orgies at his palace, with extravagant period costumes and the hunchbacked Rigoletto appropriately devilish in a bright red jester’s costumes, taunting the Count of Monterone, whose daughter is being seduced by the Duke. There’s a similar sense of working effectively with the mood and situation in the subsequent scenes, in the blue-lit night-time alley where Rigoletto encounters Sparafucile, the assassin-for-hire and the contrasting sense of comfort in home surroundings where Rigoletto can be himself with his daughter Gilda. There’s no cleverness attempted in the balcony abduction of Gilda, nor in the stormy night setting at the inn in Act III, the sets designed to look good and not unduly trouble the performers as they move through the mechanics of the plot.

It’s all nice and tastefully done, with no modern cleverness to frighten the traditionalists, and the same can be said about the singing performances and the playing. It all feels a little too restrained however, lacking dramatic fire and urgency. There’s a pleasant transparent openness to the orchestration under Nello Santi which captures the lyrical beauty of Verdi’s score, but there little of the passion and the urgency that you ought to find in it and in the performances. Piotr Beczala is probably the best here as the Duke, singing well with a distinctive and robust tenor voice, but Elena Moşuc is also fine as Gilda. She’s a little unsteady in Act I’s ‘Gualtier Malde‘ aria and doesn’t always bring a great deal of acting fire to the role, but she comes through strongly where it counts in the Act II duets, in the fabulous Act III quartet and her sacrificial scene. Leo Nucci isn’t the strongest Verdi baritone and lacks the necessary personality to really bring out the conflict of fatherly emotions that lie behind the jester’s mask, but it’s by no means a bad performance, just one that fits in with the overall uninventive tone of the production.

All in all however, if it lacks any real edge and passion, this is nonetheless a solidly performed and dramatically effective production of a terrific opera that will serve - as it is intended here - as a reasonably good introduction to opera on Blu-ray for anyone - perhaps inspired by the Verdi bicentenary - who might be curious about sampling it. It’s looks good and sounds good in High Definition (with a PCM stereo and a DTS HD-Master Audio 7.1 mix), although the live sound recording is a little echoing and the lower-frequency sounds are a little booming. Subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean. This particular edition of Rigoletto also includes 130 minutes worth of trailers from 45 opera, ballet and documentaries available on Blu-ray from Arthaus Musik, which can be very useful in determining the nature of the production and the singing and whether it might appeal to you or not. There are better productions of Rigoletto available elsewhere (and personally, I’d like to see a BD release for the fine 2010 Rigoletto with Plácido Domingo filmed live in the actual locations in Ferrara), but at around £8, you can’t really go wrong with this.

PrigionierGiovanni Battista Pergolesi - Il Prigionier Superbo & La Serva Padrona

Teatro G. B. Pergolesi, Jesi, 2009, 2011 | Corrado Rovaris, Henning Brockhaus, Antonio Lozano, Marina Rodríguez Cusí, Marina De Liso, Ruth Rosique, Marina Comparato, Giacinta Nicotra, Alessandra Marianelli, Carlo Lepore, Jean Méningue | Arthaus Musik

Last year saw the Blu-ray release of Adriano in Siria, the first Pergolesi opera made available through a new initiative by the Fondazione Pergolesi Spontini to not only stage new editions of all the existing opera works by the composer - all of them rare, most all-but forgotten - but to have them all released to the public on DVD and, if we’re lucky, Blu-ray. The hopes raised by Adriano in Siria at the possibility of recovering some unheard of masterpieces are met with yet another extraordinary work (or should I say works, since the composer’s Intermezzos are also being recorded and paired with the main works) in the dramma per musica Il Prigionier Superbo (’The Proud Captive’), which is released here alongside the rather more famous, La Serva Padrona. And, happily, it’s another exceptionally well-performed production of a work that truly merits rediscovery and re-evaluation, which also looks and sounds just incredible in the High Definition Blu-ray format.

The originality and the brilliance of Pergolesi’s composition in comparison to other early Baroque works is evident right from the first notes of the overture of Il Prigionier Superbo, hammered out with rhythmic precision under the direction and harpsichord playing of Corrado Rovaris, with a sense of melody and use of instruments that sounds to me quite unlike anything else from this period. The work as a whole reveals similarities to other contemporaneous composers in certain respects, an unrelenting rhythmic force that reminds one of Agostino Steffani, with some furious Vivaldian flurries and a sense of Handelian dignity in the how it carries the affetto emotional core of the drama - to say nothing of the plot being a fairly standard opera seria one of a cruel king keeping lovers apart (most reminiscent in this case of Tamerlano with the father of the reluctant object of the king’s designs being held captive as a prisoner) - but there is at the same time something unique about the musical approach that gives further weight to the idea of Pergolesi being worthy of being regarded alongside those other illustrious composers. If he’s not quite as great as Handel in terms of opera writing (although Pergolesi only lived to the age of 26, so who knows what he may have been capable of in maturity), he’s at least up there with Vivaldi.

Recorded in the intimate and acoustically sparkling surroundings of the Teatro G. B. Pergolesi in Jesi, it’s the quality of the HD sound formats that reveal those telling details in the scoring and in the variety and use of the period instruments that Corrado Rovaris and the Accademia Barocca de i Virtuosi Italiani tease out of a work that would otherwise seem fairly conventional in form, the musical arrangements reflecting the rather involved circumstances and nature of Il Prigionier’s drama. In some respects, yes, it’s a fairly standard Baroque opera situation where the King of the Goths, Metalce has imprisoned Sostrate, the King of Norway, and is threatening to kill his prisoner unless Rosmene, Sostrate’s daughter, agrees to marry him. And, yes, it’s also fairly common for this to have other complications, with Metalce’s own wife Ericlea being somewhat displeased at the idea (to say the least - her emotional arias express her feelings much more forcefully) and Rosmene’s betrothed Viridate also being affected by the ruler’s romantic inclinations, to say nothing of the rumblings of discontent that this gives rise to among the populace who are stirred up further by the prince Micisda.

It’s how it’s all scored musically however - even more so than the usually long arias expressing love, rage and betrayal - that Pergolesi not only expresses the emotional content, but also suggests deeper conflicting sentiments and even connections between the characters and their individual motivations. Il Prigionier Superbo is surprisingly sophisticated in this respect, and there’s much in the music that is worth examining carefully. Set for some reason within a cave, Henning Brockhaus’ staging reflects the complications and sophistication of the arrangements, or at least it attempts to, but I’m not sure it doesn’t just end up needlessly complicating things further. You have to become familiar here not only with who all the principal characters are here - since the elaborate contemporary dresses they wear don’t necessarily reflect their position (although Metalce, the King of the Goths has a punky Goth hairdo and wears black leather and netting) or indeed their gender (only one of the three male roles - Sostrate - is played by a man) - and the complicated changing relations between them, but you have to associate them with the more traditionally attired near life-size marionettes (”artistic alter-egos” apparently according to the booklet) that also occupy the stage, each managed by puppeteers wearing executioner hoods. It makes it all a bit more visually interesting than the usually static nature of opera seria, enlivening the recitative sections in particular, but it’s also a little cluttered and doesn’t really add anything that couldn’t be expressed a little more conventionally by the singers alone.

I say that it’s the music that gives a certain weight and nuance to the arias, but the actual singing is no means neglected by Pergolesi for its power of expression, and, wonderfully, there is a very strong cast here to bring it to life. Although the work is obviously built mainly around individual arias - with one or two duets and trios and an ensemble finale - there is a sense of it being a true ensemble piece in terms of how each of the characters has an almost equally important role to play in directing the tone and structure of the piece as a whole. There’s almost an adherence to the purity of a Gluck or Wagner dramatic ideal already present in Pergolesi’s writing in this respect, with no main starring role and no show-stopping arias, but each performer nonetheless has the opportunity to express their ability and serve the dramatic purpose through wonderfully written individual arias or scenes, and each of them rises to the moment with some fine singing. The success of the production lies not just in the singers or the direction then, but in how they are marvellously brought together, with consideration for the nuances of the music and for the work as a whole.

It was the practice for Neapolitan opera to have a short comic farce for two or three singers played out in the intervals between the acts of the main dramma per musica, and Il Prigionier Superbo is paired here with its original Intermezzo - and the work that would come to eclipse it, at least in terms of historical importance - La Serva Padrona (’The Servant Turned Mistress’). It was this little comic interlude that would become the focus of a heated debate in France known as the ‘Querelle des bouffons‘ (1752) over the superiority of Italian comic opera over the rather stuffy long-winded academicism of the royalty-approved native French form. It’s not difficult to see why a work like La Serva Padrona would be so popular, its subject matter and irreverence showing a pre-revolutionary disrespect not only for the nobility, but also in how it takes opera further away from the myths, gods and legends of opera seria by making common people and their down-to-earth affairs the subject of the work. You can see the influence this might have had on Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, but La Serva Padrona goes one step further here with its suggestiveness and the outrageous situation where a shameless maidservant not only demands to be treated as an equal with her exasperated master, but also believes that she is worthy of marrying him.

That’s evidently not as shocking an idea now as it might have been back in 1732, and that’s maybe why the director Henning Brockhaus chooses not to rely on the traditional setting of the noble/servant relationship, but sets it instead in a circus which is perhaps more in keeping with the farcical, colourful nature of the work and its historical legacy. Again though, rather like the staging for Il Prigionier Superbo, this doesn’t really add anything to the work - which as an Intermezzo was never intended to be fully staged in any event - but it serves well enough for the comic elements that ensue through the scandalous behaviour and flirting of a circus performer, Serpina, who just won’t know her station and show deference to the commands of the ring master, Uberto.

Aside from its historical importance, La Serva Padrona’s reputation and fame is merited as a comic drama as well as in its musical arrangement. It’s only 50 minutes long and there is quite a bit of recitative within that (Corrado Rovaris’s harpsichord playing making this a little more musical that it otherwise might be), but there is also a great deal of humour in the situation and some lovely lyrical beauty in the arias which have the same effervescent character that is in all Pergolesi’s compositions. It’s sung and played reasonably well here with an appropriately light touch by Alessandra Marianelli and Carlo Lepore, even if it’s not the most witty staging or interpretation of the work. That impression however might be as much to do with seeing the Intermezzo placed in its original context for the first time in centuries alongside a work that now looks to be the superior achievement. With this and the previous DVD release of Adriano in Siria revealing the considerable qualities of Pergolesi’s dramma per musica work now placed alongside his religious compositions (his Stabat Mater and the recently rediscovered oratorio Septem verba a Cristo in Cruce moriente prolata) a re-evaluation to consider Pergolesi as one of the greatest composers of his time looks assured.

As indicated above, credit goes not just to Jesi and the Pergolesi Spontini Foundation for putting on these works, but also to distributors who are putting them out on Blu-ray, since the High Definition format allows these rare opera works to be fully appreciated by a much wider public. The quality of the A/V on this Arthaus release is impressive, all the more so for the detail that the audio mixes in particular bring out of the period instruments and playing of the Accademia Barocca de i Virtuosi Italiani. Unlike the interweaving of Adriano in Siria and Livietta e Tracollo one within the other, the Dramma and the Intermezzo here were filmed on separate occasions (one in 2009, the other in 2011) and you have to watch each piece separately, which is probably preferable for home viewing. The BD is all-region compatible with subtitles in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish and Korean.

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