Teatro La Fenice 2019-20 Review: Ottone in Villa

Strong Singing Performances Overcome Severe Staging Restrictions

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Michele Crosera)

Four months after La Fenice closed its doors, opera has once again returned to its stage, albeit not necessarily in a form that one normally associates with a traditional opera house.

The regulations aimed at containing the spread of COVID 19 mean that Italian theatres, cinemas, and other public performance spaces must comply with stringent restrictions, which require the audience and performers to abide by social distancing rules. Of course, this makes most performances uneconomic and nigh impossible to stage. Even Italy’s rapidly falling infection rate has offered little in the way of immediate benefit.

Fortunately, however, La Fenice’s imaginative and flexible approach to staging and seating arrangements have enabled the theatre to start up production again, beginning with four performances of Vivaldi’s first opera, “Ottone in Villa” written in 1713 to a libretto by Domenico Lalli.

A New Setup

All the seats had been removed from the stalls with the space being given over to the relatively small orchestral ensemble which was situated centrally towards the back.

The audience was restricted to the boxes and the stage, with every seat at least one meter apart. The singers were given considerable space consisting of the front of the stage, a ramp that descended into the stalls with a central platform that extended outwards.

It was, therefore, a performance given in the round, and thus subject to the consequential benefits and drawbacks that often go hand in hand with such stagings; the sightlines from the seating area on the stage were excellent, but the sound was uneven with the singers often required to turn their backs on sections of the audience. The interesting dilemma, however, was as to how social distancing between the singers, which precluded any form of physical contact, would affect the dramatic impact and cohesion of the performance.

It was a problem that fell to the director Giovanni Di Cicco to solve, and although not always finding the perfect solution, he certainly made a worthwhile attempt and delivered a passable presentation.

Of course, there could be no close interaction between cast members, meaning that they would be separated to either a lesser or greater extent throughout the performance. Di Cicco used the idea of physical isolation to reflect the emotional isolation of the characters, whose passions are constantly being frustrated. Di Cicco, whose background is in dance, carefully choreographed the characters’ movements to echo their feelings.

Although this was pleasing on the eye and the dramatic outcome at times excellent, the overall impact was somewhat inconsistent, its message submerged beneath the style.

Although props were almost absent, when they were necessary the characters had to put on a pair of gloves, which to be fair was not too noticeable. The lighting, designed by Fabio Barettin, at times struggled to generate the necessary contrasts, mainly due to the necessity of having to keep the orchestra, which shared the space with the singers, fully lit, and also because the lighting effect differed depending upon were one was sitting. Watching from the stage occasionally meant that only a silhouette of the singer was visible.

The costumes, designed by Carlos Tieppo, although generally modern in appearance did not appear to have a defining theme, which successfully added to the sense of isolation of the individual characters.

Beyond a redesigning of the performance space, the simple set designed by Massimo Checchetto, which amounted to no more than an incomplete wooden hull of a ship which was used to frame the stage, was a little perplexing. In his program notes, Di Cicco, claimed it represented the start of a possible journey which has yet to begin, and which he related to the unexpected circumstances in which we find ourselves.

At best it sounds like a forced and weak analogy, but it was aesthetically pleasing and added to the visual impact of the production.



Doing their Part

The cast was strong throughout and managed to interact well in spite of the enforced distances. There was a clear sense that this was an ensemble working together to make the production work,  and the attention they gave to recitatives ensured that a strong connection existed between them, which they achieved without disrupting the sense of emotional isolation which they needed to create.

The part of Caio, an extensive role comprising eight arias, was undertaken by soprano Lucia Cirillo. She put in an expressive performance, successfully developing Caio’s frustrated and fiery emotional character. Cirillo’s passionate presentation was nicely suited to her many emotionally strong arias, which she delivered whilst managing to maintain the elegance, beauty and refinement of Vivaldi’s music.

This was perfectly illustrated in her Act three aria, “Guarda in quest’occhi, e senti,” in which having been rejected by Cleonilla, Caio reflects upon his suffering and pain, her voice tinged with deep sadness, decorated with delicate ornamentations. The aria includes a delightful part for solo violin, which is interwoven into the aria, and which Vivaldi most likely wrote to showcase his own brilliance on the instrument.

Her Act one aria, “Gelosia,” allowed her to vent her jealousy. To racing strings so typical of Vivaldi, Cirillo showed off her vocal flexibility and coloratura, yet never allowed herself to overindulge.

In the aria, “L’ombre, l’aure, e ancora il rio” Caio believes himself to be in the presence of spirits, in which the final words of Caio’s phrases are echoed by Tullia who is hidden from his view. The positioning of a pair of violins and a pair of recorders in boxes on opposite sides of the auditorium gave the scene an eerie effect, the interplay of instruments and voices causing the sound to flitter around the auditorium, in what was a wonderfully presented scene of high quality.

Sonia Prina was cast in the role of the Emperor Ottone. The contralto’s high octane, vocal flexibility topped by her stunning coloratura, is guaranteed to delight the audience, despite the intrusion of the occasional rude note. However, her performance is founded on more than simple vocal pyrotechnics, for Prina pays careful attention to the text, drawing out its subtleties and its emotional depths through heavy dynamic contrasts and coloring.

Moreover, she possesses a strong stage personality and is able to convince in a male role, which she is often asked to play. Her Ottone was suitably wide-eyed, naïve, and emotionally immature, into which she injected flashes of humor through her well-placed facial expressions.

Soprano Michela Antenucci gave an impressive performance in the role of Tullia, who in love with Caio, spends most of the evening disguised as a man, and subject to the amorous advances of Cleonilla. She acted out the role with skill, but it was her singing which really caught the attention, which was founded upon her attractive vocal timbre, intelligent phrasing, and clear articulation.

Her aria, “Misero spirito mio,” in which she laments her suffering and calls upon Love to aid her, was given an intelligent and compelling performance, full of detail and delicate nuance, capturing both its emotional complexity and beauty. It brought Act two to a fitting closure and was the high point of an evening in which there were many excellent moments.

Giulia Semenzato produced an appropriately flirtatious reading of Cleonilla, who is at the center of the amorous liaisons. Di Cicco had her mime her emotions in a series of exaggerated poses, allowing the focus to rest on her self-indulgent nature, which was further magnified by her colorful and lavish costumes. Her fresh, beautifully balanced soprano was nicely suited to the character.

The role of Decio played by tenor Valentino Buzza is used to add ballast to what is otherwise a frivolous tale, connecting Ottone’s court with its various love triangles to the politics of the outside world. Dressed as a waiter, Decio is a straight-laced, dour character. Buzza gave a strong rendition of the part, displaying a well-rounded, secure vocal technique.

The Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice with an added continuo under the direction of Diego Fasolis gave a persuasive performance. He was attentive to the dramatic situation, in what was a sensitive and nuanced reading, one in which contrasts were never exaggerated or overwrought, and perfectly captured the delicate and light textures of the score, while successfully supporting the singers.

With both eyes firmly fixed on meeting the social distancing regulations, “Ottone in Villa” was no doubt chosen because of its small cast, consisting of only five characters, and its small orchestral force. And it turned out to be an excellent decision!

Musically, this was a fine production in which there were no weak parts, all the soloists showed quality and Fasolis’ excellent musical direction met with expectations.

The staging under the direction of Di Cicco was never going to be to the same standard, but given the severe restrictions in place it was a brave attempt and he managed to present a reading which had insight into the characters’ sense of isolation, whilst clearly conveying the narrative.


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