Review of the Innsbruck Early Music Festival 2022: Astarto

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(Photo: Birgit Gufler)

Whenever Silvia Paoli’s name pops up as the director of an upcoming production, you can be pretty sure she won’t disappoint.

Over the past few years, OperaWire has reviewed a number of its productions, all of which were not only wonderfully entertaining, but also very insightful. She has the not-so-common ability to get right to the heart of a work and bring it to life in thrilling ways, whether it’s comedies or tragedies. Her recent staging of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia” for Bologna goes straight to the point of Lucrezia’s decision to poison six people; rather than having her react to verbal insults according to the libretto, Paoli presents her as the victim of extreme physical and mental abuse, making her behavior much more believable, so that she comes across as a sympathetic character, a “woman with feelings profound human beings, capable of suffering for others. His ability to handle comedy is equally daring and inventive. His production of another work by Donizetti, “Enrico Borgogna”, for the Donizetti Festival in Bergamo was wonderfully imaginative, full of colors, fast action and general silliness, bordering on slap stick, in which she brilliantly mocked the characters, and “had the audience laughing” throughout the evening.

She contents herself with changing the place, modifying the period in which the opera takes place, and even indirectly tinkering with the libretto, but this is never done for free. There are always clear and considered reasons for his decisions, the effects of which are to allow audiences to connect with the drama with greater immediacy, both emotionally and intellectually.

Paoli skilfully redefines the libretto

His latest presentation, a production of Giovanni Bononcini’s 1725 dramma per musica ‘Astarto’ for the Innsbruck Early Music Festival, proved another success.

The libretto, originally written by Apostolo Zeno and Pietro Pariati, was later adapted by Paolo Rolli for performances in London in 1720, and it was this version that was presented by the festival. The tale centers on a complicated web of love and deceit, set against the backdrop of dynastic struggles for the throne of Tyros. In other words, it is the usual complex narrative of limited interest, whose main function was to promote the values ​​of aristocratic Europe, to entertain the public with a series of confrontations and appointments. you mundane, while giving singers the opportunity to show off their skills. Today’s opera audience generally expects more, and Paoli has delivered.

In a rather radical approach, she subverts the libretto by poking fun at its values, exaggerating character behavior and laughing at its plot. In fact, one might say, if it weren’t for its polished text and the quality of Bononcini’s musical expression, it redefined opera as a dramma giocosa, and it worked wonderfully.

Everything that happened on stage was either covered in heavy irony, as with Sidonia’s knowing looks to the audience, or simply overtly funny, as when servants have to suck up the ashes of the former king after his ballot box was accidentally knocked over. Yet beneath the comedy, Paoli was careful to ensure that the physical and emotional pain and suffering that weaves its way through the drama is revealed, and that the poignancy of the most meaningful relationships is not lost in pleasure. The exchange between Fenicio and Clearco in prison was particularly well put together, clearly revealing the depth of feelings between a father and his adopted son: sitting opposite each other, tied to chairs, Clearco was forced to watching Fenicio being tortured, a scene no less powerful because played in a fun and over-the-top way.

The drama was updated in the 1950s/60s somewhere in the Soviet bloc, a time in recent history when the affairs of ordinary citizens were subject to the arbitrary decisions of an undemocratic ruler, thus providing the audience with a recognizable reality, one in which what happens is a consequence of arbitrary power, which she emphasized by having Fenicio arrested by the queen’s henchmen in a telephone booth. A setting from over 2,500 years ago would have run the risk of the public viewing it as remote, with little relevance.

Alessio Roasti’s inventive costume designs were fully in line with Paoli’s vision of the work, playing on comic aspects, exaggerating and mocking the characters of the protagonists, so that Sidonia was costumed as a vamp with a platinum blond looks, thigh-high boots and a seductive figure. dress; the Queen’s two henchmen were dressed in muscle-bound sportswear, while Clearco was portrayed as naive, bookish and childish, to the point that he even carried a teddy bear. All of the costumes looked deliberately absurd, but at the same time had a certain aesthetic appeal.

Scenographer Eleonora De Leo used her staging to draw attention to two essential aspects of reading Paoli. First, there was the oppressive environment in which the drama takes place, which she created using dark brick walls, positioned to create a sense of confinement and claustrophobia. And second, the banality of the oppression itself, setting a number of scenes in domestic situations, so that everything seemed completely normal, with nothing untoward. When Clearco was sent to prison, for example, Fenicio prepared his clothes for him, including a brand new prison uniform, which he carefully folded into his suitcase. Or when Agénore came home after a hard day of plotting, he would drop on the sofa with a beer to watch television with his sister Sidonia, who, having abandoned her vamp image, was now dressed in her pajamas.

The juxtaposition of comedy alongside pain, suffering and oppression worked well. It made the audience laugh, while ensuring that they were fully aware of the serious themes underlying the work.

Ascioti leads the cast with a precise and detailed performance

The musical side of the production was under the direction of Stefano Montanari, who conducted the Enea Barock Orchestra while occasionally conducting the violin. It elicited a clean sound that had a pleasing rhythmic quality and was responsive to the twists of stage drama. Considering the size of the orchestra, however, it was odd that he allowed the orchestra to very occasionally overpower the singers, notably in one of the duets for Clearco and Elisa.

The title role of Astarto, which actually goes by the name Clearco, at least until the final act when Fenicio reveals his true identity, was attempted by contralto Francesca Ascioti. She is an accomplished singer whose performances are defined by their precision and attention to detail; every line is rendered correctly, with care and attention given to the text and its musical meaning. She has a sure technique that she cleverly uses to fill out her character’s states through the use of dynamic, emotional, and colorful accents, and adorns the vocal line with pleasing embellishments.

It’s an approach she employed successfully in her portrayal of Astarto. The recitatives were expertly delivered, full of expressive depth and emotional force. The tunes were presented correctly and showed her performing skills to good effect, although at times she seemed a bit too constrained, too exact; she never really gave free rein to emotions, precision always seemed to win out. However, that hardly detracted from what was still a very satisfying performance.

Strong performance throughout

Elisa, Queen of Tyros, was played by mezzo-soprano Dara Savinova. Producing a clearly defined portrait, she created a character that was overbearing, excitable, impulsive and gullible. How is it possible that someone falls into the trap of the fake letter twice in a row? She has a strong, well-sustained voice, with a brilliant, sometimes steely quality, which she is able to inflect with bursts of color, backed by a slight vibrato. It is also a versatile instrument which allowed him to undertake leaps with ease, to engage in parades of coloratura sung with confidence and to stretch the voice without any loss of quality. She was emotionally fully engaged in her arias, delivering them with force and passion, while her recitatives allowed her to display a wider and more subtle range of emotions.

Soprano Theodora Raftis was excellent in the role of Sidonia. Taking advantage of every possible opportunity, she played the role and made the audience laugh by giving them knowing glances, while making fun of Nino in love. Gestures were absurdly far-fetched, facial expressions deliberately exaggerated, while her reactions, moods, and postures were all played to excess. It was a splendid performance, which showed a real talent for comedy. His singing was no less convincing either. She has a versatile voice with a bright and attractive timbre, which she skillfully used to model delicate and detailed lines or release fabulous passages of coloratura. The confidence she showed in her commitment to her role was particularly impressive, which made it easy for her to connect with the audience.

Luigi De Donato showed his resonant and beautifully colored bass to good effect as Fenicio. Rather than a revolutionary warrior or terrorist, he was portrayed as a 1960s protester more interested in social issues, such as trans rights. He managed to capture his conflict between his role as a father and his role as a revolutionary which is at the heart of his character. His singing was at his usual high level, with well-crafted phrases, full of subtle accents and dark undertones, topped with impressive coloratura.

Soprano Paola Valentina Molinari produced an energetic performance as Nino, whose naive pursuit of Sidonia was responsible for many comedic moments, a skill in which she proved perfectly adept. There are plenty of opportunities for her to show her vocal versatility, but it is the aria “Mi dà rawl tormento” in which she expresses her torments at the hands of Sidonia that attracts attention, allowing her to display her beauty , delicate phrasing, sensitivity and soft expressiveness.

Soprano Ana Maria Labin was excellent in the role of Agenore, producing a spirited, sometimes over-the-top performance that fit well with the values ​​of the production. His singing was expressive and sure. Particularly impressive was the flamboyant way in which she attacked her tunes, which she underpinned with a real sense of freedom. They also managed to showcase his vocal flexibility, lively phrasing, and appealing coloratura in a polished style.

The Innsbruck Festival of Early Music production ‘Astarto’ was the first presentation of the 1720 London version in the modern era. A judgment based solely on this performance would suggest that it is a work of interest and value, rather than a rediscovered masterpiece. The music certainly has merit, even if it doesn’t include any particularly memorable arias. As a drama it did exceptionally well, although this is more likely due to Paoli’s direction treating it as a satirical work rather than a serious drama: certainly, a reading of the plot probably wouldn’t appeal attention.