Innsbruck Early Music Festival 2020 Review: La Pellegrina

A Musically Solid Performance Undercut by Lack of Staging & Dramatic Potential

By Alan Neilson

(Photo: Birgit Gufler)

In 1589, the Medici, Grand Duke Ferdinando married Christine of Lorraine in Florence in a lavish celebration, which was described as the most magnificent entertainment ever seen in the city. It was an event of rich splendor, aimed at projecting the power of the Medici and of Florence itself.

At its center was the comedy, “La Pellegrina,” by Girolamo Bargagli. Six intermedi were also written for inclusion, which were set as a prologue, an epilogue with the other four placed between the comedy’s five acts. By this time intermedi had become major works in their own right and some playwrights complained that the comedy was there only to serve the intermedi, such was their popularity.

It was, therefore, natural that it was the leading composers of the day who were chosen to write the music, Emilio de’ Cavalieri, Cristofano Malvezzi, Luca Marenzio, Giulio Caccini, Giovanni de’ Bardi and Jacopo Peri. The libretto, under the guiding hand of Giovanni de’ Bardi, was by written by Ottavio Rinuccini, Giovambattisto Strozzi, Laura Lucchesini, with elaborate stage effects designed by Bernardo Buontalenti.

Breaking It Down

Each intermedio is a short tale taken from antiquity, linked by the theme of music and the glorification of Ferdinando and Christine’s marriage.

In the first intermedio the heavens and heroes pay homage to the happy couple. It is followed by a song contest, Apollo’s defeat of Python, demons and a sorceress, and Arion’s escape from death. The final intermedio concludes with Apollo and Bacchus bringing the gifts of harmony and rhythm to the world, and Jupiter calling upon mankind to overcome grief and hardship through song and music. All then unite in a song of praise to Ferdinando and Christine.

Each intermedio is divided into between four and seven movements, consisting of a combination of sinfonias, solo songs, madrigals, large-scale polychoral pieces with a varying number of singers.

Innsbruck’s Festival of Early Music, therefore, provided a welcome opportunity to see a stage work which not only preceded the birth of opera, but one which had a major influence on its development.

Unfortunately, “La Pellegrina” was given as a concert performance, meaning the audience had to forgo the possible delights of a fully staged production, with all its elaborate spectacle, including a ballet.

The main role is undertaken by the chorus, which sings extensively in all six intermedi. Two soloists have more limited roles, and appear only in four of them. For this performance the chorus consisted of two choirs, Corro Voz and CantoNuovo. The two soloists were soprano Alicia Amo and tenor Valerio Contaldo

Delicately Crafted

Amo produced a delicately crafted performance of considerable elegance. Her opening piece “Dalle più alte sfere,” from Intermedio 1, “L’Armonia delle sfere” in which she plays the part of Armonia, who descends from the heavens to honor the noble couple, was rendered with real beauty. The voice has a purity which is perfectly suited to a heavenly being. Her phrasing was delicate and nuanced, with each word suitably ornamented. Her coloratura was graceful, her trilling gentle and soft. As Aphrodite from Intermedio 5, “Il Canto di D’Arion” she sings “Io che l’onde raffreno” in which the goddess greets the bride and groom. Her intricate weaving of the vocal line, the subtle ornamentations and vocal versatility were once again in evidence in what as an expressive presentation.

Contaldo also made a good impression. He possesses a engaging tenor with distinctive timbre. In what was one of the high points of the evening he sings Arione’s lament, “Dunque fra torbide onde,” from Intermdio 5, “Il Canto D’Arione.” Displaying excellent vocal control Contaldo crafted an evocative reading in which Arione’s grief was nicely captured in the colouring, troubled inflections and subtle coloraturas. The interplay between Contaldo and two chorus members who echoed his lines, while facing into the corners of the stage, created an eerie atmospheric presentation.

The choral numbers varied in size and voice type. In Intermedio 2, “La gara fra muse e pieridi”  three sopranos intricately echoed each other in an interwoven vocal tapestry in “Belle ne fe’ natura,” glorying in their own beauty. As the residents of Delphi who are celebrating Apollo’s victory over Python in Intermedio 3, “Il combattimento Pitico d’Apollo,” the mixed voice chorus was more substantial, producing a forceful and expressively compelling presentation.

The early music ensemble, La Chimera, under the direction of Eduardo Egüez, contained an array of renaissance and medieval instruments including among others, a psaltery, harpsichords, a zink, a pommer, lutes, a lira da braccio, lira da gambas and an organ. The result was an enthralling sound world which successfully conjured up  an image of the Medici  court. Egüez elicited a colourful, rhythmically taught performance which uncovered an interesting variety of textures. He also did a fine job in coordinating the two choirs, the two soloists and La Chimera, producing a well-integrated presentation, while occasionally indulging himself in playing the lute.

It was certainly a bit of a disappointment that this performance of “La Pellegrina” was not staged, especially given the infrequency of productions. Musically, it was first rate, but it is a theatrical work, and loses a certain degree of its dramatic impact when the visual aspects are not explored. Certainly, the libretto presents many opportunities for spectacle, and it was one of the reasons for its popularity during the 16th century. No doubt the restrictions in place owing to the virus played their part in the decision. Nevertheless, it still made for an enjoyable evening.


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