Festival della Valle D’Itria 2018 Review: Il Trionfo dell’Onore

A Commendable Performance With Some Engaging Standout Showcases From Raffaele Pè & Rachael Jane Birthisel

By Alan Neilson

At the turn of the 18th century, Naples was an important centre for innovation and performance in the opera world. In 1706, Michelangelo Faggioli premiered his opera “La Cilla,” the first of a new form of comedy opera, sung in the Neapolitan dialect, based around a light-hearted plot, focused upon domestic and family affairs, which reflected the bourgeoise values of the newly emerging middle class. It was an early prototype of a form which was to develop into the popular genre, opera buffa, which was to gain instant popularity and spread rapidly, via Rome and Venice, to the other cities on the Italian peninsular. A significant figure behind this development was the librettist, Francesco Antonio Tullio, who not only supplied the libretto for “La Cilla,” but also for many others between the years 1706 to 1732, including the first comedy opera to be written in Italian, “Il Trionfo dell’Onore,” in 1718, for the Sicilian composer, Alessandro Scarlatti, better known for his role in the development of opera seria. However, although the work was initially successful, it quickly disappeared from the stage, and today rarely receives a performance. The Festival della Valle D’Itria’s decision to stage the opera is, therefore, a welcome opportunity to see a seminal work in the development of Neapolitan opera.

In many ways “Il Trionfo dell’Onore” is a much a product of opera seria, as it is an opera seeking to forge a new path in the area of comic opera. For sure, it embraces many recognizable elements which will come to define the genre of opera buffa, but it also sticks closely to the musical forms of opera seria, such as the da capo aria and choral finale, as well as promoting the same noble sensitivities. In fact, taken out of context, many of the arias could easily be mistaken to have been taken from one of Scarlatti’s opera seria. It is a lightly scored work, with only an oboe added to the strings and basso continuo, and apart from the overture, the music rarely asserts itself. The conductor Jacopo Raffaele produced an elegant, if unobtrusive performance, from the Ensemble Barocco del Festival della Valle D’Itria, in which a careful eye was always on the singers’ needs.

‘Don Giovanni?’

The drama is based upon the dissolute life of Riccardo, a typical Don Juan figure, similar to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, only in this case Riccardo repents, rather being dragged down to Hell, and is reconciled with Leonora, who similar to Donna Elvira, has always loved him, despite his betrayal. The drama follows Riccardo’s exploits as he tries to avoid Leonora, and host of other characters who want him brought to account, including the police, who are searching for him. It all takes place with a light-hearted playfulness, and ends with the mandatory lieto fine. The production, which took place in the courtyard of the Masseria Palesi, a sprawling baroque complex, just outside Martina Franca, was directed jointly by Giacomo Ferraù, Libero Stelluti and Giulia Viana, who are known collectively as Eco di Fondo, aided by the scenographer, Stefano Zullo and costume designer Sara Marcucci.

Using the architectural features of the courtyard, Zullo created a convincing environment for the drama, which was moved from the 18th century to early 1960s Italy, which proved to be a successful decision. The drama all takes place during the course of a single day, in and around “Da Cornelia’s” restaurant. All the entrances and exits of the courtyard were used as the cast chased Riccardo and his sidekick, Rodimarte, hither and thither. There were other typical Italian props, such as an ape (an old-fashioned, three-wheeled vehicle), stationed at the side of the restaurant, which was used for variety of purposes, including a puppet show. Eco di Fondo had the actors exaggerate their actions, which helped to emphasise the comedic nature of the work, and added plenty of extras, so that there was a lot of bustling activity on the stage. The costumes varied between the attractive, such as the dresses worn by Rosina and Doralice to the amusing such as the ill-fitting sailors costume for Rodimarte. Overall, it all knitted together well, and created a engaging visual and mildly amusing evening’s entertainment.

The Standout

The singers were a mixture of the established and the new, the younger members being drawn from the Accademia del Belcanto “Rodolfo Celletti,” and all put in creditable performances.

The standout performance of the evening was undoubtedly given by the countertenor Raffaele Pè who was outstanding in the role of Leonora’s brother, Erminio. He not only sang the role with a great deal of style and skill, but showed equally fine acting skills. Having spent most of the evening chasing the feckless Riccardo around the courtyard, in which he cleverly displays varying degrees of bumptious stupidity and stern resolve, he finally ends up with Doralice. It is almost impossible to do justice to his performance by picking out an aria or scene in which he particularly shone, but his aria “O confusa mia mente!” was essayed with such subtlety and finesse that it deserves a mention. Pè’s elegant phrasing was delightfully crafted, each word suffused with meaning, underpinned by vocal flexibility and clear diction.

A Young Don Juan

Rachael Jane Birthisel, in the role of Riccardo, pulled off the difficult task of portraying a male character convincingly. Dressed as a streetwise lad in a leather studded jacket, she strutted her stuff around the stage, with a testosterone-swagger, and was truly believable as a young Don Juan. She has a strong, well supported voice, which is secure across the range, with a pleasing variety of vocal colors. Singing well throughout the evening, she capped her performance with a splendid rendition of her final aria “Si, perdonami, o cara.” Having been wounded by Erminio, she pleads with Leonora for her forgiveness, her voice beautifully capturing her remorse and the sincerity of her repentance.

Excellent Impressions

Patrizio La Placa made an excellent impression as Radimarte, Riccardo’s comrade-in-arms. He was always lively and involved, and displayed a natural bent towards comedy, as he attempted to mislead those on the trail of Riccardo. He has a warm pleasing voice, with a flexibility that he used to bring depth to the character.

Doralice was essayed by Federica Livi. She walked onto the stage looking very much like Audrey Hepburn, with a wide brimmed, black hat, and dressed in a yellow twinset. Her voice was nicely suited to the small courtyard, her bright, fresh, light soprano comfortably filling the space. Although not pushing herself too much, her vocal embellishments displayed imagination, and were precisely delivered, and sat pleasingly on the ear. Her acting also convinced.

The two aging, soon to be married lovers, Flamino and Cornelia, played by Francesco Castoro and Nico Franchino, both put in superbly crafted comedic performances. Franchino, looking every inch like a pantomime dame, with a burly physique, who is always ready to give her betrothed or anyone else for that matter, a good punch or two around the ears, is a natural comedy actor and generated genuine laughter from the audience. Castoro was not far behind; Flamino’s stinking personal hygiene sent the diners at the restaurant “Da Cornelia” running for cover, as he attempted to serve their food. Both possess pleasing tenors, which they used intelligently and skilfully to exploit the comedy of the roles. Their splendid duet, “Si, mia gioia” was delivered in a quick-patter exchange, very much in the buffo style, and brought first part of the performance to a fitting, albeit artificial, conclusion.

Not Quite There

Leonora was parted by Erica Cortese, and although her voice possesses pleasing textures, and careful attention was given to her phrasing, she left the impression that she was being overly cautious. Ornamentation of the vocal line was largely unimaginative, although to be fair this might have been an artistic decision taken to reinforce her insipid character, and there was a tendency to cut short the endings, dynamic variation was limited and her ability to capture the character was not fully realised. Nevertheless, Cortese did not perform badly, just a little flatly, and in her act two aria hinted at her underlying potential; singing with less self-consciousness her voice showed a greater degree of versatility, her coloratura displayed more freedom, and she was able to bring a degree of life to the character. She acted out her part satisfactorily, if without attracting much sympathy for her loyally dull and pathetic character.

In the role of Rosina was Suzana Nadejde. She brought enthusiasm and energy to the role and gave a solid performance and had an engaging stage presence. Her voice has an attractive quality, and was technically secure, although lacking a little variation at times.

Overall, Scarlatti’s “Il trionfo dell’onore” is unlikely to be performed with any regularity. Certainly, it has some pleasing music and the narrative is sufficient to sustain the attention of the audience. It is also an amusing work and in an imaginative production, such a the one presented here at the Festival della Valle D’Itria, it is capable of providing a pleasant evening’s entertainment. That said, it is difficult to imagine it being staged by a mainstream opera company. Its destiny is likely to remain a fringe work, despite its many qualities.


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