Teatro La Fenice 2020-21 Review: ‘Prima La Musica E Poi Le Parole’ & ‘Der Schauspieldirektor’

A Double-Bill That Misses the Mark

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Michele Crosera)

Contrary to popular rumor, it is very unlikely that Salieri and Mozart were on acrimonious terms, let alone enemies. As court composer to Emperor Joseph II, Salieri dominated Viennese musical society which he used to secure positions for Italian artists, which no doubt irritated the ambitious Mozart, but there is no evidence for any animosity between the two composers, rather they were supportive of each other, even to the extent of collaborating on a cantata for voice and piano, “Per la ricuperata salute di Ofelia.”

But rivals, however, they undoubtedly were.

A manifestation of their rivalry occurred on 7th February 1786 when they were pitted head to head by the Emperor, who wished to see how German singspiel compared to Italian opera buffa, by commissioning a work from both composers on the same subject, namely the creation of an opera. The event took place in the Orangerie at the Shönbrunn Palace in honor of their Highnesses the Governors General of the Netherlands, with Salieri composing “Prima la musica e poi le parole,” and Mozart “Der Schauspieldiektor.”

The Orangerie is a long, narrow hall with a stage at one end, to which another stage was added at the other end, allowing the guests to see both performances by simply turning around. “Der Schauspieldirektor” was performed first. The general consensus, however, was that it was a triumph for Salieri, with Mozart’s composition deemed a failure.

La Fenice’s staging, however, did little to suggest that either work was dramatically strong, despite the relatively high quality of the music, which was particularly notable in the case of Mozart’s singspiel.

Taking Things Too Far

Both works were directed by Italo Nunziata with scenery and costumes designed by Scuola di Scenografia dell’Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia. “Prima la musica e poi le parole” was set in the maestro’s office during the 1930/40s, with Art Deco designs as the defining aesthetic, even down to period skyscrapers visible in the background. The idea was a good one, although it did not always fit neatly with the text.

Unfortunately, the ideas were taken too far, so that the stage became a clutter of all things deco: deco furniture, a deco drinks trolley, deco doors and deco paneling which was compounded by more clutter, with such items as musical scores and music stands, along with low platforms sprinkled about. And it might have of worked except that the set changes became cumbersome and contrived as well as visually ugly.

Added to this were the many supernumeraries who littered the stage in the guise of  photographers, office staff, and designers, all of which created a busy and at times uncoordinated appearance. When Donna Eleonora sings her high-lying aria, “La tu vedrai chi sono,” with its florid coloratura she is raised upwards on a mobile hydraulic platform and the famous backcloth of golden stars against a blue background unfolds behind her in a nod to Queen of the Night. A good idea, but awkwardly executed!

By contrast “Der Schauspieldirektor” went for a more minimalist staging, in which the bold colored lighting designs of Andrea Benetello were used effectively to define and to create many pleasing scenes. The final scene in particular was cleverly constructed with only the silhouettes of the characters visible, except when they moved to the front of the stage and into the spotlight to sing. The few props that were introduced were a little hit and miss. On occasions, it gave the impression that they were there because something was better than nothing.

The costume designs for both productions were based on mid-20th-century fashion, which helped create a bridge between the two works. Those of “Der Schauspieldirektor” appeared to be a decade or so later than those for “Prima la musica e poi le parole.” Both sets of costumes were visually strong and pleasing on the eye, and helped to define the characters, so that for “Prima la musica e poi le parole,” the maestro was dressed in a brown business suit, while the poet was more casually attired reflecting his artistic nature; Donna Eleonora, the prima donna, was dressed in a refined manner with an expensive hair-do, while Tonina, a younger singer who rejects the stuffiness of the old-fashioned opera was dressed in cheaper clothes with a simple hairstyle.

The students can be pleased with their work. The costume designs were excellent, and while the stage designs had faults their potential was evident in the underlying conception and structure of their designs. It was at the micro level that they needed to tighten their presentation, especially with regard to set changes in “Prima la musica e poi le parole,” and the effectiveness and appropriateness of some of the props in “Der Schauspieldirektor.” Importantly, they successfully provided Nunziata with the necessary framework for him to do his job.




More Musical Satisfaction

The conductor for both works was Federico Maria Sardelli who produced a lively, energetic, and colorful reading, full of rhythmic vitality and grandiosity from the Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice.

Soprano Francesca Boncompagni was cast as Donna Eleonora in “Prima la musica e poi le parole,” and as Mademoiselle Silberklang in “Der Schauspieldirektor” and produced two contrasting performances. As Donna Eleonora she appeared out-of-sorts, her singing underpowered and lacking energy. Her voice has a pleasing tone and her control was good, but she seemed unable to impose herself vocally on the role.

As Mademoiselle Silberklang, however, she was a different person. In the rondo, “Bester Jügerling! Mit Entzüken nehm’ ich” she sang with greater freedom, the voice was lively and engaging, her coloratura danced lightly and brightly across the notes, her phrasing was delicately crafted and her clear top notes rang out.

Soprano Rocío Pérez, however, was more consistent in the roles of Tonina and Madam Herz.  She had a strong stage presence, her singing was fresh and breezy and she characterized both roles convincingly.

The arietta “Da schlägt die Abschiedsstunde” in “Der Schauspieldirektor” was beautifully rendered, and enabled her to show off the flexibility of her voice with a light, bright coloratura display.

The poet from “Prima la musica e poi le parole” received a strong, expressive reading from baritone Francesco Ivan Vultaggio. He possesses a strong voice with an engaging timbre which he used intelligently to develop a clearly defined character and was attentive to the text in delivering recitatives. Although he does not sing an aria, he sang well in the ensembles pieces. His exchanges with the maestro were convincingly passionate, at times suitably feisty.

The maestro was played by bass Szymon Chojnacki. He gave a reasonably good performance, although occasionally he was a little understated. The more passionate he became the more effective and convincing was his singing. He was also parted in the role of Buff in “Der Schauspieldirektor,” which is mainly a speaking role with only a couple of lines to sing at the end, for which he produced a successful and well-defined portrait.

The singing cast was completed by Valentino Buzza in the relatively small role of Monsieur Vogelsang. Possessing a well-grounded and pleasing tenor he produced a notable and well-sung performance.

There were a number of non-singing parts in “Der Schauspieldirektor.” All the actors performed well, even to the extent of generating occasional laughter from the audience.

This was La Fenice’s first production of Salieri’s and Mozart’s companion pieces, and based on the evidence of the performances it is easy to see why Salieri’s opera was considered the better. “Der Schauspieldirektor” has the weaker libretto; written by Johann Gottlieb Stephanie, it is heavily weighted in favor of the dialogue, and provided Mozart with limited opportunities, so that he was only able to compose an opening sinfonia and four numbers.

For “Prima la musica e poi le parole,” on the other hand, Salieri had Giovanni Battista Casti as the librettist, who provided him with more opportunities to impress. Moreover, despite Mozart’s music being widely considered superior, “Der Schauspieldirektor” as a whole is structurally unbalanced, and never fully captured the attention.

Overall, La Fenice’s presentation of the two works struggled to satisfy, largely due to the works’ themselves which are not of the highest quality.

The performances took place at the Teatro Malibran.


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