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Giovanni Maria PAGLIARDI (1637-1702)
Caligula, opera in 3 acts (1672)
Caligula, Jan van Elsacker (tenor); Cesonia, Caroline Meng (soprano); Teosena, Sophie Junker (soprano); Artabano & Domitio, Florian Götz (baritone); Tigrane & Claudio, Jean-François Lombard (high-tenor); Nesbo & Gelsa, Serge Goubioud (tenor)
Le Poème Harmonique/Dumestre
rec. Tandem, Scène Nationale d'Arras, France, April 2017
Sound Format PCM Stereo ; Picture Format 16:9, 1080i; Region 0: Sung in Italian; Subtitles in English and French
ALPHA CLASSICS 716 Blu-ray [83 mins]

The Companion to Baroque Music by Julie Ann Sadie, footnoted in Wikipedia, says Pagliardi, "worked primarily in Florence, where he served as maestro di cappella to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, at the church of S Lorenzo and, in his last years, at the cathedral. His oratorio L'innocenza trionfante was performed in Genoa at Ss Annunziata in 1660, and several collections of motets were published in Rome during the mid 1670s. But it was not until 1672 that he produced his first (and most popular) opera, Caligula delirante, at the Teatro SS Giovanni e Paolo in Venice." Grove Online notes that this opera was by far his most successful, being revived at least 14 times. A further indication of success is that in 1675 alone it was performed in five different cities. The story of Caligula seems to have attracted very few composers in this period, one who was attracted being Telemann but his opera Cajus Caligula is lost. Nowadays the violent and immoral tale is better known through film and television. Pagliardi's version is much more tame but rather less believable, involving, as it does, magic potions and even a resurrection from the dead (Caligula himself!) after which the notorious emperor is no longer delirious. However it provides an excellent basis for some impassioned singing and plenty of action.

What we have here is a cut down version of the opera Caligula delirante, probably cut down in the number of singers, leading to some doubling of roles as noted above, and also in instrumentalists and certainly in length. This pocket version is then set as a marionette opera, i.e. it is 'performed' by wooden puppets and sung from beside the stage by the artists listed above. There is a long history of marionette theatre and marionette opera in particular. One of the very earliest operas, Rossi's Orfeo of 1647, was presented as a small-scale adaptation for the puppet stage and indeed the fashion for such performances continued for some time into the 18th century. It should be noted that the great Joseph Haydn composed for his employer's puppet theatre at Eszterházy. Some operas were written for this type of presentation but often it was full scale works that were adapted. Only one opera, Marc'Antonio Ziani's Damira Placata, has survived in both versions to allow scholars to study the process. This Caligula is a modern reconstruction of what might have been done to Pagliardi's work. A fine cast of singers have been used along with Le Poème Harmonique all directed by Vincent Dumestre. The result, once one has adjusted, is very good indeed, and may open up a whole artistic world to the viewer. The libretto is presented as usual with subtitles allowing the stage action to be fully understood. The puppeteers and their puppets are virtuosos of the genre and it is quite easy to be drawn into the work. Pagliardi was obviously a master despite being almost totally forgotten. Yet more proof of how much there is in this 'classical music' world of ours to discover.

The camera moves fluidly from singers to their marionette alter egos, and takes in the small band of seven musicians on their early baroque instruments including violins, violone, lirone, viol, guitar, theorbo and harpsichord. I have to say it was all a delight and a surprise. The booklet gives a synopsis of the complicated plot as well as some thoughts on the process of reduction. The audience at Tandem, Scène Nationale d'Arras, greets the results with loud applause, with which the home viewer might be tempted to join in.

In one respect this Alpha Classics issue wins a very different plaudit, that being for introducing this reviewer, after about 60 years of opera-going, to an entirely unexpected Baroque genre. Of course the use of marionettes is still found on the modern stage. I remember the giant figures in Glass' Satyagraha at the London Colliseum, and many years ago a tiny model Egyptian landscape was used in the same composer's Akhenaton. Manuel de Falla composed El retablo de maese Pedro (Master Peter's Puppet Show) in 1923. Ligeti uses giant figures in Le Grande Macabre. There is certainly more.

Those who enjoy early opera should not miss this delightful issue, well filmed and well presented by Alpha. One should note that the director has seen fit to open with a scene of a girl running through a school corridor and arriving backstage at the puppet theatre. Rest assured this does eventually make sense when she appears later in the production.
Dave Billinge


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