Q & A: Stefano Vizioli On The Modernity Of Cesti’s ‘La Dori’ At This Summer’s Innsbruck Early Music Festival

By Alan Neilson

This year’s schedule for Innsbruck’s Early Music Festival includes three operas from the baroque period: “La Dori” by Antonio Cesti; “Merope” by Farinelli’s brother, Riccardo Broschi, and “Ottone” by Handel.

Over the next few weeks Operawire will be interviewing the three directors responsible for the staging of the operas.

Cesti’s “La Dori” was written in 1657, for the Court in Innsbruck, and went on to receive performances in a number cities, including in Venice and Florence. However, as was the fate of many operas of the period, it quickly disappeared from the stage. Although it received its first modern day production in 1983 for the Spitalfields Festival in London it is still a largely unknown work and few of this summer’s festival-goers are likely to know much about it.

Teatro Verdi di Pisa’s Artistic Director, Stefano Vizioli, has been charged with its direction, and Operawire managed to track him down to find out more about “La Dori,” and his ideas about staging the opera. He also has an excellent sense of comic timing, which also made it a hugely entertaining interview.

Operawire: What attracted you to directing this opera?

Stefano Vizioli: This is the second time I have been invited to direct in Innsbruck. Both this time and on the previous occasion it is for an opera by Cesti. The first time was three years ago, for “Orentea.” It was a great success, and so I am really happy to return once more, this time to direct “La Dori.” Actually, many years ago I was an assistant director at the Festival, again for Cesti’s “Orontea,” so it feels like I am returning to an old family.

“La Dori” is a relatively unknown work. There are no recordings. It was written more than 350 years ago, so this is going to be an interesting experience, for both for me and hopefully for the audience too.

OW: What is your approach to directing a baroque opera, and is it different from the way you approach other operas?

SV: Baroque is much closer to our modern-day sensibilities because it speaks of the fragility of our human condition, without relying on stereotypes, which you find a lot in 19th century operas. I like the modernity of the 17th century repertoire, particularly Cavalli, Cesti and, of course, Monteverdi. The libretti show a keen knowledge of the human spirit, and their analysis of human nature is so believable, so real, more so than in the Romantic repertoire.

We can see incoherence in the characters, which is obviously more true to real life, and it this which inspires me, it helps spark my creativity, because I enjoy elaborating this incoherence. Of course, the opera is not incoherent, just the characters. They often move in one direction, then suddenly move in a completely different direction. We are like this! The present generations have lost their points of references and their values, so the audience will see themselves in the characters.

I also like to make use of the romantic content within the work, by which I don’t the Romantic period, but the sensibility, and the fragility of the characters.

OW: What are the opera‘s themes?

SV: The opera is a pure love opera, there is no war nor are there any gods. It is about loneliness and the search for happiness, in a very neurotic way, in a very modern way, especially Oronte, the King, who is searching for Dori, his lost love. He does not care about anything, he doesn’t care about the throne, he doesn’t care about power, about anything which is a façade, only Dori, and this creates problems for everyone, because he is wasting his time on love. It is not just the King who is chasing love, other characters are also doing the same: it is a labyrinth of passions in which everyone gets lost, and for me this the most interesting point of the opera

A second theme is that of dreams. There are many scenes which are characterized by sleep, which is common for this repertoire. The characters dreams are interpreted as visions, which reveal things or terrify, and in this sense it is also very modern, it very neurotic, similar to works like “Wozzeck.”

Cesti worked at the court here in Innsbruck, and was an incredibly complicated man, and he wanted to have fun with the people of the court who will recognize themselves and their friends in the characters, on the stage. It was a fun-loving place. Remember Innsbruck was a long way from the Vatican, and when you are so far away its Hello! Cioa! Whey-hey!!! Maracas, Brazil, Party Time!!!!

There are a lot of transgender parts, the characters are all wearing masks. First of all Dori, a woman, performs the whole opera dressed as a man, which creates incredible complications for both the men and the women. Oronte, the King, is attracted by a newly arrived boy, who is really the disguised Dori. He is confused by his attraction for this boy, and at one point Dori says to the King, “I want too kiss your… …feet!” At the same time, Prince Tolomeo, disguised as a woman, is in love with Dori’s sister; at one point she(he) proclaims, “I want to kiss your… …feet!” It is comedy. To complicate matters the Head of the Guard falls in love with him thinking he is a woman, and pursues her. When Tolemeo eventually reveals he is not a woman, the Guard says, “I love you anyway.” It is all very homoerotic. And it is all in the libretto!

Of course, it is also important to understand the opera’s subterranean language. What are the words saying, and what is the music saying? It is not unusual for the music to contradict the words. The text may say one thing, but an oboe in the orchestra maybe laughing at the words. This means that we must pay attention to the music, not just the text, for this reveals things a libretto may not have the courage to say; it is possible offend people with a cello.

OW: What was your starting point for this production?

SV: Visions! I didn’t start with a precise idea.

“La Dori” is a special case because I start with the disadvantage of not having an acoustic reference, there is no recording. Obviously, I read the music, but I cannot hear it.

Apolloni’s libretto, however, is fantastic; it is very clear, its is very pure, a perfect example of the 17th century baroque. Apolloni was a genius. Many 17th and 18th century libretti are so complex, but not this one. So I started with visions, I didn’t have a rational approach. I put everything into the mixer and watched what happened, and it was clear that loneliness and the unhappiness and of romance were the central themes. I was really moved by the plot, really moved! Because they are poor, fragile, people romantic people. They are passionate people.

Of course, I must make the narrative very clear because the audience does not know “La Dori.” This is my first duty. I must tell a story, as they must feel comfortable with what they are watching.

I don’t want to be accused of imposing my ego on the opera. Of course, I have my vision, and I hope it will fascinate, move and arouse the curiosity of the audience, but I don’t want to impose. I want them to laugh when they want, cry when they want, yawn when they want and be upset with me if they want, but I don’t want to play games, it is necessary for me to be intellectually honest.

OW: What form will the staging take?

SV: I have set the opera in 17th century costumes, I do not need to express modernity in the costumes. Just because I do an opera in traditional costumes does not mean I am ignoring the modernity of the work, just that it does not need to be in the visual aspects. I use the scenes to reveal metaphorically what the opera is telling us. So in this opera we have the idea of loneliness, which for me means an empty space with the human being alone. Sometimes, there is claustrophobic aspect, so the scenes close in. There is the sand and the sea, which means freedom, the unknown.

I also like to play with tradition in a modern way, so we have old-fashioned painted scenes; the grammar is old, but the reading is not old. A door opens into a room in the Schoenberg Palace so that the audience gets a flavor of where we are, but it isn’t archeology.

OW: Baroque operas can sometimes be difficult for audiences. Is “La Dori” challenging for audiences?

SV: Less so than for many baroque operas. However, I think it is important to have a lecture to familiarize the audience with the plot, this adds to their pleasure. I remember explaining the plot of the opera, “Orontea,” a few years ago to a young girl. She listened, and then during the dress rehearsal she was explaining to her parents what was happening on stage. It shows how something so simple can change the experience.

OW: What problems/difficulties do you envisage in staging the opera?

SV: Most of the singers are not Italian, so I hope the singers take time to learn the words, not just the syllables, so that they can also enjoy the hidden meanings of the work, because this libretto follows so many paths. They must understand what happens when they are not onstage, what the other characters saying about them. When singers learn only their parts, and don’t bother with the rest, it is not possible to develop the character fully. So I tell them they must read the entire libretto.


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