Ravenna Festival 2021 Review: Teodora
Roberta Mameli Reigns Supreme as the Empress in Montalbett’s New OperaBy Alan Neilson
(Photo: Marco Borelli)
High up on the right hand side of the apse, the Empress Teodora and her retinue look down onto the altar of Ravenna’s Basilica of San Vitale. The image is a golden mosaic infused with greens and purples. Teodora’s regal gaze dominates the picture, her knowing stare is cast upon the streams of visitors who come each day to see her. As fresh today as it was when it was completed in the year 547 AD, it is a truly breathtaking work, and must rank as one of the greatest Byzantine works of art in the world. How appropriate, therefore, that the Ravenna Festival chose the Basilica to premiere Mauro Montalbetti’s new chamber opera about the empress.
Teodora’s life story is certainly one ready-made for the stage. Although being of low birth – her father trained bears for the hippodrome – she overcame many setbacks to marry the emperor Justinian, and eventually became a saint of the Orthodox Church. Hard facts about her life are, however, difficult to come by. Often they are fragmentary, contradictory, and obfuscated by wild rumor, exaggeration, and speculation, to the extent that she is both revered as a saint and cursed as a demon.
It is claimed that she was a great beauty, a seductress, even a prostitute, ruthless in her accumulation of power and responsible for the killing of up to 30,000 rebels during the Nika riots. Yet, it is also said she rescued prostitutes from the streets, improved women’s rights, protected the Miaphysite religious sect from persecution, and was responsible, along with her husband, for the rebuilding of Constantinople, including the magnificent Hagia Sofia.
Barbara Roganti, responsible for the libretto, took a non-linear approach. Rather than trying to disentangle the contrasting and competing versions of Teodora, she has created a text which magnifies them. Her verses are a colorful mosaic of isolated fragments of different voices, which when brought together recreate the essence of Teodora as we know her today. Aspects of her character, often contradictory, are brought into focus, yet any sense of a definitive portrait is left hidden, shrouded by the mists of time. It is an expertly crafted, learnèd, and thoroughly engaging text; multi-layered, rich in detail, using complex metaphors and oblique references, in which conflicting perspectives are often juxtaposed, occasionally on alternating lines.
Of course, using such a difficult, opaque text, which also relies on the listener having a fairly detailed knowledge of Teodora’s life, is going to be difficult to follow, and runs the risk of losing the audience along the way, and to an extent, this did happen.
The work is in five movements, each concerning a different episode of her life, in which the focus is always centered on Teodora the woman, rather than Teodora the historical figure, to which Montalbetti responded with an evocative and interesting soundscape. He uses a four-piece ensemble, consisting of a violin, cello, double bass, and accordion as well as a church organ. A soprano is cast in the role of Teodora, with a mezzo-soprano in the minor role of the Spokesperson. There is also a substantial role for the chorus and a significant spoken part for a woman in the role of the Actress. The interplay of these forces created a religious and often antique musical sound world, which incorporated the distinctive acoustic of the basilica; the sound of the instruments and the voices could often be heard reverberating in alcoves, re-emerging from behind enormous pillars or disappearing into the dome high above, creating wholly positive, intriguing harmonic effects.
Montalbetti’s use of the quartet to support the drama by wedding the music closely to the text was effective, and he rarely allowed it to become a simple passive accompaniment. The inclusion of an accordion was particularly inspired, allowing for an unusual array of textures, with its occasional angry outbursts grabbing the attention. The violin solo in the first movement also captured the attention with its dramatic and virtuosic intervention. The quartet, the Altrevoci Ensemble, produced an intense and dramatically strong rendition.
The musical structure of each movement was centered on the madrigals or the airs written for Teodora or the chorus. As Montalbetti relates in his program notes “there is research work starting from the tradition of Monteverdi’s madrigals to build a model relationship between sound and word, with clear references to an antique vocality, which is projected into our age.” They were beautifully composed pieces, which highlighted Montalbetti’s facility of writing for the voice.
In so many ways it was the basilica that determined the style and nature of the production, not just through its unique design and its golden mosaics, which demanded a traditional visual representation, but also because of Teodora’s presence, which weighs heavily upon any imaginative visitor who looks upon her image. Any ideas about a modern presentation would be wasted: the basilica is the set, and the director has to work in harmony with it. This is exactly what Roganti, also acting as the director, did. There was no added scenery and props were kept to the bare minimum, such as a throne for Teodora. The costumes, designed by Manuela Monti, were also as one would expect of the period, and were pleasing to the eye.
Roganti’s directorial skills however were clearly in evidence in the way she used the space of the basilica. The main performance area was positioned in the center of the basilica with chairs on either side. However, she went beyond this and used the sides behind the audience, the altar, the area beyond the altar, and the area situated on an upper level. The effect was to turn what is a fairly static libretto into a lively theatrical experience in which the audience was forced to decide on what areas to focus. Do they turn their attention onto the chorus who are moving towards the front entrance, or onto the orchestra, playing in front of the altar, or maybe onto the dancer who is moving down the side, half-hidden by the pillars, or onto Teodora, standing motionless behind the alter, her enlarged shadow projected onto the walls, or do they allow themselves to become diverted from the drama, captivated instead by the mosaics? Members of the audience thus became partially responsible for their own experience; it is unlikely two people will have engaged with the performance in exactly the same way. On the negative side, such a production requires a person’s full attention, wander off too far, for too long, and you run the risk of missing something significant.
Roganti encouraged the performers to give elegant, emotionally restrained performances, which were not physically demonstrative, leaving the voice and the musicians to convey the intensity of the feelings. The addition of a dancer was used as another form of expression. The overall effect was to allow Teodora to remain dignified, controlled, and aloof.
Soprano Roberta Mameli put in a role-defining performance as Teodora. So secure and convincing was she, that it was as if the role had been written for her. Her appearance and disposition were exactly as one would expect of an empress: regal, distant, and comfortable with power. Vocally she was equally impressive. Her voice had a crystal-like purity which she used to spin out long, subtly ornamented lines, of real beauty. She could hold a note without any deterioration for what appeared to be an eternity. Yet, in an instant could switch, so that the voice became richer, with darker shades to reflect her changing temper.
It was also a beautiful experience to hear Mameli’s voice slowly strengthen, to the point where it filled the basilica, in which the acoustic of the building allowed the voice to combine with itself, and create some wonderful harmonic combinations.
Mezzo-soprano Anna Bessi played the small role of the Spokesperson, producing a neat, well-sung performance.
The Choir of the Instituto Superiore di Studi Musicali “Giuseppe Verdi” had a large role to play with substantial parts in four of the five movements. Directed by Antonio Greco they sang with great skill, and created a medieval religious sound, further enhancing the atmosphere within the basilica.
The dancer who was active for almost the entire time was played by the animated and very expressive Barbara Martinini. Matilda Vigne in the role of the actress spoke with great clarity throughout producing a controlled understated performance, which complemented Mameli’s Teodora well.
Although this was a work dominated by the single figure of Teodora, it was the interplay of the soprano voice with the disparate musical and non-musical forces which gave it the necessary balance and depth to turn it into such a success. True, Roganti’s libretto cuts both ways, but if one is prepared to read it before the performance it works very well indeed and complements Montalbetti’s music very effectively. Whether or not the opera will be revived in the future only time will tell, but it certainly deserves to be. What is unlikely, however, is that it will be as successful in another venue unless it is directed in a different manner, for no theater or even a church, will be able to compete with the Basilica of San Vitale and its wonderful mosaics, with the empress herself watching over the performance.