Innsbruck Early Music Festival 2018 Review: Didone Abbandonata

Strong Direction & Interpretation Give Mercadante’s Opera New Life

By Alan Neilson

One of the three operas being performed at this year’s Innsbruck Early Music Festival is Mercadante’s “Didone Abbandonata,” which may come as somewhat of a surprise to some, and begs the question: up to what point can a work be defined as “early music?” Many would certainly argue that Severio Mercadante’s music lies outside the definition. Yet, the director of the festival, the renowned early music and bel canto specialist, Alessandro De Marchi, would be loathe to agree, pointing to many of the opera’s characteristics, which qualifies it for inclusion in such a festival. Firstly, its libretto is by Metastasio, although modified by Andrea Leone Tottola, in order to accommodate different musical structures and secondly, and more significantly, by presenting the work using period instruments, it is possible to capture the elements of the work that are beholden to the baroque tradition, and that act as a bridge to the Romantic era. As De Marchi states, “Mercadante… display(s) the musical ideas of this period of Italian music to full effect only in historically informed performances.” Moreover, the use of period instruments gives a different textural quality to the work, the sound is more subtle and, “the musicians are in a chamber music frame of mind… …which allows the vocal music to come into its own.”

The opera was written in 1823, the same year as Rossini’s “Semiramide,” and sits squarely within the bel canto tradition. Metastasio’s libretto is based on the myth of Enea’s departure from Carthage and the abandonment of his lover, Didone. Enea is committed to founding a new Troy, and even his love for Didone will not stand in his way. The drama, however, is complicated by the Moorish leader, Jarba, who also loves Didone, and is prepared to destroy Carthage if she refuses him. Didone, however, will not yield, despite pleas from her sister, Selene, who for added complication, also loves Enea. So as Enea sails off towards the horizon, Carthage is set ablaze, as the Moorish soldiers rampage through the city. Didone, having been abandoned, and betrayed by her sister and her minister, Osmida, is alone and looks forward to her own death in the flames of the burning city.

Different Ideas

Whereas De Marchi was offering the audience an historically sensitive reading of the work, the veteran director, Jurgen Flimm, had no such agenda. Instead he offered a brutalized modern version, in which heavy irony verging on the grotesque, was the dominant feature. The juxtaposition of old and new formed the basis for a dramatically successful presentation; it was engaging and thought-provoking, and Flimm’s injection of humor added to the disconcerting atmosphere of the staging. The sets, designed by Magdalena Gut, added no comfort, they were miserably functional and as such worked well. The principal scene looked like a building site, with rusty metal frames jutting out of concrete blocks, with a concrete platform to one side, and occasionally adorned with props, such as a chaise-longe, chairs or a fridge. Three laborers spent the evening constructing something out of what appeared to be glass bricks, which was occasionally destroyed, but the significance was not immediately clear – maybe it symbolized Enea’s unsullied conscience. The lighting, designed by Irene Selke, was excellent, evoking just the right atmosphere, whilst at the same time adding sufficient color to prevent the set becoming monotonously dull. The costumes, designed by Kristina Bell, appeared to be generally Edwardian in style, and the the soldiers’ uniforms appropriately reminiscent of the French foreign legion.

Flimm also intervened to alter the final scene, which he turns into a bloodbath. The only survivor is Enea, who had departed the scene before Carthage was sacked. Although the changes were significant, there was, in fact, very little actual difference to the libretto, yet they elevated the tragedy into something far more savage and dramatically powerful.

New Characterizations Of Mythological Figures

Careful attention was also paid to the characterization of the three central figures. Didone is an egotist stuck with the mentality of a teenager. She is first seen dressed in a wedding dress, painting her toe nails, dreaming of her blissful future, who then quickly veers towards anger, jealousy and hysteria, when Enea decides to forsake her in favor of founding a new Troy. Jarba is her perfect counterpart, accustomed to unbridled power, and unable to accept Didone’s rejection, he transforms into a monstrous character without any restraint whatsoever of his behavior; in the final scene he amuses himself by raping Selene, and enjoys murdering both Osimida and Araspe, before being killed by Didone, who he also kills in his final embrace. Enea, on the other hand, is a paragon of an upstanding gallant, who always acts honorably, to the extent that he abandons Didone to pursue his noble goal, without concern for her future, and is not prepared to kill Jarba, even though he has plenty of opportunity to do so – his conscious must remain untarnished. He then sails off with his fleet, leaving Carthage to burn, and the ensuing carnage to run its course, forcing us to confront his culpability. The other roles, Osmida, Selene and Araspe were played fairly conventionally, and aided in defining the absurd and extreme behaviour of the main characters. Soldiers were used mainly for comedic effect to add to the contrast and interplay of cruelty and laughter and violence.

Persuasive Performances

De Marchi led the orchestra Academia Montis Regalis in a persuasive performance. The overture, ebbed and flowed, and set the tone of the evening, which apart from some initial problems in the brass section produced a precise and detailed reading. Throughout the evening De Marchi maintained an energetic drive, and brought out the score’s beautiful dynamic contrasts and rhythmic variations, and provided ample space for the singers to perform. And the singers certainly performed; each one of them, whether in the minor or major roles, made an excellent contribution.

In the title role was the Lithuanian soprano, Viktorija Miskunaite. She made a very good impression in what is, vocally, a very demanding role. Her voice is extremely versatile; it possesses power and flexibility, it is expressive and secure. She was able to lighten the voice, and spin out lines of delightful beauty, but also had the ability to push the voice with a greater degree of expressivity. Her coloratura and embellishments were well-constructed and skillfully delivered. On occasions, there was a hardening of the sound, which given the demands of the role was not entirely surprising, but it did little to detract from her overall performance. She also acted out the role well; self indulgent, headstrong, egotistical, and always prone to the odd tantrum – in fact, the perfect modern day teenager.

The role of Aeneas was superbly played by Katrin Wundsam, who sang brilliantly throughout the evening. Dressed as a smart officer, she cut the appearance of a morally certain and upright man of action and unwavering courage. Her voice has strongly defined colors in the lower and upper registers with a solid middle. The vocal line was always carefully developed, rich in dynamic and colorful shadings, and delightfully ornamented. Moreover, her expressive singing meant she was able to bring depth to the character of Enea. The duet for Enea and Didone at the beginning of Act two, “Ah non lasciame” in which Didone pleads with Enea not to abandon her was one of the high points of the evening, and showed off the beauty of both their voices. It was an all round excellent performance: Wundsam is a singer that really does seem perfectly suited to the bel canto repertoire.

Jarba was brilliantly played by Carlo Vicenzo Allemano. He left nobody in doubt as to his unpleasant character, which became more and more bizarre over the course of the drama. Taking great delight in his brutal and savage behavior, he eventually lost all control and took to parodying his own insanity, as he danced and minced across the stage, complete with crude gestures. He sang the role convincingly and with great skill, every phrase turned with an unpleasant curl. His voice is very dark for a tenor, which he used intelligently to add menace to his character. It also has a foggy quality, which may not be so effective in other roles, but as Moorish king it added to the characterization.

High Standard

The three minor roles were all performed to a high standard. Pietro Di Bianco as Didone’s treacherous advisor, Osmida, essayed the role in fine style. He has warm, pleasing bass-baritone, sang confidently and displayed strength across the range. As Didone’s sister was Emilie Renard. She has a beautiful soprano, which she used to with skill to create a convincing character. The tenor, Diego Godoy, made an fine impression, and made the most of the role.

The all-male chorus, under the direction of Claudio Chiavazza, performed the role of both Didone’s and Jarba’s soldiers. They have a fairly large role, in which they engaged with enthusiasm and skill, and produced a wonderfully expressive and powerful singing display. For most of the evening Flimm had them acting out the roles as if straight from a Laurel and Hardy film, exaggerating their movements for comedic effect. There was, however, nothing comic about the final scene as, following the onstage carnage, the stage rotated and the soldiers pointed their guns directly at the audience.

Musically and dramatically this was an excellent presentation of a little-known opera. The applause at the final curtain was enthusiastic and sustained, and De Marchi responded by giving an encore of one of the choral numbers. No doubt some people will still argue that it is not really suitable for an “early music festival,” but De Marchi did enough to convince that by presenting an historically-informed performance, using period instruments and the original ornamentations for the singers (of which there is a written record), it is possible to have a successful and interesting performance, and different from what would be the case, if given a modern day interpretation using modern instruments. In this sense, it therefore qualifies as “early music.” There is a plan to produce a CD and DVD of this production, so anyone interested will be able to judge for themselves.


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