Rovaris, Corrado


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.

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.

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.