Innsbruck Early Music Festival 2019 Review: Merope

Vivica Genaux, David Hansen Help Composer Riccardo Broschi Step Out From Farinelli’s Shadow

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

In 1732, “Merope” was premiered at the Turin carnival. It was written by the now little known composer Riccardo Broschi to a libretto by Apostolo Zeno. The complex plot is typical of the period, in which a usurper, Polifonte, has taken the throne of Messene, after having murdered its King, Cresfonte, and his children. Such an event was totally unacceptable to the sensibilities of an 18th century audience, so it is inevitable that the previous existing order would have to be restored, and to this end Zeno contrived to have one of the murdered King’s sons escape, return as an adult, and retake the throne.

This simple narrative is then elaborated with love interests, mistaken identities and the usual intriguing, with little to distinguish the drama from the many many operas written during the baroque period. However, Broschi’s music for the work has a charm and quality, which elevates it above the mainstream, containing delicately constructed arias with simple melodies, and numerous opportunities for florid coloratura passages.

Living In Farinelli’s Shadow

This is not surprising, however, for Broschi was the brother of Carlo Broschi, better known as Farinelli, the century’s most famous castrato, for whom he wrote the part of Epitide, the son who returns to vanquish his father’s murderer. Riccardo Broschi was therefore writing to show off Farinelli’s vocal prowess, who was known for his wide vocal range which was said to extend to three octaves, his scintillating coloratura and genius for improvising embellishments, his versatility and power, and the supernatural beauty of his pathetic, soft, emotional singing.

So there was no pressure at all, therefore, on the countertenor, David Hansen, who was stepping into the shoes vacated by the great castrato! To say that he did not disappoint would be an understatement, for this was a powerful singing performance, in which Hansen clearly pushed himself to his limits.

The final aria of Act one, “Chi non sente al mio dolore” was a scintillating expression of his pain. It is rare to hear a countertenor inject such a variety of colors into their singing; every phrase was impregnated with his suffering, and delivered with exquisite delicacy. Ornamentations were intelligently crafted, and his coloratura was secure and agile. It was also very beautiful, at times delicate, singing.

However, for sheer bravura his second act aria, “Si, traditor tu sei” was the highlight of the evening and brought loud cheers from the audience. His coloratura was an explosion of anger directed towards Polifonte, and seemed to consume his whole body. If there was one criticism to made, it was that although he projected his voice well, his articulation was not always clear.

More Than Just a Farinelli Promoter

However, conductor Alessandro De Marchi asserted in his program notes that Broschi was more than just a composer who wrote music to promote his talented brother, writing that he “was a master of Neapolitan opera, who composed beautiful operas and wrote impeccable arias for all voice types and parts.” To prove the point De Marchi assembled a stella cast for this production at Innsbruck’s Early Music Festival, one which was able to unlock the dramatic potential in Broschi’s music.

In the title role of Merope was mezzo-soprano Anna Bonitatibus. She is an accomplished singing actress, with a secure, versatile, colorful voice which she uses intelligently to uncover the emotional vicissitudes of her characters. She also has a strong stage presence, and so it was no surprise that she produced an engaging portrayal of Merope, which brought alive her emotional suffering and anger.

Merope must face many difficulties, not least having her family murdered by Polifonte, who now demands she marry him. There are plenty of opportunities for Bonitatibus to show off her vocal skills, but the highpoint came in the third act, when believing that she is responsible for the execution of her son, and teetering on the brink of madness, horrified by the thought of what she has done, she sings an extended passage of recitative, “Sei dolor…” followed by the aria, “Accesso il mio core sol ode il furore.”

It was a performance which combined emotional intensity with detailed subtlety, and highlighted not just the wonderful expressive quality of her voice, but also its inherent beauty.

The American mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux was cast as Trasimede, a town councillor. She gave a splendid performance in the role, which allowed her to display her vocal agility and sparkling coloratura to good effect. Hers is a voice of beauty which captures the attention. It is flexible and secure. In her first act aria, “Dal possessor di quel core,” she mesmerized the audience with her florid coloratura and vocal versatility.

Then in the second act aria, “Se il labbro tace,” she again captured the attention with her clear and secure phrasing, pleasing ornamentations and fine vocalizing. Her success, however, was not simply down to vocal dexterity and beauty. Genaux also focused her attention on the recitatives which were finely tempered to meet the dramatic situation.

Sheer Beauty Alone

For sheer beauty alone, it was the voice of Arianna Vendittelli, playing the role of Argia, which really stood out. She has a clear, fresh, open sounding soprano which she uses precisely to craft delicately shaped phrases, full of nuance and subtle inflections. The voice moves up the scale with ease, with no signs of stress and no loss of quality. Her upper register has an allure and purity of rare quality.

Her aria, “Vieni, o di questo cor” was sung with exquisite sensitivity. The duet with Epitde, “Per te peno, per te moro” was beautifully rendered, their vocal textures delicately combining to produced an attractive episode.

Countertenor, Filippo Mineccia, essayed the role of the assassin Anassandro. His voice has as a pleasing timbre, although it is less colorful than Hansen’s. He intelligently injected meaning into his singing through well-positioned emphases, nicely placed accents and dynamic variations. He projects the voice well, and articulates his wording clearly. It was a forceful, controlled and well presented performance.

Hagen Matzeit, also a countertenor, played the role of Licisco, the Ambassador from Aetolia. He possesses a firm, secure and agile voice, with a pleasing timbre. He produced a very good performance in which his expressive coloratura and nuanced phrasing impressed.

Unfortunately, the tenor, Jeffrey Francis, was indisposed and unable to perform the role of Polifonte. Instead Carlo Vincenzo Allemano sang the part from the orchestra pit, whilst Daniele Baradi walked through the role on stage. Not an ideal situation by any means, although such things happen.

Allemano put in a good performance, projecting his voice with power and authority, in an expressive reading. It was, however, strange to watch Baradi acting out the role in a highly stylised manner, without mouthing the words, which meant for most of the time he looked like a puppet from a 1970s children’s TV series.

A Window Back Into History

The baroque specialist, Sigrid T’Hooft, was charged with directing the work. With her team comprising scenographer, and costume designer, Stephan Dietrich and lighting designer, Tommy Geving, they created a historically informed performance, aimed at reproducing a theatrical experience which, as far as possible, staged the work as it might have appeared in the 18th century.

To this end, ballet intermezzi were introduced at the end of Acts one and two, to music by Jean-Marie Leclair and Carlo Alessio Rasetti. The lighting was positioned as footlights across the front of the stage, two chandeliers hanging from above, and from hidden lights from the sides, so that the stage was lit with a uniform consistency, slightly dulled, and fixed throughout the performance.

Costumes were colorful and extravagant. The scenery was flats depicting classical buildings, positioned to create depth, with occasional props such as chairs when needed.

However, what really stood out was the acting style, which T’Hooft had carefully researched, and which was based around deliberate and refined gesturing, which to the modern eye looked very odd indeed.

Overall, the idea worked very well in producing the 18th century aesthetic, and it created many beautiful mise-en-scene. It was also very interesting, as it was significantly different from the normal modern day opera experience, even when the work being performed is from the baroque period.

However, the strange gesturing of the singers was difficult to relate to, which they maintained even when moving around the stage, giving the impression that they were automata rather than flesh and blood characters. Nor did it become any easier with time; if anything it became more distracting, although not less interesting.

Normally, when staging baroque operas today, intermezzi are not used. No doubt one of the considerations is time. This production, which incorporated two ballet intermezzi ran for five and a half hours, including intervals.

It was pleasing to have the opportunity to see a production in this form, and overall, their inclusion benefited the presentation, as it added a different dynamic to the main performance, as well as providing entertaining breaks to the drama, which delighted on their own terms. Performed by “Corpo Barocco,” they were choreographed by T’Hooft, who again used her knowledge of dance during the baroque period to shape their movements. Whereas the first dance was in a traditional classical form, the second ballet was a comedy routine based around a boar that had been terrorizing the citizenry of Messene, and which had been killed by Epitide and made into sausages. It was a fairly long scene, and despite its entertainment value, would probably have benefited from a little cutting.

De Marchi’s faith in the opera proved to be well-founded, for this is a worthy opera, deserving of more attention. It has many beautiful arias, and plenty of opportunities for singers to showcase their talent and vocal dexterity. The quality of the singers, of course, did its cause no harm, and the Innsbrucker Festwochenorchester, under De Marchi gave a good account of the score, to which they brought a lively and engaging reading.

T’Hooft’s staging was also a wonderful experience, if at times, difficult to fully appreciate from a 21st century perspective. Nevertheless it was a valid and entirely appropriate presentation, especially for an early music festival.

The production also went a little way towards helping Riccardo Broschi escape from the shadow cast over him by his more famous brother.


ReviewsStage Reviews