Dantone, Ottavio


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.

RinaldoGeorge Friedrich Handel - Rinaldo

Glyndebourne, 2011 | Ottavio Dantone, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Robert Carsen, Sonia Prina, Varduhi Abrahamyan, Tim Mead, Anett Fritsch, Brenda Rae, Luca Pisaroni, William Towers | Opus Arte

It’s always good to have a fresh outlook placed on the subjects of Handel’s Baroque operas - or at least I think so anyway. Whether it’s traditional (although I’ve never seen a Handel opera done “authentically” period), whether it’s in a modern setting, or according to a more abstract conception, it helps if there is a strong vision that is able to reconsider what the essential themes of the work are and how they can be best presented to a modern audience. In the case of Rinaldo, a staging of the work in its libretto specified setting during the first Crusade is sufficiently remote from modern beliefs, attitudes and experience as to be possibly a distraction from the real themes that underpin the work. The purpose of any production, modern dress or otherwise, must surely be to reflect on what the work is actually about, not recreate a historical performance, and if it can break through the rigid formalism of opera seria and actually make it entertaining at the same time, well then so much the better.

Which brings us to Robert Carsen’s very distinctive but carefully considered Glyndebourne 2011 production of Handel’s first London opera from 1711. Recognising that it’s not the most consistent work, the majority of it cobbled together like a remix of Handel’s earlier greatest hits, it certainly does no harm to try and make it look as fresh and meaningful as Handel somehow manages to make it all sound. Carsen makes his intentions clear from the outset, asking the question “Were the Crusades political or inspired by an act of personal vengeance?” This message is written in chalk across a blackboard and it’s an English boys’ boarding school that acts as the backdrop or framing device to delve into the personal sentiments expressed so beautifully if somewhat generically in what is after all a patched together piece. In response to this history lesson question, a young boy, bullied and teased by his classmates, his life made a misery by his authoritarian teachers, imagines himself the great warrior Rinaldo and sees the mighty forces of Goffredo coming out from behind the blackboard to slay his tormentors.

Setting a Crusades war within the confines of a boarding school, the action taking place in classrooms, bike-sheds, dorms and locker rooms, with a gym turned into a torture chamber (there’s a difference?) and an epic battle taking place on a football pitch, the production could however just as easily be seen as placing itself at a distance from the actual events described and sung about in the libretto, but Carsen manages nonetheless to faithfully retain the entire sense of the original work within this setting. At the centre of the events relating to the siege of Jerusalem, Rinaldo’s promised love, Almirena - daughter of Goffredo - is abducted by Argante, the General of the Saracen army during a three-day truce, recognising that Rinaldo is the key to the outcome of the battle. Almirena is placed under the enchantment of the sorceress and Saracen Queen, Armida - but it’s the enchantress and her General fall prey to their own sentimental weaknesses in relation to this heroic couple. In the mind of a schoolboy, this story is wrapped up in teasing by his classmates over his girlfriend, and the dark figures of authority that keep them apart are those of the school teachers. Mix in some Furies that have a bit of a St Trinian’s thing going on and sadistic teachers in rubber bondage outfits and it certainly adds another dimension to the passions and characterisation of these mythological figures.

Through this blending of fiction, reality and fantasy, the Glyndebourne production of Rinaldo captures the essential sense of the power of mythology and identification with the sense of empowerment that lies within it - something that is much more relevant (although the case could be argued otherwise) than the sense of nationalistic pride and moral righteousness that comes with battling the dark sorcery of dangerous foreign infidels. Robert Carsen’s production, I would argue, however doesn’t entirely discount these themes either but brings them out in other ways. There are lots of clever little details in the props, uniforms and locations of a English public boarding school that reveal the same institutionalised nationalistic and militaristic attitudes. Quite correctly however, these are secondary to the love story whose purity is reflected perfectly in the innocence of first-love in the playground and by the bike-sheds. It also manages to find an imaginative way around those tricky stage directions calling for armies on horseback launching into epic battles.

Many of these directorial choices provoke laughs from the audience at Glyndebourne, which you might not consider appropriate for an opera seria work, but it shows that there is genuine engagement with the work. Whether it also inspires the performers I couldn’t say, but musically and in terms of the singing, this is a magnificent production, so at least it clearly isn’t a distraction. All the main roles are sung terrifically well. Tim Mead is one of the best Handel countertenors, but I’ve never heard him singing so well as Eustazio, his voice as angelically pure as a schoolboy soprano, so perhaps the production does indeed help in that respect. The purity and idealism of young love and innocent idealism also works in favour of contralto Sonia Prina’s Rinaldo and Anett Fritsch’s Almirena - both combining expressiveness with a gorgeous clarity and tone; and if being a sadistic headmaster and a kinky dominatrix school teacher gives force to the commanding performances of Luca Pisaroni and Brenda Rae as Argante and Armida - both of them demonstrating masterful coloratura - then I’ve no problem with that either. Varduhi Abrahamyan’s Goffredo sounds strong enough at the start, but she isn’t able to sustain this through to the final act.

The whole thing however is held together and driven along musically by the outstanding performance of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Ottavio Dantone and anchored by his scintillating harpsichord playing, and it’s given additional emphasis in the clarity of the audio tracks on this DVD/BD release. It’s particularly impressive in the High Definition Blu-ray presentation. I don’t think I praise the actual quality of the sound reproduction on Blu-ray releases quite enough, but when you hear the tone of the Baroque period instruments in orchestral playing like this and exceptionally good singing, it just sounds incredible. This is a very fine recording. Image quality too is near flawless, the production covered well in the editing with no distractions. The Opus Arte release also contains a few excellent short features on the production and the musical interpretation in the extra features interviews (it’s good to hear the musicians views for a change), and there’s a booklet with an essay on the work and a full synopsis. The BD is all-region, 1080i Full-HD, with PCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes. Subtitles are in English, French and German only.

AdrianoGiovanni Battista Pergolesi - Adriano in Siria

Teatro G. B. Pergolesi, Jesi, 2010 | Ottavio Dantone, Ignacio García, Accademia Bizantina, Marina Comparato, Lucia Cirillo, Annamaria dell’Oste, Nicole Heaston, Stefano Ferrari, Francesca Lombardi, Monica Bacelli, Carlo Lepore | Opus Arte

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s opera works were popular in his lifetime, and the subject even of a famous dispute in France between those in favour of the Italian buffa opera style that he innovated and model followed by Lully and Rameau, but the composer died in 1736 at the age of 26 with only six operas to his name, and his works are rarely performed nowadays. Best known now for mainly for his Stabat Mater, few will have heard of Pergolesi’s Adriano di Siria, one of the composer’s opera seria works from 1734, so the opportunity to hear it played in authentic period style at the Teatro G. B. Pergolesi in the composer’s home town of Jesi is tremendously exciting, particularly with the superb 2010 performance presented here on Blu-ray disc from Opus Arte.

You might not have heard of Adriano in Siria or be familiar with Pergolesi, but the chances are that if you’ve any familiarity with Baroque opera, you will at least have heard of Pietro Metastasio, the poet and dramatist responsible for librettos that were used and reused in literally hundreds of early compositions (Adriano in Siria had already been set to music several times before Pergolesi) – and if that’s the case then you will have a fair idea of what to expect from the development of the plot and its treatment in an opera seria work. Historically or classically based, Metastasio’s librettos often feature a powerful king or ruler, who is usually in love with a woman who is engaged to be married to another man. There are often a few additional variable complications where the man she is engaged to is in love for someone else, who is turn is actually in love with the king, and so on…

…cue confrontations between each of the principal figures during the recitative, with long heartfelt, reflective and repetitive virtuoso arias of despair, anger, love and compassion, according to the turn of events. These power-play games, which are more romantic in nature than political or historical, are usually wrapped up neatly with the ruler exercising their power wisely and each of the characters being matched to their appropriate partner. That applies as much to Adriano in Siria (relating to the Roman emperor Hadrian) as it does to Ezio, Il Re Pastore or La Clemenza di Tito (or even Tamerlano, which is not by Metastasio but clearly follows the model he defined). What distinguishes the adapting any Metastasio’s libretto to music is of course the interpretation of the composer, and in this case Pergolesi’s handling of this fairly dry and static dramatic material is every bit as brilliant and enchanting as Handel, Gluck or Mozart.

Adriano

It’s possible that more could be made of the actual drama in the staging, but as far as this production at Jesi goes, there doesn’t appear to be any attempt to impose a modern reworking or concept onto the opera, which is played and performed in a quite traditional manner. The set design is fairly static, the location an all-purpose, generic, classical ruin of antiquity, the costumes those of the period – togas, tunics and robes. The ruins however, while they relate to the results of the war between Rome and the Parthians in Antioch, can also been taken as a metaphor for the romantic conflict and the anguish that it causes each of the characters. Another metaphor in this production relates to birds, a real-life bird of prey carried on at the start of the opera, and caged birds are seen elsewhere, being particularly relevant during Farnaspe’s gorgeous aria at the end of Act I, ‘Lieto così tal volta’ (“At times the nightingale is heard, still happily singing in its captivity”), which, sung by Annamaria dell’Oste with an onstage solo oboe accompaniment that evokes birdsong, gives an indication of the beauty and the wholeness of the production, singing, music and libretto working together in perfect harmony.

Elsewhere the musical arrangements perfectly reflect the nature of the characters and their emotional state at any given time. Later parts of the libretto make reference to tempests and torments (emotional as well as meteorological) and the Accademia Bizantina appropriately whip up a storm in the pit with a huge sound from what appears to be only an 18-piece orchestra. Most of the roles are female, or are females in some of the male roles (the part of Farnaspe however was originally a mezzo-soprano castrato role – one can only imagine how that would have sounded!), but the music is notably more aggressive with heavy percussive harpsichord rhythms, for example, when the only male character, Osroa (Stefano Ferrari), is on stage, full of jealousy or rage and with threats of violence. When contrasted with the aforementioned ‘Lieto così tal volta’, you get a sense of the whole dynamic of Adriano in Siria, which is sung simply and beautifully by all the performers, with da capo but no excessive ornamentation.

If that’s not enough on its own, you get two works for the price of one here that demonstrate the range and innovation of Pergolesi. A comic opera Intermezzo would often be performed in the breaks between acts, and one of Pergolesi’s buffa operas, ‘Livietta e Tracollo’, composed for a Neapolitan audience, is included in this performance in two parts in the intervals between the acts of Adriano in Siria as it would originally have been presented. There’s very little plot to speak of here either, just disguises and farce as Livietta sets a trap for a notorious thief Tracollo and ends up marrying him, but it has two good parts for singers and they are entertainingly delivered with gusto and plenty of comic gesticulation by Monica Bacelli and Carlo Lepore.

The Blu-ray release for Opus Arte looks and sounds terrific, with a clear, sharp colourful transfer, the music and singing superbly reproduced in both the PCM Stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks with crystal clarity and depth of tone, capturing the detail of the instruments and the ambience of the old theatre. Extras include a Cast Gallery and an Interview with conductor Ottavio Dantone. The inner booklet notes the intention of the Pergolesi Spontini Foundation to record and issue all of Pergolesi’s surviving operas on DVD, which, if this first release is anything to go by, will be highly anticipated.