Innsbruck Early Music Festival 2019 Review: La Dori

Cesti’s Opera Returns To Innsbruck 362 Years After Its Premiere

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Innsbrucker Festwochen/Rupert Larl)

To mark the 350th anniversary of the death of the Italian composer, Antonio Cesti, the Innsbruck Early Music Festival decided to mount a production of his opera “La Dori, overo Lo schiavo reggio,” written for Archduke Ferdinand Karl of Further Austria, and premiered at the city’s court theatre in 1657. Cesti had a close relationship with the city, which premiered a number of his works, and it is a connection which the Festival has recognized in its decision to name its competition for young singers in his honor, which this year was won by the English soprano, Grace Durham.

Not of Great Renown

Today, Cesti is not particularly well-known, at least not by those who do not have a particular interest in the baroque, yet during his lifetime he was very highly thought of, and much in demand, not just as a composer, but also as a singer and organist. He was referred to by one of his librettists, Salvator Rosa, as “the glory and splendour of the secular stage,” and “La Dori” was actually one of the most successful operas of the 17th century, alongside another of his operas “Orontea” and the operas of Cavalli.

Moreover, Cesti’s life was a very colorful life, even operatic in its dimensions. Cesti was born in the central Italian town of Arezzo, where he studied music and became Franciscan monk, although one may doubt the strength of his calling, for he soon became embroiled in controversy and rebuked by the Church, although whether it was for him having a mistress or performing on the stage in secular theatres is a moot point.

He travelled widely across the Italian peninsular and Austria, with a notable stay in Innsbruck from 1652 to 1658, where he found employment in the service of Archduke Ferdinand. He then returned to Rome, and asked the Pope to be released from his vows. Although the Pope agreed he was forced to remain in his service. When he was seconded to Florence in 1661 he took the opportunity to disappear, and returned to Innsbruck. Furious the Pope threatened to excommunicate him.

Shortly after the death of the Archduke he moved to Vienna where he died at the relatively young age of 46 whilst at the height of his powers, rumored to have been poisoned by jealous rivals. He was supposed to have composed, among many other works, numerous operas, although only 15 now exist, of which “La Dori” is possibly the most famous, having received three revivals during the 20th century.

La Dori

The libretto of “La Dori,” by Giovanni Filippo Apolloni, is a complex narrative, consisting of ten characters, in which disguise and mistaken identity play a fundamental role. Without a prior knowledge of the plot it would be difficult to follow; even with surtitles it is no simple task.

The synopsis in the program booklet, which is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the narrative, begins with an intricate backstory, which runs to a page and a half, and for added confusion also includes another character called Dori. Very briefly, the opera centers on La Dori, a woman, who is disguised as a man, named Ali, who is in love with a man, named Oronte, and Tolomeo, a man disguised as a woman, called Celinda, who is in love with a woman called Arsinoe. Just to complicate matters Tolomeo was actually performed in this production by a woman, so that the role of a man is played by a woman, disguised as a woman, in love with a woman. But this is to simplify things almost to the point of absurdity: it is far more complicated!

Nevertheless, Stefano Vizioli, did a splendid job directing the work, in which he captured the dramatic thrust of each scene, so that they often had an impact in their own right, distinct from the overall narrative, which is not to suggest that this was ignored in any way. In fact, he managed to deliver a clearly constructed staging, which helped clarify some of the work’s complexities, to the extent that it was reasonably easy to stay in tune with developments. Vizioli also was particularly successful in combining the comedy with the serious so that there was no jarring effect when the drama suddenly jumped from buffoonery to intense sadness.

With all the cross dressing and male-female role confusion, which was magnified by male singers playing female roles and female singers playing male roles it would have been a very easy decision to give this a contemporary gloss. Vizioli clearly aware of this, played up the ambiguities and comedic possibilities, but resisted a modern presentation.

Instead, along with scenographer, Emanuele Sinsi he opted for a neutral setting, which reflected the emotional states of the characters, so that the stage was often left open to express the loneliness of the characters, and closed in to reflect the claustrophobic pressures.

On the other hand, the costumes, designed by Annamaria Heinreich, clearly positioned the drama during the 17th century, and what wonderful costumes they were too: colorful, exotic, sometimes exaggerated. Together, they combined to produce attractive mise-en-scene, in which the comedy and serious elements could be equally well accommodated.

Musical Side of Things

On the musical side, the festival managed to acquire the services of the baroque specialist Ottavio Dantone and his orchestra, the Accademia Bizantina. Dantone expertly uncovered the quality and beauty of Cesti’s score: the graceful melodies of its arias and duets, the immersive quality of its recitatives, and its ability to generate and manage the dramatic atmosphere. The playing of the orchestra was refined and elegant, with a crispness which engaged the audience while at the same time giving the opera an appealing momentum.

In the title role was soprano Francesca Ascioti, who produced an excellent performance. It was a role which seemed to be ideally suited. She sang with with a great deal of freedom, capturing with apparent ease the emotional state of the character, yet always displaying technical surety. Ascoiti drew a detailed portrait of Dori, in which the recitatives were wonderfully evocative, and arias beautifully sung. She also showed fine acting skills.

Countertenor Rupert Enticknap has a monochromatic singing voice, but one with an enjoyable timbre. He played Oronte as a highly emotional being, who appeared at times to be on the point of a nervous breakdown, as he sought out Dori, the only woman he could love, while at the same time resisting pressure from his uncle, Artaxerse, and Ali (who is Dori in disguise) to marry Arsinoe, whom he did not love. It was an expressive reading, to which he brought an impressive melancholic lilt. He displayed agility and delicacy in bringing his character alive.

Soprano Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli gave an impassioned display as Arsinoe, who is rejected by Oronte and then won over by Tolomeo. Alongside Barath, she made her entrance on a swing in a beautiful duet, “O quanto, Arsinoe bella,” the two sopranos complementing each other perfectly. Mazzulli sang well, in an intense performance, displaying a pleasing coloratura and ability to ornament the line. Occasionally, in an attempting to give voice to her rising passions, a hard edge crept in to her vocal interpretation, which detracted slightly from what was otherwise a compelling performance.

In the role of Tolomeo was soprano Emoke Barath, who spent most of the opera disguised as Celinda in order to get closer to Arsinoe, the woman he loved. She too made her entrance with Mazzulli on the swings, giving an impressive performance in what is a convoluted role. She possesses an appealing voice which she used intelligently to craft nicely contoured lines, with delightful embellishments, including a bright coloratura. She also proved herself to be a very good actress.

Oronte’s captain of the guard, Erasto, was played by bass-baritone Pietro di Bianco. He interpreted a typical red-blooded male, who was pursuing Celinda, actually Tolomeo in disguise, at least he was until he realized that she was a he, and admitted that he still loved him! Di Bianco gave a good performance in which he captured the hormone possessed soldier. He was vocally forceful, but full of the necessary subtlety to engage the listener, with well-presented short coloratura passages and nuanced ornamentation.

For pure comedy value it would be difficult to beat, tenor Alberto Allegrezza in the role of Dirce, Oronte’s old nurse. There was no attempt to play this the character other than what it was, as a man playing the role of a woman past her prime. It was all wonderfully stereotypical and great fun, as Allegrezza lost no opportunity to chase the men around the stage, especially Golo, who she had a liking for. He showcased brilliant acting skills and vocal flexibility.

Tenor Bradley Smith gave a pleasing portrayal of Dori’s teacher, Arsete. His voice has an attractive timbre, his vocalization was measured and controlled, and displayed agility which he used to good effect, intelligently embellishing the musical line. Although one of the least interesting roles in the work, (his backstory is far more interesting), Smith nevertheless attracted attention.

The versatile bass Rocco Cavalluzzi put in an excellent performance as Oraonte’s servant Golo. He gave a lively and energetic portrayal with a great deal of buffoonery. His singing was full of clarity good articulation, and he expertly played up the comic nature of his character.

For the most part, the bass,Federico Sacchi made a good impression in the role of Artaxerse, Oronte’s uncle and Regent. His voice comprises of an appealing timbre, strong support and a full, rounded sound. He sang well, bringing depth to his character.

In the role of Baoga, who worked in the harem, was countertenor, Konstantin Derri, who produced an exceptional portrait of the eunuch. His produced a strong acting performance, which was finely tuned to those with whom he interacted; his opening scene with Dirce was expertly crafted as they both fooled about on stage! He has an expressive and versatile voice, which he used to bring depth and interest to the role. In the past I have criticized his voice for lacking projection, and thus failing to assert his character sufficiently. As Baoga, there was no such problem; his projection was secure and strong.

All in all, it was a successful return to Innsbruck for “La Dori,” 362 years after its premier in the city. Under Dantone’s musical direction and Vizioli’s well-paced and engaging staging, one of Cesti’s best-known work’s provided evidence of the composer’s musical talent and assured theatrical instincts, and made for a very enjoyable evening.

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