La Dafne Proves A Near Miss in a Venue of the Gods

ItalyItaly Maggio Musicale Fiorentino 2018 – da Gagliano, La Dafne: Soloists, Modo Antiquo / Federico Maria Sardelli (conductor), The Grotta di Buontalenti of the Boboli Gardens, Florence, 25.6.2018. (CP)

La Dafne (c) Camilla Ricci


Dafne – Francesca Boncompagni
Ninfa – Jennifer Schittino
Secondo Pastore – Manuel Amati
Ovidio/Apollo – Leonardo Cortellazzi
Tirsi – Alessio Tosi
Amore – Silvia Frigato
Venere – Cristina Fanelli
Seconda Ninfa – Marta Pluda
Pastore del Coro – Riccardo Pisani
Terzo Pastore – Dario Shikhmiri


Gianmaria Aliverta (stage director)
Sara Marcucci (costume designer)
Silvia Giordano (choreographer and assistant director)
Alessandro Tutini (Lighting Designer)

When one of the world’s most renowned festivals, ensconced in the birthplace of opera, presents the modern-day premiere of one of the first operas ever written in one of the most gorgeous edifices of Renaissance garden architecture, one does not expect half the audience to get up and leave at the earliest opportunity.

Yet this is precisely what happened on Monday’s performance of da Gagliano’s La Dafne, the opening night of what should have been the event of the summer and should have represented a Renaissance for the troubled Maggio Musicale Fiorentino festival, which has been on the decline in recent years (explored in greater detail by Fred Plotkin here).

Not for lack of talent on the part of the period-instrument orchestra, the estimable Modo Antiquo under the direction of the indefatigable Federico Maria Sardelli, was the evening such a disappointment. Neither did the fault lie with a pair of spectacular sopranos, Francesca Boncompagni and Silvia Frigato, who served the music with impeccable period style, vocal lustre, and dramatic sensitivity in the roles of Dafne and Amore, respectively. Rather, the entire affair had the feeling of a haphazardly assembled production that had no place in a venue to end all venues, the 16th-century Grotta di Buontalenti of the Boboli Gardens.

The performance was the modern-day premiere of the 1611 Florentine version of da Gagliano’s La Dafne, which was first performed in Mantua in 1608. Boboli, the resplendent masterpiece of Renaissance landscape architecture and witness to many a Medici wedding and spectacle in its early days, would seem a logical and heaven-sent fit for the story of a nymph who repels the unwelcome advances of a god by turning into a tree. Sadly, a mass exodus stained opening night, as audience members, having paid 80 euros a ticket, decided to cut their losses, take their Gucci swag, and run.

I may be spoiled by various top-level historically authentic productions of the past, but I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect this once-in-a lifetime setting to be honored by a sumptuous, historically authentic reconstruction, replete with period gesture, baroque costumes, and a mastery of the style consistently displayed by every member of the cast. If there is a directorial choice to create a modern production, one might hope for a series of creative decisions that illuminates the original vision of the work through the gestural and visual language of our own time, so that we, as a modern audience, may reach a new level of understanding of early baroque opera and its era through dramatic language that is immediately comprehensible to us. And if there is not enough funding or time to pull off either choice successfully, then why do the piece at all?

The director Gianmaria Aliverta was aiming for an update of Ovid’s story for the #MeToo era, with various intimations of violence against women. However, this directorial choice was neither fully realized nor clear, and even if it were, the Grotta is perhaps not the ideal place for it. The imposition of a contemporary issue on a seicento work felt strained at best. And really, if feminism is the objective, is it any less misogynistic to change Dafne’s end from Ovid’s arboreal metamorphosis to a spectacle of impalement on branches, as the director did here?

The casual modern dress costumes and a lack of consistency of gesture from one singer to another appeared to be the result of a combination of forces – poor directorial follow-through and perhaps a lack of funding and rehearsal time. In better circumstances the costumer, Sara Marcucci, might have had a greater range of options, with the ladies’ scanty attire evoking more a glimpse of Arcadia than a shopping binge at Zara. The lighting design of Alessandro Tutini was the most successful scenic element, with the grotto alternating primarily between deep red and royal teal to underline the dramatic import.

The singing of this early seicento repertoire requires an approach that is more rhetorical than operatic, with a light touch that allows the declamation of the text to shine. This is not how all singers are taught, and not all voices take to it well. This cast was about 90% there. Soprano Francesca Boncompagni, a native Tuscan, sang with a melting fragility and full dramatic range without violating the confines of the early Baroque. Hers was a Dafne that would have flourished in any production and was one of the saving graces of the evening. Silvia Frigato approached the role of Amore as if fueled by an inner spark, energizing the character with a mischievous androgynous fire.

Leonardo Cortellazzi, the suave Apollo of the production, sang with both substance and elegance. Tenor Alessio Tosi displayed a sizable yet well managed voice of impressive agility. In the smaller roles, Jennifer Schittino, Manuel Amati, Riccardo Pisani, Marta Pluda, and Dario Shikhmiri acquitted themselves with dignity. Soprano Cristina Fanelli, showing signs of struggle with her more florid passagework, was far less successful in the role of Venere, sounding and looking ill at ease and out of place with the stylistic demands of this repertoire.

Chris Petitt

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