Innsbruck Early Music Festival 2022 Review: Astarto

Paoli Successfully Transforms Bononcini’s 18th Century Work Into A Modern Day Satire

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Birgit Gufler)

Whenever Silvia Paoli’s name is listed as the director for a forthcoming production, one can be fairly certain that it is not going to disappoint.

Over the past few years, OperaWire has reviewed a number of her productions, all of which were not just marvelously entertaining, but also very insightful. She has the not-so-common ability to get straight to the heart of a work, and to bring it thrillingly alive, whether they be comedies or tragedies. Her recent production of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia” for Bologna cut straight to the motivations of Lucrezia’s decision to poison six people; rather than having her react to verbal insults as per the libretto, Paoli presents her as victim of extreme physical and mental abuse, making her behavior far more believable, so that she came across as a sympathetic character, a “woman with deep human feelings, capable of suffering for others.” Her ability to deal with comedy is similarly bold and inventive. Her production of another Donizetti work, “Enrico Borgogna,” for the Donizetti Festival in Bergamo was wonderfully imaginative, full of color, fast-moving action and general silliness, verging on slap stick, in which she brilliantly mocked the characters, and “had the audience laughing out loud” throughout the evening.

She is happy to shift the location, alter the period in which the opera is set, and even tinker indirectly with the libretto, yet it is never done gratuitously. There are always clear and well-thought through reasons for her decisions, the effects of which are to allow the audience to connect with the drama with greater immediacy, both emotionally and intellectually.

Paoli Expertly Redefines The Libretto

Her latest presentation, a production of Giovanni Bononcini’s 1725 dramma per musica “Astarto” for the Innsbruck Early Music Festival, proved to be yet another success.

The libretto, originally written by Apostolo Zeno and Pietro Pariati, was later adapted by Paolo Rolli for performances in London in 1720, and it is this version which was presented by the festival. The narrative is centered on a complicated web of love and deception, set against the background of dynastic struggles for the throne of Tyros. In other words, it is the usual complex narrative of limited interest, whose main function was to promote the values of aristocratic Europe, keep the audience entertained with a series of banal confrontations and trysts, while supplying opportunities for the singers to display their skills. Today’s opera audiences’ generally expect more, and Paoli supplied it.

In what was a fairly radical approach, she subverted the libretto by mocking its values, exaggerating the behavior of the characters, and laughing at its plot. In fact, one could say, if it were not for its refined text and the quality of Bononcini’s musical expression, she redefined the opera as a dramma giocosa, and it worked splendidly.

Everything that happened on the stage was either coated in heavy irony, such as with Sidonia’s knowing looks to the audience, or just openly funny, as when the servants have to hoover up the ashes of the former king after his urn is accidentally knocked over. Yet, beneath the comedy, Paoli was careful to ensure that the physical and emotional pain and suffering which thread their way through the drama is revealed, and that the poignancy of the more meaningful relationships were not lost in the fun. The exchange between Fenicio and Clearco while in prison was particularly well crafted, clearly revealing the depth of feeling between a father and his adopted son: sitting opposite each other, tied to chairs, Clearco was forced to watch as Fenicio is tortured, a scene no less powerful for it being played out in an amusing and exaggerated manner.

The drama was updated to the 1950/60s, somewhere in the soviet bloc, a time in recent history in which the affairs of everyday citizens were subject to the arbitrary rulings of an anti-democratic leader, thereby providing the audience with a recognizable reality, one in which what happens is a consequence of arbitrary power, which she emphasized by having Fenicio arrested by the queen’s goons in a telephone box. A setting of more than 2,500 years ago would have run the risk of having the audience view it as remote, with little relevance.

Alessio Roasti’s inventive costume designs were fully in accord with Paoli’s vision of the work, playing up the comedic aspects, by exaggerating and mocking the protagonists’ characters, so that Sidonia was costumed as a vamp with platinum blond air, thigh length boots and an alluring dress; the queen’s two henchmen were dressed in sports gear with muscular contours, while Clearco was portrayed as naïve, bookish and childlike, to the point that he even carried around teddy bear. All the costumes looked deliberately absurd, yet at the same time possessed a certain aesthetic appeal.

The scenographer Eleonora De Leo used her staging to draw attention to two essential aspects of the Paoli’s reading. Firstly, there was the oppressive environment in which the drama takes place, which she created through the use of dark brick walls, positioned to create a sense of imprisonment and claustrophobia. And secondly, the banality of the oppression itself, by setting a number scenes in domestic situations, so that everything appeared quite normal, with nothing untoward. When Clearco was sent to prison, for example, Fenicio prepared his clothes for him, including a brand new prison uniform, which he neatly folded into his suitcase. Or when Agenore returned home from a hard day’s plotting, he flopped down onto the settee with a beer to watch television with his sister Sidonia, who having discarded her image as a vamp, was now dressed in her pajamas.

The juxtaposition of comedy alongside pain, suffering and oppression worked well. It had the audience laughing, while also ensuring that it was fully aware of the serious themes that underpinned the work.

Ascioti Leads The Cast With A Precise & Detailed Performance

The musical side of the production was under the direction of Stefano Montanari, who conducted the Enea Barock Orchestra while also, on occasions, leading with the violin. He elicited a clean sound which had a pleasing rhythmic quality, and was sensitive to the twists and turns of the on stage drama. Given the size of the orchestra, however, it was strange that he allowed the orchestra to very occasionally overpower the singers, most notably in one of the duets for Clearco and Elisa.

The title role of Astarto, who actually goes by the name of Clearco, at least until well into the final act when Fenicio reveals his true identity, was essayed by contralto Francesca Ascioti. She is an accomplished singer whose performances are defined by their precision and attention to detail; every line is rendered correctly, with care and attention given to the text and its musical significance. She possesses a secure technique which she uses intelligently to fill out her character’s states through the use of dynamic, emotional and colorful accents, and ornaments the vocal line with pleasing embellishments.

It was an approach which she successfully employed in her portrayal of Astarto. Recitatives were expertly delivered, full of expressive depth and emotional strength. The arias were presented correctly, and displayed her interpretative skills to good affect, although at times, she did appear to be a little too constrained, too exact; she never really allowed the emotions a free reign, precision always seemed to win out. It did little, however, to detract from what was still a very satisfying performance.

Strong Performances Throughout

Elisa, the Queen of Tyros, was played by mezzo-soprano Dara Savinova. Producing a clearly defined portrait, she created a domineering, excitable, impulsive and gullible character. How is it possible for someone to fall for the forged letter ruse on two occasions in quick succession? She has strong, well-supported voice, with a bright, at times steely quality, which she is able to inflect with bursts of color, underpinned by a light vibrato. It is also a versatile instrument which allowed her to undertake leaps with ease, indulge in confidently sung coloratura displays, and to stretch the voice without any loss of quality. She was emotionally fully engaged with her arias, delivering them with force and passion, while her recitatives allowed her to display a wider, more subtle range of emotions.

Soprano Theodora Raftis was excellent in the part of Sidonia. Taking advantage of every possible opportunity, she hammed up the role, and had the audience chuckling along as she threw them knowing glances, while mocking  the love-stricken Nino. Gestures were absurdly far-fetched, facial expressions deliberately exaggerated, while her reactions, moods and postures were all played to excess. It was a splendid performance, which displayed a real talent for comedy. Nor was her singing any less convincing. She possesses a versatile voice with a bright, attractive timbre, which she used skilfully to mould delicate and detailed lines or unleash fabulous passages of coloratura. Particularly impressive was the confidence she exhibited in engaging with her role, which made it easy for her to connect with the audience.

Luigi De Donato showed off his resonant, beautifully colored bass to good affect in the role of Fenicio. Rather than a warrior or revolutionary terrorist, he was portrayed as 1960s demonstrator more interested in social issues, such as trans rights. He successfully captured his conflict between his role as a father and his role as a revolutionary which lies at the heart of his character. His singing was to his usual high standard, with well crafted phrases, full of subtle accenting and dark shadings, topped by an impressive coloratura.

Soprano Paola Valentina Molinari produced an energetic performance as Nino, whose naïve pursuit of Sidonia was responsible for many of the comedic moments, a skill in which she proved herself suitably adept. There were plenty of opportunities for her to show off her vocal versatility, but it was the aria “Mi dà crudel tormento ” in which she gave voice to her torments at the hands of Sidonia which caught the attention, by allowing her to display her beautiful, delicate phrasing, sensitivity and gentle expressivity.

Soprano Ana Maria Labin was excellent in the role of Agenore, producing an animated, occasionally exaggerated performance, which fitted nicely with the production’s values. Her singing was expressive and secure. Particularly impressive was the flamboyant way in which she attacked her arias, which she underpinned with a real sense of freedom. They also successfully highlighted her vocal flexibility, lively phrasing and attractive coloratura in fine style.

The Innsbruck Early Music Festival’s production of “Astarto” was the first presentation of the 1720 London version in the modern era. A judgement based solely on this performance would suggest that it is work of interest and worth, rather than a rediscovered masterpiece. The music certainly has merit, although it does not include any particularly memorable arias. As a drama it worked exceptionally well, although this was more likely due to Paoli’s direction which treats it as a satirical work rather than as a serious drama: certainly, a read through of the plot would be unlikely to attract the attention.


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