Regensburg 2019-20 Review: La Fida Ninfa

Sara-Maria Saalmann Stars In Johannes Pölzgutter’s Impressive Staging

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: J.Quast)

Theater Regensburg’s new production of Vivaldi’s “La Fida Ninfa” was a bold, ambitious, and possibly even reckless, decision for a provincial opera company with a non-specialist baroque orchestra, and a group of singers who, with one or two exceptions, have limited experience in singing baroque opera.

Yet, it is illustrative of the extent to which Vivaldi’s operas are now being accepted into the mainstream, after an absence of over 250 years.

Managing a True Challenge

Written in haste for Verona’s Teatro Filharmonico in 1732 to a libretto by Scipione Maffei, the narrative fits into the pastoral tradition, with a fairly banal plot that revolves around the usual sequence of abduction, mistaken identity, love and betrayal, culminating in a lieto fine.

Vivaldi’s music, however, dazzles.

The arias and ensembles are inventive, full of florid passages and engaging melodies, and its connection to the dramatic situation is carefully managed. The overall effect raises the work to a level not suggested by the libretto alone.

It is an opera which requires singers and an orchestra with excellent technique, immersed in the tradition of the baroque; significantly, contemporary accounts remark on the challenging music for the singers.

It was, therefore, never going to be an easy work to mount in the circumstances.

However, under resident musical director Tom Woods, the Philharmonisches Orchester Regensburg, augmented by an early music continuo, produced a persuasive performance which contained the necessary energy, rhythmic attack and frisson to bring the opera alive.

The overall approach, however, did tend to err on the conservative side, so that potential flashy and mesmeric ornamentations never truly caught the imagination. There was a good balance within the orchestra and its sound had a pleasing depth  from which the musical detail was allowed to emerge.

Generally Woods was successful in his support for the singers, the one notable exception being Elpina’s first act aria “Aure lieve che spirate,” which although being very lightly scored, tended to drown out the singer, who struggled to be heard. Overall, however, it was a more than commendable performance.



Childhood Trauma

The director for this production was Johannes Pölzgutter. He produced an imaginative and dramatically engaging staging, which turned Maffei’s bland libretto into an compelling piece of theatre, updating it to the present day and allowing the narrative to drift between the brutal reality of modern day slavery and the characters’ inner fantasy world, which they adopt as a survival strategy.

Maffei’s pastoral concerns two children, Morasto and Licori, who fall in love and pledge their undying fidelity to each other. Unfortunately, Licori and her sister Elpina, along with their father Narete, are kidnapped and taken to an island run by Oralto. His servant is none other than Morasto, who had also been kidnapped years earlier. He recognizes Licori, but she fails to recognize him and is determined to be true to her lover from whom she was separated as a child.

Eventually the gods intervene and they are reunited. It is a simple, sentimental tale, although one which Vivaldi, through his music, turns into an emotionally turbulent and intense work.

Pölzgutter created a world in which the characters are locked into their childhoods, traumatized by their kidnap. Throughout the opera they behave like teenagers. There is a lot of bravado, but in reality they are very frightened.

Morasto is given a gun, which he too scared even to handle. They are beaten and abused by their owner Oralto and can only cower in response. Their escape is an Arcadian fantasy world in which everything is peace and calm, but it does not last long and the vicious reality soon returns. It was an excellent reading; it had a good pace, explored interesting themes which went beyond the libretto, but importantly was in accordance with Vivaldi’s music and brought depth to the trivial tale.

Scenographer Manuel Kolip produced a staging of extreme contrasts. Reality was a run down space, which could have been an old warehouse, in which the slaves slept below the stairs behind a curtain. It was rough, ugly and convincing. When they sought refuge in Arcadia, the stage was transformed into a picture book style fantasy world. The scenery was deliberately childlike, with cardboard sheep, trees, exaggerated toadstools and even a boat. Occasionally, there was a merging of the two worlds so that reality and fantasy become intertwined with one another.

The costumes, designed by Janina Ammon, were very simple, but effective. Oralto was dressed in black with gold chains, and looked typically thug-like. The others had clothes one would expect to see on teenagers, with the exception of Narete, who was dressed in casual insipid attire, which reflected his character perfectly.



Mixed Bag

As for the singers, there was a huge difference in the quality and experience they brought to their parts, which was reflected in the results.

In the role of Morasto was accomplished and noted baroque soprano Sara-Maria Saalmann, who recently performed the lead role of Dafne in Cavalli’s “Gli amore d’Apollo e di Dafne” at Innsbruck’s prestigious Early Music Festival. When she first appeared on stage it took time to realize that she was not a male actor, so convincing was she in a male role. It would give the wrong impression to call it a trouser role, for that conjures up the idea of a woman playing a man, and in which there is little attempt to hide the fact. This was not the case here. Saalmann walked, stood, and behaved and looked like a man.

As one of Oralto’s henchmen, Morasto was scared and out of his depth; he is no thug. In the fantasy world, however, he becomes more belligerent and courageous, posturing in typical teenage fashion.

If Saalmann’s acting was convincing, her singing was no less so. She possesses an excellent voice, which is nicely suited to the baroque. It has beautiful timbre and is agile and secure with a pleasing even tone and a rich colorful pallet. Alone among the soloists, she improvised her own ornamentations which were intelligently crafted and sung with delicacy, elegance, and nuance, but not at the expense of passion and intensity.

Recitatives were subtly delivered, with careful attention given to the meaning of the text. Her virtuoso aria, “Destino avaro,” in which Morasto gives voice to his anger, was the high point of her performance. Saalmann’s reading was forceful and passionate, which she topped with an impressive coloratura display.

It was an energetic and expressive performance, one that stood apart from the others singers.

There were, nevertheless, some persuasive performances from the other singer, notably so in the case of the male soprano, Onur Abaci in the role of Osmino. He is another of Oralto’s kidnap victims, who also happens to be Morasto’s brother, although they are both unaware of the fact. He possesses a light, bright voice, which exhibited considerable versatility and an ability to hold the vocal line perfectly. He articulated his recitatives with a high degree of clarity and expressivity. Arias and ensemble pieces were also confidently delivered, in which the subtlety of his embellishments and fine legato impressed.

Oralto was played by baritone Johannes Mooser, who for the want of better adjective looked and acted like a real meathead. He is a big powerful man, with a fearsome demeanor, which the make-up department added to with some well-placed facial scars. Enveloping the voice with a nastiness and viciousness that would have frightened most people, his characterization was excellent. Mooser’s singing, however, was not refined nor particularly agile and his coloratura sounded too mechanical. His singing did not seem to fit the baroque style in the least. Nevertheless, it was a very strong portrayal, and from a theatrical perspective was splendid.

Soprano Theodora Varga was cast in the role of Licori. Unfortunately, she was not well-suited to the part, and gave an uneven display. On the positive side, she infused her voice with passion and energy, which brought a certain amount of expression to the part, but it was all too inconsistent. Her vocal projection was often weak, and her articulation was poor.

The role of Elpina was parted by mezzo-soprano Vera Semieniuk. Apart from her first act aria in which she was overpowered by the orchestra, for which the conductor must share the responsibility, she performed reasonably well. Her first act duet with Osmino was beautifully rendered and her second aria was clearly presented with a pleasing and well-projected tone. Her acting was of a high standard and came across as the most convincing of the “children.”

It was not a good evening for tenor Brent L. Damkier, who sang the role of Narete. His voice sounded tired, he struggled to hold the vocal line on occasions, and even simple ornamentations were poorly executed. His first act aria was probably his best contribution. In this section, he successfully captured the pain he was experiencing at having his daughters held in captivity. His articulation was clear throughout.

Contralto Maria-Magdalena Fleck is a member of the Regensburg Theatre Chorus, but she was given the opportunity to play the role of the goddess Giunone. Dressed as Little Bo-Peep or possibly Marie Antoinette when playing at being a milkmaid, she cut an impressive figure, and took full advantage of the opportunity in what was a strong performance.

Bass Selcuk Hakan Tirasoglu, playing the role of the god Eolo and dressed as a big blue beast with crazy clothing, had the most outrageous costume of the night. His singing was strong, versatile and expressive.

Mounting “La Fida Ninfa” was always going to be a gamble. However, it was one which largely succeeded. Yes, there were negative aspects, but they were more than compensated for by Pölzgutter’s excellent staging and Saalmann’s performance as Morasto. The Philharmonisches Orchester Regensburg must also be given credit for producing a decent performance of a work in a repertoire of which they have little experience.


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