Innsbruck Early Music Festival 2020 Review: L’Empio Punito
A Young Cast Makes The Case For Melani’s ‘Don Juan’By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Birgit Gufler)
Each year Innsbruck’s Festival of Early Music presents Oper:Jung, a work performed by younger singers, which gives them the chance to essay substantial roles in front of the festival audience. This year the choice of opera was Alessandro Melani’s “L’Empio Punito,” to a libretto by Acciaiuoli and Appoloni. Premiered in Rome in 1669, it has the distinction of being the first representation of the “Don Juan” story as an opera.
Tempting as it might be to make comparisons with Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” it is unlikely to lead you very far. Certainly, the basic storyline is the same, and its major characters are immediately recognizable from Mozart and Da Ponte’s masterpiece; Acrimante and Bibi, for example, are Don Giovanni and Leporello, Atamira is Donna Elvira and so on, but they are drawn in very different ways. Acrimante in particular is no swashbuckling Don; he is a lightweight womanizer by comparison, and forgoes our admiration when he starts to plead for mercy when facing eternity in Hell.
Atamira suffers a very different fate from Elvira, finding love with Atrace, the King of Macedonia. On the other hand, Bibi, Acrimante’s cowardly, comedic servant could easily slip into Leporello’s shoes. There are also a number of additional characters, such as Plutone, Proserpina and Caronte, who make appearances in the Underworld scenes.
Ultimately, however, such a game simply drives you into a cul-de-sac; “L’Empio punito” is a product of a different era, containing different sentiments, values and expectations and dependent upon different musico-dramatic structures; better simply to engage with the opera on its own terms, for it has much to offer. It is a fast moving work, with plenty of action, including storms, gods, seduction, murder and damnation; its comedic scenes are funny and do not jar when put alongside the serious drama.
The music is immediately accessible, with plenty of attractive melodies, which dovetail neatly with the dramatic needs of the narrative.
Normally the Oper:Jung presentation is performed outdoors in the courtyard of the Theologischen Fakultät. This year, owing to COVID-19, performances were moved indoors to the Grosser Saal in the Haus der Musik, thus meaning that rather than using the natural surroundings of the courtyard as a backdrop for a set design, the scenographer Andrea Belli had to design a staging from scratch.
This consisted of three dull concrete blocks, which no doubt were supposed to appear as marble, so as to suggest antiquity. They performed their function well allowing the singers to enter and exit the stage quickly, and on occasions even to appear on top of them.
But they were dull in the extreme, and did nothing to enliven the visual aspect. Even the changing lighting had little impact.
That however was the one negative aspect of the production. Director Silvia Paoli put together an imaginative interpretation, which stuck closely to the spirit of the libretto and to the sentiments it expressed.
At its core is the idea that human beings are at the mercy of the heart’s passions, and so the four stable boys, who appear in the opening scene are turned into four Cupids, and are presented as mischievous, childlike, naughty, constantly on the lookout for more fun. They are the puppet masters who control the behavior of their victims, attaching red cord to their hands and feet, pulling them hither and thither, their wills too weak to resist the power of love.
In a well-crafted scene Paoli used the Cupids to bind the cast together with their cord to create an intricate web of desire, from which the cast could not escape. There was nothing heavy in this, no attempt was made to bulldozer the audience into accepting this, rather it was all presented in a lighthearted manner.
In fact, Paoli was particularly successful not just in highlighting the comedy within the work, which centred on the cupids and the low-born characters of Bibi and Delfa, but also in transitioning between the serious and funny scenes.
As with many baroque operas there is a certain degree of gender fluidity, which Paoli again used to skillfully contrast the humorous with the serious. The two low-born lovers, Delfa and Bibi, are cast with males. The female Delfa was played by a large framed man, dressed in a dirndl, who stomped around the stage with no pretension of concealing his real masculine identity, making their love scenes deliberately ludicrous and funny.
On the other hand, no such liberties were taken with the high-born Acrimante who is cast as a soprano, and whose attempted seduction of Ipomene another soprano, never descended into farce, but was treated sensitively.
Valeria Donata Battella created colorful and visually appealing set of costumes which did a lot to offset the depressing scenery. While not focused on a specific time period, the designs cleverly caught the spirit of the baroque as well as the world of puppet theatre.
But other designs were also used, including traditional Tyrolean dress for Delfa and Cloridoro. Battella’s designs, however, were more than just visually pleasing, they captured the nature and character of the personalities. Of course, the Cupids were suitably dressed as children with wings. Plutone was dressed in a hyper-sexualized red, open-fronted furry coat, exposing his hairy chest with a gold chain round his neck, along with sunglasses and platform boots. A real 1970’s sex god!
Over past years the standard of Oper:Jung productions has been high indeed, and this year proved to be no exception. Belying their relative inexperience on the professional stage, the cast played its part in making the production a success.
Last year, soprano Theodora Raftis won third prize in the festival’s Cesti competition, making a notable impression with her wonderful coloratura and imaginative embellishments. Although her role as Atamira did not allow for such a florid vocal display, it did provide further evidence of her talent, in which she demonstrated her ability to draw out the emotional depths of her character.
In her aria, “Care selve, onor del monte,” she laments the loss of Acrimante who is fleeing from her, and for whom she is searching, her subtle ornamentations and light coloratura delicately capturing Atamira’s pain. Raftis’ voice has an endearing timbre, it is strong, versatile and moves with ease between the registers, which was exemplified in her final aria, “Tormenti, che fate?”
Another prize winner from last year’s Cesti competition, soprano Dioklea Hoxha, was parted as Ipomene, who spends most of the opera trying to convince her lover Cloridoro, who believes she has betrayed him, that she loves him.
In her aria, “Gradite catene,” she gave voice to her love in a deeply expressive reading, in which she successfully used the coloring of her voice, her subtle accenting and dynamic emphases to coat her words with emotional depth.
The aria, “Aurette tenebrose,” allowed her to show off the flexibility and beauty of her voice, as she climbed easily up the stave without any loss of quality. Recitatives were also delivered with clarity and nuance, allowing the full meaning of her words to be communicated.
More Great Singing
Mezzo-soprano Anna Hybiner was parted as the dissolute Acrimante. Taking her cue from the original Don Juan story, Bettella costumed him in traditional Spanish dress, and although not possessing the suave flamboyance and charm of the Don, this did at least add some weight to his appeal. Hybiner gave an excellent performance in the role, singing with expressive and emotional intensity.
She possesses a colorful voice, with a appealing upper register, and crafts the vocal line with intelligence. Her best moment undoubtedly came in the third act when faced by the statue, and then by Caronte, in which Acrimante is both defiant and penitent in equal measure. Stretching over three scenes, comprising a series of high-emotion exchanges, Hybiner’s focus never slackened, as she used her vocal flexibility to adorn the vocal line with well-placed accents and colorful shadings, ensuring that recitative passages and arias were given a dramatically strong reading.
Bass baritone Lorenzo Barbieri produced a confident performance as Acrimante’s servant, Bibi, in what was a well-acted, sympathetic and amusing portrayal, with a fair share of slapstick thrown in for good measure. He possesses a firmly grounded, engaging and expressive voice, which he used effectively to characterize the role. Barbieri’s natural instinct for comedy ensured that scenes with Acrimante and Delfa were lively, well-constructed and fast-moving.
His lover Delfa was played by Joel Williams who was equally accomplished in bringing out the comedy of the role. The fact that he was significantly bigger than Barbieri, not feminine in any way whatsoever, and never looked like nor acted as a woman, added to the fun. Williams’ strong, distinctive tenor, aided by his secure technique, also helped in developing what was a clearly defined character. Together, Delfa and Bibi, certainly made for an odd couple.
The mezzo-soprano Nataliia Kukhar was parted Cloridoro, who appeared to be more interested in hunting than courting his lover Ipomene, and was suitably costumed as a Tyrolean hunter with a toy gun. Kukhar has a bright even-toned voice, and compensated for the lack of coloring by injecting a passionate intensity into her singing. Her aria, “Uccideteme sospiri,” in which Cloridoro contemplates death, rather than living without Ipomene was beautifully delivered; forceful and emotional, but tinged with despair. Kukhar was also cast in the small role of Proserpine, whom she portrayed with equal success.
Atrace’s advisor, Tidemo, was played by tenor Juho Punkeri. Dressed in black, he cut a sinister figure, looking every bit the typical assassin, yet it was he who was to be killed by Acrimante. He later reappears as the statue to bring about the libertine’s end. It was a good performance by Punkeri; he sang with precision, but not at the expense of emotional expression and developed his character well.
The bass Andrew Munn was cast as the king of Macedonia, Atrace. While his singing was correct and the voice exhibited a pleasing tone, it was a conservative, unadventurous performance, which would have benefited from greater identification with the character. The aria, “Ad Ipomene fia,” could have acted as a showpiece, but was given an emotionally superficial rendition.
Baritone Ramiro Maturana gave a solid performance in the minor role of Cloridoro’s servant, Niceste, but it was as Plutone, the god of the Underworld, that he made a strong impression, both visually and vocally, as he strutted and cavorted around the stage as the debauched godhead, his voice imbued with a devil-may-care swagger.
Rocco Lia completed the cast in the parts of the Sea Captain and Caronte. Both are small roles, but Lia produced strong performances in both. He has an attractive bass with a distinctive sound, which he molded nicely to fit the roles. In what was clever conceit, Paoli had Caronte carry the corpse of Acrimante off in a shopping trolley: death is no respecter of a person’s status!
The Barockorchester:Jung, conducted by Mariangiola Martello from the harpsichord, produced a rhythmically versatile performance, in which the score’s pleasing textures were pleasingly uncovered. She was very considerate to the singers whom she supported closely.
It is not uncommon for festivals to present rare or newly discovered baroque operas from the 17th and 18th centuries. Many have merit, but more often than not, they rarely see the light of day again, or at best receive only an occasional revival. Hopefully, “L’Empio Punito” will have more success.
It is has much to offer, both musically and dramatically and certainly entertains, as this production at the Innsbruck festival confirms.