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Alfredo CASELLA (1883-1947)
La donna serpente (1932)
Piero Pretti (tenor) – Altidˇr, Carmela Remigio (soprano) – Miranda, Erika Grimaldi (soprano) – Armilla, Francesco Marsiglia (tenor) – Altidr¨f, Marco Filippo Romano (baritone) – Albrig˛r, Roberto de Candia (baritone) – Pant¨l, Fabrizio Paesano (tenor) – Tartagil, Fabrizio Beggi (bass) – T˛grul, Sebastian Catana (baritone) – Demogorg˛n, Francesca Sassu (soprano) – Farzana, Coryphaea, Anna Maria Chiuri (mezzo-soprano) – CanzÓde, Kate Fruchterman (soprano) – Smeraldina, A voice, Donato di Goia (baritone) – Bad˙r, Coryphaeus, Emilio Marcucci (baritone) – Ge˛nca, Herald, Alejandro Escobar (tenor) – Herald, Eugenia Braynova and Roberta Garelli (soprano and mezzo-soprano) – Fairies, Giuseppe Capoferri (baritone) – Inner voice, Fattoria Vittadini (dancers)
Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro Regio Torino/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. Teatro Regio, 12 and 14 April 2018
NAXOS NBD0096V Blu-ray [143 mins]

The plays of Carlo Gozzi have provided a happy hunting-ground for centuries for composers in search of opera libretti, although only Puccini’s Turandot has succeeded in establishing a permanent niche in the central repertoire. Perhaps more surprisingly Gozzi has also had a wide appeal to composers outside Italy: not only Prokofiev’s Love for three oranges, but also incidental music to Turandot by Weber and even more surprisingly Wagner who modelled his first opera Die Feen (never performed until after his death) on Gozzi’s La donna serpente. Perhaps less surprisingly Wagner eliminated the commedia dell’arte elements that were an integral part of Gozzi’s theatrical apparatus, concentrating instead on the more supernatural elements of the plot. Casella, when he came to write his only full-length opera, turned to the original Gozzi text – originally with the intention of writing a choral ballet, and only later adapting the play for the stage while retaining the commedia elements. In so doing he immediately set himself up in direct opposition not only to Prokofiev (whose Love for three oranges had been noted for a singular lack of success at its Chicago premiŔre some years before) but also to the trio of ‘masks’ in the final opera by Casella’s bŕte noire Puccini. And throughout the first two acts of La donna serpente the shades of Prokofiev and Puccini lie very heavily indeed on the score, with the opening scene of the second act a close parallel to the similar scene in Turandot and a central ‘marcia’ in the same act which seems poised at any minute to break into Prokofiev’s now famous march from Three oranges.

And then, quite suddenly, at the beginning of the third act the whole mood changes. After the heroine (can you describe a character who fakes the death of her own children and organises the destruction of her husband’s kingdom as a heroine?) undergoes her thoroughly deserved metamorphosis into a snake, we are presented with a genuinely tragic prelude and a lament for the soprano which, while consciously conceived as a parallel to Monteverdi, rises to real emotional heights which soar far above the neo-classical idiom which has predominated so far. The following scene, where the king comes in search of his errant wife, hearkens back beyond Prokofiev to the model of Rimsky-Korsakov, with the music conjuring up the magic realm of Kitezh; and when the couple are re-united, they sing a duet which may have been suggested by the conclusion of Monteverdi’s Poppea, but which reflects rather the romantic approach to that composer adopted by his early editors such as Malipiero rather than sterner more authentic models. In this final act the commedia dell’arte elements which have figured so prominently in the earlier sections nearly disappear, with just occasional glimpses of the style juxtaposed with the more serious material in a manner which echoes Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos.
All of which may tend to suggest a certain lack of originality in Casella’s score, an impression which is not altogether unjustified. But the composer’s command of the orchestra, even when it audibly suggests the influence of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, is always spicy and ear-tickling; and he rises superbly to the occasional opportunities Gozzi affords him for dramatic outbursts. One should also note that – unlike Prokofiev – Casella’s vocal lines are always superbly singable, never degenerating into passages where dramatic effect is more important than tone. Indeed I get the distinct feeling that La donna serpente, given top-flight casting and enthusiastic performance, might prove to be stage-worthy under certain conditions. These conditions are not altogether fulfilled here, but the performance nonetheless proves worthwhile.

In the first place, the orchestral and choral performances are both exceptionally fine. There is some scrappy playing at the outset from the orchestra, but they soon settle down to give a fizzing rendition of what sounds like some very difficult writing, and the string cantilena during the prelude to the third act is given real passion and weight. The booklet tells us that the production was originally conducted by Fabio Luisi, but Gianandrea Noseda gets a superb response from his players; and the audience is considerate enough to refrain from applause until after the curtain has fallen at the end of the third act, enabling us to hear the agitated violin figurations in the final bars with pinpoint accuracy. The large chorus are equally effective in their barnstorming moments and their delicate offstage vocalisations, often acting as a support to the soloists without overwhelming them.

The production, with movable units by Dario Gessatti that slide around to create different scenes without holding up the course of the action and the music, is in the hands of Arturo Cirillo whose previous experience has drawn heavily on the field of dance. Here he employs the services of Riccardo Olivier as choreographer for a group of dancers who are present nearly throughout, not only performing scenes as required by the score but also providing a commentary on the dialogue and illustrating various narrations with mime. This might imply a lack of confidence by the director in the dramatic integrity of Gozzi’s text – and it must be observed that this implication might well be justified – but it does provide a visual focus at the points when the action hangs fire, even though the homoerotic suggestions during “Altidˇr’s dream” in Act One are surprising. Especial credit must be given to the unnamed dancer who impersonates the ‘snake-woman’ during the Act Three prelude even if her costume and makeup looks nothing like the artist who immediately takes over the role when the singing starts. The choreographic influence extends also to the singers, whose gestures and movements are distinctly balletic – and well-executed, never seeming imposed from outside or facile. The only debatable point comes with Altidˇr’s battle with the monsters in the final act; the stylised choreographic movements here make his victory appear all too predictable.

I am not sure that La donna serpente has ever been performed with what one could call top-flight Italian singers; but the two leading roles really demand such voices. Miranda, the fairy whose actions precipitate the curse that turns her into a snake, is a sort of vocal cross between Minnie in La fanciulla del West and Cherubini’s Medea, with, in her quieter moments, a touch of Desdemona thrown in. Here Carmela Remigio has the right eldritch quality in her acting, and can turn a dramatic pose when required; but her voice becomes seriously unsteady under pressure – and there is a lot of pressure in this role. Even in her quiet lament after her transformation she is not ideally clear-toned. The leading tenor role of her husband Altidˇr is, I would suggest, even more impossible to cast satisfactorily. Much of the writing lies quite low in the register of the voice, like a sort of Italian Siegmund; and then every so often it cuts loose with high-flying dramatics where the sound is clearly intended to ring out over the massed ensemble like Calaf at the end of Act One of Turandot – another passage almost impossible to realise satisfactorily under theatrical conditions. Piero Pretti here displays a degree of cutting edge to his voice, but does not have the desirable sense of lyric warmth for the more Puccinian passages in a part that really cries out for a Franco Corelli to realise what I imagine Casella had in mind. He seems to produce more tone in the later stages; possibly a different performance was substituted. Most of the other parts are little more than comprimario roles, albeit ones that demand considerable force of declamation to ride the often boisterous orchestration; most are delivered here with plenty of panache, and the commedia dell’arte team form a well-balanced combination in their many passages of ensemble.

It is perhaps unfair to complain that Pretti and Remigio are not Corelli and Nilsson – who is? – and it has to be said that they are far from inconsiderable in their roles. We are, I imagine, extremely unlikely to get a new video version of La donna serpente at any time soon; but the original 2017 production conducted by Fabio Luisi has surfaced (from a performance at a different venue) on a Bongiovanni DVD which I have not seen but which James North in Fanfare described as “amateurish” in presentation, with poor lighting, inept subtitles, and less than satisfactory orchestral playing. Although that DVD remains available, Naxos have comprehensively trumped the competition on all those counts, even though there are no extras provided; subtitles are provided in Italian, English, German, Japanese and Korean. The booklet notes by Ivan Moody are informative (although the synopsis of the action is bewilderingly brief), but are provided in English only.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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