Sun 3 Feb 2013
Giovanni 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.