Sat 3 Mar 2012
Franz Joseph Haydn - Lo Speziale
Théâtre Artistic Athévains, 2012 | Andrée-Claude Brayer, Anne-Marie Lazarini, Jean-François Chiama, Karine Godefroy, Laurent Herbaut, Xavier Mauconduit, L’Orchestra-Studio de Cergy Pontoise | Paris, 29 February 2012
It isn’t often that you get the chance to see a rarity like Haydn’s Lo Speziale performed. Haydn’s thirteen Italian operas, completed during his term as court composer to Prince Eszterházy at Einsenstadt, were eclipsed in their own time by the brilliance and inventiveness of Mozart’s comic operas, and that sadly remains the case today. Who is going to put on a production of an obscurity like Lo Speziale for a few hundred people when you can draw the crowds with another Marriage of Figaro?
Well, how about a small French theatre company in Paris’s 11th Arrondissement? The Théâtre Artistic Athévains has previous experience in this field with a production of Cimarosa’s Secret Wedding and Haydn’s Lo Speziale offers not only an opportunity to put on a lively work of 18th century comic music-theatre, but it also comes with a libretto written by the great Venetian dramatist of the time, Carlo Goldoni. A dramma giocoso per musica, Lo Speziale is not a particularly complex drama, and it has to be said, not a particularly witty one either, but, as with the recent Opéra Liège production of another rare Haydn work, La Vera Costanza, there’s a lot that can be brought out through performers who are able to find the necessary comic rhythm of the piece.
It makes it slightly easier to do this and do it moreover in a small theatre, when there are only four characters in the opera, a consequence of Goldoni’s libretto being trimmed, probably by the original tenor Carl Friberth who played the role of Sempronio, cutting back any serious content in the work to make it a purely comic piece. Essentially then, the drama revolves around the battle for the hand of Grilletta, a young woman under the tutelage of Sempronio, a Venetian speziale, a homoeopathist specialising in the production of medicinal herbs and spices, but also perfumes, tinctures for paints, wax for candles, paper and inks. Grilletta has a number of admirers, among them (as far as this version is concerned), Sempronio’s young apprentice Mengone - who is secretly engaged to the young woman - and Volpino, one of his customers. The master speziale however has designs on marrying Grilletta himself.
The comic content inevitably involves lots of trickery and donning of disguises as each of the suitor seeks to gain the upper hand, regardless seemingly of Grilletta having any choice in the matter. Mengone and Volpino turn up disguised as notaries with high-pitched voices at one point and put their own names on the certificate of marriage instead of Sempronio, but their ruse is soon discovered. Eventually Volpino tricks Sempronio with the offer of a commission in Turkey, donning another disguise and making another play for the hand of Grilletta, but having made up their differences, Mengone and Grilletta take advantage of Volpino’s plan, dressing as Turks and getting Sempronio to give his blessing to their union.
Much of the success of making this farce work is down to the performers and the musicians entering into the lively spirit of it all, and that’s achieved here wonderfully through Anne-Marie Lazarini’s stage direction working hand-in-hand with the musical direction of Andrée-Claude Brayer. The six musicians of the Orchestre-Studio de Cergy-Pontoise are placed on a Venetian bridge that overlooks the small piazza of the speziale’s shop, the stage simply decorated but brilliantly evocative of the colours and light of Venice. The musicians interact with the performers in small but entertaining ways, making it look like their rehearsals and playing forms part of the everyday life in the little district. It’s a simple touch, but effective in allowing a rhythm to develop between the music and the singers.
And it’s all about the rhythm. It may seem like a simple farce, but the pace and rhythm are essential to make a dramma giocosa like Lo Speziale work well and that was delightfully evident in the production. The singers - Jean-François Chiama as Sempronio, Karine Godefroy as Grilletta, Laurent Herbaut as Volpino (the role changed from a trouser-part down to baritone for this production) and Xavier Mauconduit as Mengone - also clearly recognised that this is by no means an opera seria and accordingly not a work for high-flown individual expression (arias are relatively restrained and shorn of repetition), but one that works collectively, and the interaction between them was perfect. Appropriately handled then as a light and refreshing entertainment in a lovely intimate environment away from the big Parisian opera houses, Lo Speziale is a rare opportunity to see a little-known Haydn work in a delightful production. Performed in Italian with French surtitles that catch the spirit of the original language, it runs at Théâtre Artistic Athévains (www.artistic-athevains.com) until 29th March 2012.