Baldassare Galuppi was one of the foremost composers of Venetian comic operas – maybe even the
foremost. He also wrote serious operas and composed music for the church. His popularity was great during his lifetime and his music has never fallen completely into oblivion. There are a few recordings around. I praised a recital of Forgotten Arias
some years ago (see review
). My bottom line of that review read: ‘Everyone interested in baroque opera or accomplished singing in general needs to hear this disc, which functions as a mental equivalent to a vitamin injection at the health centre.’
Naturally the opportunity to hear – and see - a complete opera by Galuppi made me bid for this issue, especially since an aria from L’Olimpiade
was also included in the recital. A collection of isolated arias is one thing – a complete opera is quite another. Hearing and enjoying a number of arias out of context, performed by outstanding musicians, may give an overly positive impression. So it was with some trepidation that I pressed the Play button. Were my expectations too high?
Initially this production wasn’t very exciting. The beautiful pictures from Venice scattered through the introductory texts were certainly an attraction, but the playing felt rather staid and stiff – a tendency of baroque opera. We lack the cultural background and patience of 18th
century audiences. The Venice Baroque Orchestra played well in the three-part overture – fast-slow-fast. The stage picture was nice with a stage within the stage and enough space to allow action when the curtain was drawn. Not that there was much dramatic action. The singers were seen sitting on the floor or sitting on a chair, or standing behind it, or climbing onto a large block of marble. Sitting on the floor seemed a nice touch at first but eventually became more of a mannerism. In any event this deployment of the singers was a nice deviation from the historical mannerisms of 18th
century opera with a limited supply of poses and gestures.
The music was attractive but only gradually did it rise to a level
of personal utterance. Secco recitatives and arias succeeded each
other. Not until the end of the first act was there a duet. Where
it differed from the average baroque opera was in the architecture
of the arias. Da capo arias were the norm but more often than
not the structure was not a mere A-B-A. In general they were five-part
constructions: A-A-B-A-A. Galuppi wasn’t satisfied with plain
repetition of the A-section, but presented it in an alternative
shape the second time round. This resulted, naturally enough,
in very long arias. While they didn’t lack musical interest, they
still made the story very drawn out and since the literary contents
of the arias was just as repetitive as in any other baroque opera,
concentration can tend to flag. Thank God, the singing was on
an altogether different level and one could for long stretches
just lean back and enjoy the voices and the technical expertise
in the singing. Though good singing is always something to savour
– and it can never be taken for granted – one wants something
more from an opera performance. Otherwise one could just as well
go to a concert performance or just play the DVDs on the CD player.
But – lo and behold – a few arias into the first act things began to change. It wasn’t a matter of a sudden improvement in the music or the libretto or the direction. It was simply that the story started to make sense. I found an interest in the proceedings. It mattered whether the characters were happy or – mostly – sad and I bothered about the outcome of the story. By then I had also warmed to the direction, to a very specific humanity, where the characters in a way stepped out of their cardboard personalities. They became living creatures with life and blood and with feelings towards each other and against each other. The most striking feature of the direction was the closeness between the actors – no, wrong - the persons. I have seen so many opera performances on DVD and in the theatre, where alienation seems to have been the aim and purpose of the director. People in a hot erotic relation have been standing ten meters apart, declaring their mutual love while facing the wings of the stage. In Venice three years ago they were intimate, touched and caressed each other, eyes met, vibrations electrified the air and hearts opened. From then on I was in
the story and part
of it. I still thought the arias were too long and felt like zapping forward with the remote control – but I couldn’t. I wanted to see this enchanting interaction and inhale every second of the story.
Yes, the story – it really is too long and winding to relate in full and no one will be much wiser afterwards anyway. The conditions are as follows:
, a noble Athenian and several times winner of the Olympic Games – we are
in Ancient Greece – fell in love with Aristea
, the daughter of Clistene
, the King of Sicione. He wouldn’t allow her to marry someone from Athens, so Megacle fled to Crete. There in a fight his life was saved by Licida
, who was thought to be son of the King – but he wasn’t. (All this happened before the opera began). Back in Athens King Clistene had become president of the Olympic Games and promised his daughter Aristea to be the prize of the winner. Licida had now fallen in love with Aristea and wanted dearly to win. He was however a lousy athlete and asked Megacle to compete under Licida’s name … We are beginning to see the complications, aren’t we?
Thus far we are hardly half-way through the first of the three long acts – and many are the pains and strains the characters have to go through before everything is sorted out. It was about here that I was caught by the story, which no doubt has many similarities with other librettos of the period. Where it differs is that here the Olympic Games form the backdrop though, truth to tell, we are robbed of the competition proper! The librettist, Metastasio no less, followed common practice and had all the meaty events take place off-stage. We only see Megacle arriving at the beginning of the second act, crowned with a laurel wreath. Yes, the beginning of act II, which means that this is only the end of the beginning. What follows is a thriller far more substantial than any soap opera or horror series: suicides are being reported, revenge is proclaimed, swords and daggers are brandished, horrible truths are being revealed. If you want to know how it ends, without having to see the whole opera, you just choose the last chapter on the menu – but that would be a pity. The evening I had decided to start watching this opera I was so spellbound when the first disc was finished that I ignored the wall clock striking twelve and went on watching to the bitter end.
The sparse sets, the unobtrusive costumes – some kind of generalized 18th
century in stead of Ancient Greece – co-operate to make the characters come alive and the acting, physically, is rather restrained. The exception is the old Aminta, who sings his arias in a pose reminiscent of an Olympic skier putting on a spurt. No, it is very much the facial expressions, the postures and the sensual way the characters touch each other that make this one of the closest dramas I have seen.
The orchestral contributions are on a high level throughout and one has to admire Galuppi’s inventive use of orchestral effects to underline moods and feelings. Many of the arias are not only dramatically effective but have deeply intrinsic musical values as well. And so the singers!
Though several of the names maybe unknown to many readers – as they were to me – they are ideal for their roles. I suppose Roberta Invernizzi is the best known of them and she is absolutely gorgeous, but the same also goes for Ruth Rosique in the pivotal role as Aristea. Both sopranos are technically absolutely stunning but the feeling and the warmth of their acting is just as memorable. The two mezzo-sopranos in the trouser roles of Megacle (Romina Basso) and Licida (Franziska Gottwald) are on the same level of excellence and the men are equally accomplished. In particular Furio Zanasi impresses with his sonorous singing, true bel canto
, and charismatic acting.
The production was recorded live but there are few signs of an audience being present; there’s no applause after arias (in the first act, that is), only at the end of the act. In the second act, where admittedly some of the best numbers are to be found, the onlookers couldn’t hold back; by then the ovations are well deserved. Good recording and discreet camera work should make this a desirable acquisition for lovers of baroque opera.