Innsbruck Festival for Early Music 2018 Review: La Semele, o Sia la Richiesta Fatale

Francesca Aspromonte, Roberta Invernizzi, Sonia Prina Enjoy Potent Performances In Rare Hasse Serenata

By Alan Neilson

The final opera of this year’s Innsbruck’s Festival for Early Music was “La Semele, o sia la richiesta fatale,” written in 1726 by the relatively unknown German composer, Johann Adolf Hasse, to a libretto by Francesco Ricciardi. Technically this is not an opera as such, but a serenata, although it could certainly fall within its ambit. Deriving from the Classical and Arcadian traditions, the serenata was closely tied to aristocratic culture, and tended to be performed outside, in the palazzi of the nobility, in front of an audience of invited guests, although it was certainly not always the case. Singers were normally costumed, but did not involve themselves in a great deal of acting, and sang reading from the score, which had the benefit of allowing composers to write parts of greater complexity. Arias were usually divided equitably amongst the cast, reflecting the equal importance given to each role, which were normally gods, semi-gods or allegorical characters. Scenery varied substantially, sometimes there was almost none, at others there were sumptuously painted backdrops with fabulously constructed machinery. There was normally very little in the way of a plot and, therefore, they were not particularly dramatic, but did contain a moral imperative. With the decline of European aristocracy and the rise of democratic sentiments, the serenata eventually disappeared in the early 19th century, its Arcadian imagery at odds with the Romantic spirit and the quest for greater realism in performance.

Today the serenata finds itself in an ill-defined position, not exactly a work for the opera house, nor for the concert hall, and therefore tends to be overlooked.

The conductor for this production, the musicologist, Claudio Osele, found a copy of Hasse’s serenata in the Musikfreunde’s archive in Vienna, and although this production is not its first in modern times, it is certainly a rare opportunity to see the work. Despite being written for a cast of only three singers, it has a rich variety of musical forms, comprising arias, duets and ensembles, a pastoral aria, a lament, a vengeance aria, and is dramatically taught, and therefore with the right direction, is ideal for the operatic stage. It was, nevertheless, a little disconcerting to see that the German director, Georg Quander, intended to perform it as a semi-staged, costumed production.

Uncomplicated Narrative

In actual fact however, such concerns were entirely misplaced, for this presentation was as good as many, and better than some, fully-staged productions. Aided by the costume and set designer Veronika Stemberger, the drama was given a present day setting, at least with regard to the drama taking place in the human world. As expected props were kept to a minimum – a bed, chairs, a chaises-longe and so on, nothing spectacular – and the sparseness of the sets did little to detract from the production. The heavenly world of the gods was set in the 18th century, the world with which the work will be forever associated. The two gods, Giove and Giunone, were dressed in the typical aristocratic costumes of the period.

The drama has an uncomplicated narrative. The father of the gods, Giove, has an earthly lover, Semele, much to the anger of his consort, Giunone, who decides to put an end to the affair. She seeks out Semele, and disguised as her maid, convinces her to insist that Giove shows himself to her in his god-like form, knowing that such a potent sight will kill her. Semele agrees to her trickery and is exposed as Giove’s true form, and dies. However, using his power, Giove then revives Semele, who now understands that, although she will always see Giove as a friend, she will no longer be his lover. All are reconciled, and everything ends happily, the bond of marriage still firmly in tact.

Quander and Stembeger had the imaginative idea of using large colorful images projected on to the backcloth of the stage, which changed to represent either a heavenly or an earthly setting. The opera opens in the realm of the gods, with a suitable image of clouds and classical forms projected onto the backcloth. As the scene changes, so the image turns in a swirling motion, into an earthly setting. It worked exceptionally well, and elevated the drama beyond its definition of a semi-staged production. For large parts of the performance, the lighting engineer, Ralph Kopp, flooded the stage in bright colors, allowing the basic scenery, costumes and colorful backdrops to shine, all of which produced a pleasing brilliance, and a charming setting.

Brilliant Trio

The singers employed for the three roles brought with them strong reputations: the contralto, Sonia Prina in the role of Giove, the soprano Roberta Invernizzi as Giunone, both of whom have well established track records in the baroque repertoire, and the young soprano, Francesca Aspromonte, as Semele, whose burgeoning profile in the early music field, is making her a singer much in demand. Unsurprisingly they all produced excellent performances, supported in the pit by the orchestra, Le Musiche Nove, under the baton of Claudio Osele, which also maintained the high standard of the orchestras performing in this year’s festival. Osele elicited a detailed reading, highlighting its rhythmic variations, which added to the dramatic tension of the work.

The appeal of Aspromonte’s art lies not just in the wonderful vocal colors that she can generate, but in the voice’s flexibility, and in the detailed attention she gives to her phrasing, which is full of nuanced inflections and subtle ornamentations, underpinned by clear articulation. Situated in the earthly realm, Semele, is presented as an average young woman, attired in typical modern dress. She is suffering from the belief that Giove is in fact not being faithful to her. Her first aria, “Vago fior sul verde prato,” in which she gives vent to her suspicions and pain, was sung with intelligence and feeling, her voice soaring upwards, blooming brightly into a passionate outburst, her finely crafted coloratura mimicking her agitation. At the beginning of Act two, with birds flying around her head, she sings the pastoral aria “Dolce spira il venticello,” the beautiful timbre of her voice, her trills, and subtle ornamentation wonderfully reflecting the setting. She also gave equal attention to the crafting of the recitatives which were wonderfully expressive and added substantially to the dramatic power of the work.

Sonia Prina made her entrance from the back of the auditorium, dressed magnificently as an 18th century aristocrat. Walking down the central aisle, she engaged with Giunone on the stage, who is suspicious about his fidelity. Pina’s acted out the part superbly, every gesture and facial expression overlaid with mock concern. Later, after having been trapped into agreeing to show himself in his godly form, Giove in his aria, “Del mio fulmine al solo gran lampo,” tries to convince Semele to release him from his promise. Pina brilliantly characterized his emotional state, with an expressive, high-intensity rendition of the piece; against the thrusting sound of the orchestra, her dark voice twisted and turned, navigated large leaps and extensive coloraturas, and captured Giove’s torment and agitation perfectly. In the lament “Occhi belli idolatrati” Pina brought a softer quality to her singing, spinning out plaintive lines, ornamented with subtle embellishments, as Giove grieved for the loss of someone so beautiful.

Roberta Invernizzi, draped upon a chair, opened the opera with a heartfelt passage of beautifully delivered recitative, followed by the aria, “S’altro augel che quel di Giove,” in which Giunone reflects on her husband’s unfaithfulness. The qualities of Invernizzi’s voice were made immediately evident, as she gave voice to her frustrations, her vocal agility, colourful pallet and expressive range all on show. The Act two aria, “Con tanta infamia dunque,” in which she finally explodes, showed Invernizzi at her best. Emotionally under severe stress, she pushed her voice to its limits as she raged at Giove, and unleashed a powerful vocal display, using a wide variety of embellishments, leaps, and long and short coloraturas, in an expressive portrayal of high quality.

There are a number of duets and trios in “Semele,” all of which received excellent presentations. Semele, who is fretting about Giove’s true feelings for her, is supported by the wily Giunone in a beautiful duet, “Quando dell’idol mio,” their voices combining seamlessly in well coordinated performance, in which Semele’ joy and optimism are matched by Giunone’s apparent joy, in a wonderfully transmitted reading. The opera ends with a grand reconciliation: Giove returns to his wife, who forgives him, while Semele is contented with their friendship. The three sit hand in hand, united in their happiness. Semele now dressed in an 18th century costume, has been elevated to a heavenly state, and together they sing “Più non turbi il nostro core,” bringing the curtain down on a charming evening’s entertainment.


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