Rosique, Ruth


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.

PoppeaClaudio Monteverdi - L’incoronazione di Poppea

Gran Theatre del Liceu, Barcelona 2009 | Harry Bicket, David Alden, Miah Persson, Sarah Connolly, Jordi Domenèch, Franz-Josef Selig, Maite Beaumont, Ruth Rosique, Dominique Visse, Guy de Mey, William Berger, Judith van Wanroij, Francisco Vas, Josep Miquel Ramón, Marisa Martins, Olatz Saitua | Opus Arte

As if it’s not enough to be attributed with inventing opera itself – the first through-composed work being L’Orfeo in 1607 – Monteverdi advanced the artform even further with his last work, L’incoronazione di Poppea (1643), written at the age of 76. Previously operas were based only on classic mythological subjects – opera being a 17th century attempt to return to the ideals of Ancient Greek drama, which was then believed to have had a musical form – but, having moved into public theatres, and no longer a diversion for royalty and nobility, L’incoronazione di Poppea would be the first opera to deal with a historical subject and real people. The composer (there is still uncertainty about the authorship of the work, some believing that parts of the work at least may have been written by one of Monteverdi’s students) takes full advantage of this fact, revelling in the possibilities of extending the qualities associated with the musical-dramatic form to show less elevated and more down-to-earth human behaviour.

Directing Monteverdi’s final opera for the Liceu in Barcelona in 2009, David Alden emphasises this aspect in his colourful, modernised production (first produced in Munich in 1997) which certainly takes liberties with the characters and the setting to draw out the bawdiness and humour that is undoubtedly a part of the work, while Harry Bicket’s sensitive conducting of the Liceu’s Baroque orchestra finds the delicacy and sensitivity that it also part of the make-up of the human historical figures caught up in the drama of Nero’s reign in Rome around AD72. It’s a tricky proposition not only to achieve that magnificent balance, but also to find a way to make a 350 year-old work as vital and meaningful to a modern audience as it would have been to its original intended public. There’s no one right way to this, but it helps if you can achieve some balance between the traditional and the modern that captures the spirit of the work.

For Monteverdi, the Prologue to the opera sets out this clash between classicism and modernity in his new approach to representing historical drama in opera, where the typically allegorical figures of Virtue and Fortune battle it out for supremacy only to concede that it’s Love that holds greater sway in human affairs. In this story of revenge, infidelity, murder, lies and deceit, Virtue really doesn’t get a look in. Within this framework, away from the classical allusions to gods and mythological figures, Monteverdi finds a whole new wealth of emotions and personalities – most of them not entirely noble or honourable – to be explored through his innovative musical approach to continuo instrumentation, recitative and arioso. Busenello’s libretto also revels in the irreverence of the satire of these historical figures and the scandalous behaviour depicted, and, in its own way, Alden’s production taps into this for its rich vein of humour and presents it in a way which may be more meaningful to a modern audience.

Poppea

If that approach at times resembles that of a Carry On film, that’s perhaps not as inappropriate as it sounds for this particular work. There is a great deal of sauciness in how Monteverdi and Busenello treat the scandalous behaviour of Nero’s infidelities and Poppea’s scheming. There is real passion in the seductive lines in which Nero and the music describe the hold that Poppea has over him, and there is some suggestiveness and homoeroticism in Nero and Lucan’s drunken celebration at having overthrown the stabilising influence of Seneca, but the activities of the Emperor and his affair with Poppea seems to promote a general licentiousness and scheming elsewhere among their associates. Brought together in this way, if Drusilla were to ask Ottone “Is that an axe in your trousers or are you just pleased to see me?”, or Nero to exclaim, “Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in f’ me!”, it wouldn’t be any more out of place than what is actually suggested there in the music and the libretto itself.

That’s essentially how Alden approaches this aspect of the work, using incongruity to play up the humour in the situation. Hence we have Roman soldiers lolling about on a red leather sofa-bed, much play on the cross-dressing and travesti roles (Nero is usually played by a female soprano, as it is here, but it can be done with a tenor), and obvious visual jokes such as the page Valletto being dressed as an old-fashioned hotel pageboy from 1930s movies, and the Nurse dressed in – yes, you guessed it – a medical uniform. The production creates a recognisable environment then for the modern viewer to relate to, one that is attractively designed with plenty of variety in the arrangements, beautifully lit and coloured, witty, ironic and referential without being overly-clever, keeping the spirit of that aspect of the work intact.

There is however much more to L’incoronazione di Poppea than that and the directorial approach is not quite so successful when it comes to approaching the more lyrical qualities of the work. This is best demonstrated by Seneca’s death scene, which should be one of the most moving moments in the whole opera, but it fails to strike the right tone here. Musically, it’s perfect. Harry Bicket’s arrangement and Franz-Josef Selig’s bass have the right measure of gravity, nobility and tragedy, but the staging and the curiously dressed pupils of the philosopher work against the deeper implications that this event is to have on the subsequent course of events. Much of the balance in the production is left then to Bicket and the Baroque orchestra of the Liceu to pick up and, indeed, they do so brilliantly. It’s a sparser arrangement that doesn’t have the same rhythmic verve as the 1993 René Jacobs recording (on Arthaus DVD) that I am familiar with, but every note of the sparingly used chitarrone and harpsichord continuo is beautifully weighed and balanced, all the more to highlight the flute, harp and other affetto instrumentation that gives colour to the characters and emotions through their arias.

Poppea

The emotion and verve of the singing and acting performances also makes up for the slight lack of dynamic in the staging. Miah Persson is terrific as Poppea – much more animated and lyrical here than in anything else I’ve heard her sing (Britten and Stravinsky) – and Sarah Connolly is a fine impassioned Nero, not essentially evil, but in thrall to his passions and power. Jordi Domenèch is a little light as the countertenor Ottone, but the variety of his tone balances the other singers well. Maite Beaumont is outstanding as Ottavia and Franz-Josef Selig, as mentioned earlier, suitably dignified as Seneca. The real highlight of this production however is Dominique Visse, who is also the Nutrice in the above mentioned René Jacobs version, but here he takes on the contralto roles of the Nurse and Arnalta, fully entering into the spirit of Alden’s production. It’s the variety of singing parts that is one of the great qualities of L’incoronazione di Poppea and the casting here is superbly balanced in this respect.

Just as important, in this context, is the quality of the recording, and this release is absolutely stunning to look at and listen to in High Definition. There is a beautiful clarity to the singing and the instrumentation with a wonderful sense of ambience. This is sheer perfection as far as technical specifications go and, as far as this production is concerned, it brings out all the qualities of an extraordinary work of early opera. Extras on the DVD and Blu-ray consist only of a Cast Gallery and a narrated Synopsis, while an essay in the booklet takes a closer look at aspects of David Alden’s production. The subtitles are in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Catalan.