Legrenzi’s La Divisione del Mondo in Strasbourg

FranceFrance Legrenzi, La Divisione del Mondo (ed. Haselbock): Soloists, Les Talens Lyriques / Christophe Rousset (conductor). Opéra national du Rhin, Strasbourg, France, 16.2.2019. (CC)

Opéra national du Rhin’s La Divisione del Mondo (c) Klara Beck

Giove — Carlo Allemano
Nettuno — Stuart Jackson
Plutone — André Morsch
Saturno — Arnaud Richard
Giunone — Julie Boulianne
Venere — Sophie Junker
Apollo — Jake Arditti
Marte — Christopher Lowrey
Cintia — Soraya Mafi
Mercurio — Robert Enticknap
Amore — Ada Elodie Tuca
Discordia — Alberto Miguélez Ruoco

Director — Jetske Mijnssen
Scenery — Herbert Murauer
Costumes — Julia Katherine Berndt
Lighting — Bernd Purkrabek

A co-production between Strasbourg Opéra and l’Opéra national de Lorraine, this rare production of a Legrenzi opera has enjoyed five performances in Strasbourg (this was the last of them); it then moves to La Sinne, Mulhouse for two performances (March 1 and 3) and then the Théâtre Colmar for one performance on March 9.

Giovanni Legrenzi was born in Clusone, Italy, on August 12, 1626; he died May 27, 1690 in Venice. He certainly taught Vivaldi, and possibly Caldara, while his cantatas influenced Alessandro Scarlatti in particular. His musical journey to Venice was via Bergamo (organist at Santa Maria Maggiore); he took orders in 1651 before leaving for Ferrara (maestro di cappella at the Accademia dello Santo Spirito) where he remained from 1657 to 1665. We know he left Ferrara in 1665, but the next time we cross path with him is in Venice in 1670 (the intervening years are a bit unclear) where he becomes maestro del coro at the Ospedale delle Derelitti in Venice, the first of several positions in that city that eventually led to the revered position of Maestro di Cappella at San Marco.

Legrenzi’s discography is small considering his importance and quality of his music. Of his operatic output, only the aria ‘Che fiero costume’ from Eteocle et Polinice (1675) has achieved any amount of fame, principally through a Decca recording by Pavarotti of a performance at Carnegie Hall but also via a recording by tenor Richard Tucker. However, if you navigate to the website of Opéra National de Lorraine,  as a taster for the present opera you can hear the unutterably beautiful duet ‘Lumi potente piangere’ from La Divisione (link).

Variously described as a ‘soap opera’ with gods, Giovanni Legrenzi’s La Divisione del Mondo is one of 19 operas by that composer (it appears not all scores survive though, unfortunately). It was first performed at the Teatro San Salvadore (later renamed the Teatro Goldoni) in 1675; the libretto is by Giulio Cesare Corradi. Although there is a marked comedic element, actually La Divisione is a variegated score with moments of deepest emotion. In this reading headed by Christophe Rousset, it is also suffused by the spirit of the dance. In our interview, Rousset was keen to stress that this is not just a comedy of manners played out by divinities, but holds a real ability to touch the audience. The instrumentation, which included recorders, adds much expressive colour. And so it was in a staging by Jetske Mijnssen that, with a brightness, whiteness and sense of space from Herbert Murauer’s scenery which brought to mind Christopher Alden’s Handel Partenope for ENO (review), La Divisione shone, a multifaceted operatic jewel. An erotic/funny/implicit bestiality painting, Leda and the Swan by Paolo Veronese can be seen in the background behind the large set of stairs and was seen in all its glory before the opera and during the interval, filling the stage; it certainly sets the scene well, as animal instincts prevail in this most remarkable work.

The division of the evening was a bit lop-sided: the first part one hour 40 minutes (Acts I and II), a 20-minute interval and then a 40-minute Act III. That said, there was no sense whatsoever of longeur in the first part. In contrast to the length of the piece, the arias tend to be short (generally no more than three minutes); the pace feels just right.

The opera brings in four generations of deities:

Saturn & Rhea – Pluto, Neptune, Jupiter (& Juno) – Apollon, Diane, Mars, Vulcan & Mercury – Amour, Discord & Thetis

In a programme booklet essay, director Jetske Mijnssen refers to this work as ‘a gallery of contrasting and endearing portraits’ and states that ‘the relations between them [the characters] provide great richness’.  As Mijnssen also points out, these are remarkably human Gods and Goddesses, ‘like mirrors’, as she puts it, complete with all humanity’s excesses (one thinks, in response, of the all too human fallibility of the pantheon in Wagner’s Ring). The idea of the family tree above is germane, as here is a bourgeois family headed by Jupiter, a proud and, as we see at the beginning of the opera, successful man. Mijnssen was much influenced in his staging by the Wes Anderson film The Royal Tanenbaums and the character played by Gene Hackman, someone placed at the head of a rather crazy family: Jupiter, in other words. Everything, it seems, is on the brink of catastrophe and, in fact, no-one is happy in this decadent world. The title of the opera refers to a brief passage in the second act in which Jupiter assigns the sea to Neptune and the Underworld to Pluto.

Diana (Cintia) is the stompy teenager of the family, serious and depressive but for us, the audience, frequently hilarious. The machinations of the house make her mad. Neptune and Pluto almost always appear together, an unhealthy relationship, and Mijnssen makes them twins (the similarity of appearance and indeed of dress is hilarious), two old men obsessed by youth.

The old man Saturn has retired to the family home; the youthful and beautiful Venus makes Saturn pine for his youth, although Saturn alone manages to stay mainly out of the shenanigans. At the other end of the age scale are the two youths Amor and Discorde, rebellious and also delighting in the sometimes outrageous adult dynamics (and not above taking the odd Polaroid snap of characters in compromising positions, either).

In Mijnssen’s production, this large household, incredibly insular (the set remains constant throughout) reflects the family dynamics. There is much lightness of touch; Neptune carrying a goldfish is a nice touch. I was, in fact, rather surprised there was so little actual laughing (or even tittering) from the audience. What really carries the piece through in this production, though, is eroticism in the form of the nymphomaniac Venus but also how she affects the others around her. For Gods, the male members (pardon the pun) are often but Venus’s pawns; they are certainly under her spell. As Mijnssen puts it, ‘La sensualité est partout’; sensuality is everywhere; Venus is a tempest as well as a temptress that no-one can resist. Only old man Saturn, made out to be a very old man in a wheelchair, looks on. Perhaps this level of sexual freedom was only comprehensible in the Venice of Legrenzi’s time, with its carnival mentality. For Giunone (Juno), Venus’s desirability only emphasises Juno’s own fading attractiveness; she loves Jupiter but can only watch as his eye is continually caught by younger women and girls. She has, after all, accepted into her household two of Jupiter’s children that were not birthed by herself (Mercury and Apollo), trapped in not being able to live with Jupiter but unable to live without him. The age-old quandary. And as for Venus, she herself experienced pain and fear; and it is in her duet with Mars that prompts some of Legrenzi’s most memorable music. The androgynous Mercury, the God of communication, becomes something of a confidante. He is often present on-stage, smoking a cigarette, commenting (in the Wagnerian parallel, this would surely be the demi-God Loge); yet he carries a sadness, too, in that eventually he realises that no-one listens to him. Diana is caught between being promised to Neptune but falling for Pluto within an idealised belief of what love is.

Mejnssen has stated that she feels the unspoken presence of Chekhov behind all of this, in all the humanity, tenderness, laughter, jealousies and pain (Chekhov is one of Mejnssen’s passions).

The insatiable Venus (Venere) with decidedly nymphomaniac tendencies was  the fabulous Belgian soprano Sophie Junker, whose repertoire is notably wide (from Serpetta La finta giardiniera to Adina L’elisir d’amore to Maria West Side Story, from Belinda Dido and Drusilla/La Vertù L’incoronazione di Poppeareview – to Wanda La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein). Junker impressed my colleague Martyn Harrison, too, in a shared Schubert Lieder recital in Oxford in 2014 (review). It is fair to say she dominated the stage, a pure ball of predominantly sexual energy, her voice in brilliant, top form. Just as Venus stands in the middle of the cast list above, so she is the centrepoint of chaos. Yet she has her moments of calm beauty, too, her ‘Perdono cor mio’ beautifully affecting, as was her Act III duet with Mars (the excellent American counter-tenor Christopher Lowrey).

Early on, it was Stuart Jackson who shone as Nettuno, his ‘Al basso mondo’ a model of style and expert vocalism. The idea of an ensemble cast in which each member is strong really pays dividends here (Rousset, with the honourable exception of his Mitridate starring Bartoli and Dessay, tends to work with lesser-known singers, a strategy that paid off in spades). Notturno’s quasi-double in this production, Plutone (Pluto), was brilliantly done by baritone André Morsch. Arnaud Richard, who studied locally at Caen and has been active, in addition to Strasbourg and Caen, at Rouen, Stuttgart and Versailles, took the part of Saturn (Saturno). He was impeccably convincing as the crumbly old man who hold such a vital part in the Gods’ structure.

The husband and wife Jupiter and Juno (Giove and Giunone, Carlo Allemano and Julie Boulianne respectively) made a great pairing. Turin-born Allemano has tremendous stage presence and his voice fitted the theatre well, while French-Canadian mezzo Boulianne exuded a near-equal presence and command.

A familiar name came in the shape of Soraya Mafi, who has previously impressed at ENO in Pirates as Mabel (I referred  to Mafi’s ‘simply awe-inspiring Mabel’ in February 2017: review) and Magic Flute (a ‘sweet and deliciously voiced’ Papagena in February 2016: review) and she was no less impressive here as the stompy teenager Cintia (the Goddess better known as Diana/Artemis — the name ‘Cintia’ is derived from Mount Cynthus on the Greek island of Delos). Oozing the energy of the youth of her character, this felt like a real step up for Mafi’s career. Her voice, too, was in tremendous shape.

As Apollo, the counter-tenor Jake Arditti made a strong impression, while another counter-tenor, Rupert Enticknap, relished every second of the role of Mercurio. With both the coloratura soprano Ada Elodie Tuca and Alberto Miguélez Rouco (another counter-tenor) having a whale of a time as Amore and Discordia respectively, this was, indeed, an astonishingly consistent cast.

Musically the work is remarkable in its fertility; and the arrival of a ground bass that is in all but name that which Purcell uses in ‘Dido’s Lament’ is a time-stopping moment indeed. Rousset’s concentration, whether actively conducting or playing the harpsichord, never falters, and his group Les Talens Lyriques gives him 100% throughout. If ever there was a reason for celebrating ‘authentic’ performance practice, this is it.

Recordings of Legrenzi have tended to gravitate around his chamber works or his church output; we need an influx of opera, and this is a great place to start. If a DVD does result from these performances, that would be a major, major step forward.

Colin Clarke

1 thought on “Legrenzi’s <i>La Divisione del Mondo</i> in Strasbourg”

  1. Authentic?? It was inauthentic it just about every way possible: most of the singers displayed an unacceptable degree of vibrato, the Juno in particular being painful; none of the singers were capable of performing 17th ornamentation stylishly; the orchestra was incorrectly constituted for mid 17th Venetian opera, had a grossly inflated continuo section (inc 3 theorbos and a harp!) and a large number of strings doubled by cornetti in ritornellos – totally spurious; the strings played in 18th not 17th century style; the production cannot possibly have been ‘authentic’ since it was updated to what looked like the 1950s.
    [edited comment]


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