Italy Happy Two Hundred and Fiftieth Birthday Bologna Opera!
On 14 May 1763, Bologna’s Teatro Comunale opened its present doors for the first time. On 14 May 2013, the anniversary will be celebrated with a performance of the same inaugural opera, Il Trionfo di Clelia of Christoph Willibald Gluck. The sets, costumes and staging of that first staging were by no less than the theatre’s own architect, Antonio Galli Bibiena. It was not unusual at the time for architects to also design sets and costumes for inaugurations. Gluck himself conducted the first three performances in Bologna. Those and the remaining seventeen performances were enthusiastically received by full houses.
Contrast that with what will happen on the 14 May celebrations this year. The conductor, Giuseppe Sigismondi De Risio, who is also a musicologist and Bolognese too, has prepared the performing edition. He has already had an opportunity to try out the edition in Athens and at the Linbury Theatre of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in June of last year.
Pietro Metastasio was undoubtedly the most accomplished librettist of the so-called opera seria. For modern audiences, these libretti present a problem. They can sound verbose, long-winded, circumlocutory and eventually boring. That is because they are. But wait. A solution is at hand. But some history is necessary to show it.
Pietro Metastasio was the youngest of four children of an impoverished Rome grocer. He displayed an early innate talent for the Italian Word. His family encouraged his word play and he would entertain them reiterating and rhyming words, changing rhymes, sometimes inventing word endings alla Ogden Nash, to make them work as rhymes. His father realised there was money to be made out of these inventions. He soon had him performing his improvised inventions on the street. The handsome boy, who reportedly exuded great charm, was soon drawing crowds. And cash. He was clearly a forerunner, not only of Edith Piaf, but of today’s uncommonly popular rappers.
Metastasio’s talent, which started on the street, soon attracted serious attention, most notably of Giovanni Vincenzo Gravina, who was the boy’s first sponsor, taking him into his Arcadian Academy and giving him a thorough classical education. Later, when Porpora set one of Metastasio’s earliest texts to music, Gli Orti Esperdi, the poet met Porpora’s pupil, Farinelli, who would become a life-time friend. But above all, it was the soprano in that performance, Marianna Bulgarelli , who would stop at nothing until she had met this poet who had such a hypnotic hold over the Italian language. She convinced the young man to stop working as a lawyer, to move into her house with his entire family (father, mother, brother and sisters), where she guaranteed to procure commissions for opera after opera with the leading composers of the day. He had arrived!
The opera seria was made for Metastasio and Metastasio for the opera seria. The formula was an evening of virtuoso arias of the most fiendish difficulty, held together with heightened speech (recitativo secco) , usually meandering through the most impossibly complex plots of nonsensical proportions. The point of the unaccompanied recitatives is the musicality of the language –the sheer richness and inventiveness of the Italian sounds. The composer has to get out of the way here. There is a sense in which his work has been done for him, as Sullivan never tired of complaining when he was setting the words of Gilbert. But that was a composer / librettist relationship unique in musical history. Gluck is content to follow the convention of the period by inserting a few harpsichord chords and twiddles to support this heightened speech. To modern ears, much of it still comes across as gibberish. But there, in one sense, is the fun of it. But if you are not in the know, it’s only too easy to miss this fun. Rappers of the world, meet your patron saint!
The anniversary staging in Bologna is in the very capable hands of Nigel Lowery. One of the problems, he explained, was to work out a design which would work in a big modern theatre in Athens (where it started its life last year) then at the very small Linbury Studio Theatre and now at the Teatro Comunale of Bologna. Add the usual tight budget restrictions to all that and you will see that it takes outstanding imagination to overcome the challenge. Fortunately, Mr Lowery is well endowed in that department and has earned himself a reputation for speaking effectively to modern audiences through the media of old music formulas. Michael Aspinall’s quip comes in here: The important thing to remember about old music is that no one wants to listen to it; you therefore have to do something with it, until they do.
Certainly we had no possibility of reproducing Bibiena’s lavish production where the stage set becomes an extended expression of the theatre, says Mr Lowery. The ballet scenes have been cut too. Another feature which today’s Bolognesi will welcome. And there have been Cuts! Cuts! Cuts! –and not just of the interminable, at times, incomprehensible unaccompanied recitatives, but also in some of the arias. Just think of the singers! he says. Indeed. Which modern singers could even entertain the possibility of sustaining such virtuosity for so long?
Maestro Sigismondo De Risio engages a continuo player for the recitatives. I see this as a risk. One can easily lose the flow and forward thrust when the conductor is not at the keyboard himself. But Nigel Lowery assures me that this works. He is particularly pleased that in Bologna it will be possible to have two intervals which gives breaks between the three acts. That is as the librettist and composer intended. In London, this had not been possible, because of incurring
steep overtime charges for the orchestra. The Sigismondi / Lowery team have got the opera down to about two hours, twenty minutes of music, plus the appropriate two intervals.
Bologna has arguably a superior cast to London. The Neapolitan Baroque music specialist, Maria Grazia Schiavo sings the title role, Mary Ellen Nesi is Orazio, the outstanding coloratura soprano, Burcu Uyar is Larissa and Irini Karaianni, Tarquinio.
Following the 14 May at 20.00, there are further performances on 16 May at 20.00, 17 May at 20.00, 19 May at 15.30, 21 May at 18.00 and 22 May at 20.00.