Teatro La Fenice Review 2017-18 – La Metamorfosi di Pasquale: Two Solid Leads Can’t Save Mediocre Work By Young Spontini

By Alan Neilson

In 1802, Gaspare Spontini’s one act farse, “Le Metamorfosi di Pasquale,” was premiered at the Teatro San Moise in Venice to moderate acclaim. It was to be his last work for the Italian stage, as soon after he moved on to Paris and then to Berlin. Unfortunately, along with a number of Spontini’s other works, it was subsequently lost, although its libretto by Giuseppe Foppa, suffered no such fate and has always been tantalizingly available, allowing us to speculate on the possibility that a little gem may have been snatched away, never to be heard again. However, all such speculation can now cease for in 2016 a handful of Spontini’s lost scores, including “Le Metamorfosi di Pasquale” were unearthed in the library of the Dukes of Ursel in Belgium. It is appropriate, therefore, that its modern day premiere was held in the city in which it was first heard, this time staged by La Fenice at Teatro Malibran.

Much Ado About Little

Although the title of the work might suggest a certain philosophical heaviness, this is not the case: the metamorphoses refer to the usual goings-on to be found in a farse. Pasquale, a ne’er-do-well servant, who has been seeking his fortune abroad, returns to his hometown, in order to woo his ex-fiancée, Lisette. Falling asleep under a tree he becomes prey to a local nobleman who, wanting to avoid detection from the authorities, exchanges his clothes with Pasquale’s, who in turn intends to profit from the fact that he is now the nobleman. Later, when his disguise is uncovered, he seeks to escape by disguising himself once more, this time as woman. At the end of the opera he sadly, but gracefully, accepts that he has lost Lisette. The metamorphoses thus go no further than a couple of costume changes and Pasquale’s resignation to losing Lisette. It is populated by the usual array of stereotypes, associated with the genre, ones that we have become familiar with through the work of Rossini – the master of the genre and in whose hands it was to reach its maturity, and to whom a comparison is almost inevitable.

Perusing the program notes before the performance it was possible to detect, below the expected enthusiasm, a certain degree of insecurity about the work on the part of both the conductor, Gianluca Capuano and the director, Bepi Morassi. Capuano almost pleads for understanding, stating it “has to be understood within the Venetian context” and then seeks to point the audience towards the “moments of great music” that exists within the score. Morassi’s reference to it as an “amusing comedy of moderate dimensions” with a “tenuous plot” is hardly a ringing endorsement. And to be fair, their insecurity was well-founded, for this is not a particularly gripping work, at least not to those members of the audience for whom the technical aspects and the historical significance of the piece are of little interest. Certainly it has its moments, in which the music sparkles and the drama gallops along, but generally it is a turgid affair, dogged by what seems to be bar after bar of dry recitative. Capuano’s suggestion that the accompanied recitatives were “noteworthy instrumental solutions” hardly sets the pulse racing in anticipation.

Off to a Good Start

Yet the evening started well. The introductory sinfonia is energetic and light with the occasional ironic grandiose statement which perfectly summed up the forthcoming drama, and it was delivered with a great deal of brio and verve by the Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice. In fact, the relatively small orchestra under the direction of Capuano performed well throughout the evening. His control of the tempi did much to highlight the sometimes needed contrast, which at times the score lacks. During the ensembles, the sections in which the opera is at its strongest and most engaging, Capuano was able to achieve a delicate balance between soloists and orchestra, and created enough space for individual voices to be clearly heard.

Morassi chose to update the drama to the early 20th century Naples, to a world not yet traumatized by the horrors of the war which was soon to follow. It is a world in which there still exits a certain naivety and were social roles are still clearly defined. In other words a world of stereotypes. All of which fits in nicely with Foppa’s text. However, Morassi’s firm hand, which has served him so well in many productions at La Fenice, seemed to have loosened for this production. The direction was intrusive, fussy, and lacked finesse. Possibly in an attempt to compensate for the longueurs which beset the work, Morassi never allowed the work to speak for itself. There always had to be some extraneous action taking place. Occasionally, this aided the production, often it distracted. One scene in particular stood out as particularly invasive: the Baron, a stereotypical lecherous old man, who objects to his daughter marrying the Marchese, at one point, no doubt for the sake of comedy, ends up walking around the kitchen with a bag on his head. Mildly amusing for sure, but it was so distracting that he took all the attention away from singer.

Morassi was aided in the production by the students of the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia, who were responsible for costume and scenery designs, under the tutorage of Elena Utenti and Piero de Francesco. It was a task they completed with largely successful results. The costumes were splendid; they were colorful and flamboyant and helped to define the characters as well as adding to the picturesque staging. The set was focused on a Neopolitan Cafè, with a wonderful variety regulars coming and going and interacting with the principal characters. This made for a functional and not unattractive setting, and brought local color to the proceedings.

Promising Leads

The two principal roles of Pasquale and Lisette were played by Andrea Patucelli and Irina Dubrovskaya respectively, and both put in very good performances. Patucelli showed himself to be an excellent comedy actor, with a strong stage presence. But it was his ability to deliver recitatives that really impressed. His intelligent phrasing managed to hold the attention, despite certain passages drifting on for a considerable length of time. An inability to hold the interest of the audience during these passages would have severely compromised the production, and although he was unable to correct what is a structural weakness in the work (at least for modern day audiences), he at least minimized its effect.

Dubrovskaya confirmed the impression she has made in numerous roles at La Fenice, of being a coloratura soprano who likes to operate beyond the margins of her comfort zone. There is something compelling and exciting in watching a singer pushing themselves to the limit, listening to their voice soar upwards without a safety net. The fact that they occasionally miss the mark surely adding to the delight when it comes off perfectly. There are no second takes with a live performance. And Dubrovskaya is an artist prepared to take the risks, make the mistakes and delight the audience. As Lisette she put in another engaging performance. Her final aria “Ah, dov’è chi ha l’ardimento” was delivered in her usual style, supported by her wonderfully light, yet powerful and secure soprano, with a tone of 24-carat purity. However, her willingness to ignore boundaries did occasionally compromise her phrasing, which occasionally became somewhat heavy-handed and lacking in subtlety.

The other roles were undertaken by Carlo Checchi as the servant and Lisette’s fiancée, Frontino; Giorgio Misseri as Il Marchese with Michela Antenucci as his lover, Costanza; Christian Collia as both Il Cavaliere and Un Sergente and Francesco Basso as Il Barone. All essayed their roles in fine style, but without really impressing in their solo numbers. In the ensembles, however, they cooperated splendidly and certainly did impress. In fact, apart from Lisette’s final aria, the ensembles form the strongest musical parts of the work. It is here were the occasional little gem can be found. There is a lively quartet in the introductory scene for Lisette, Costanza, Il Marchese and Frontino, which really raised expectations; a duet “Parla Lisetta mia,” which allowed Lisetta and Pasquale to explore their relationship, and a terrific finale to bring the opera to a close, but it was the sextet, “Ahi, la testa” that stood out. It has an engaging melody and really races along. A structural form Rossini himself was to employ, ten years later, when writing his farses, also for Venice’s Teatro San Moise.

No Runaway Success

Despite the fact the production was blessed with some fine singing, and that the work contains some music of real quality, this cannot be classed as a runaway success. It is, after all, a work from Spontini’s early years, a piece of juvenalia, from which he was to go on to produce works of a much higher quality. Overall, “Le Metamorfosi di Pasquale” is musically unbalanced. There are too many periods in which the recitatives drag on, or in which the music struggles to rise above the commonplace. Moreover, on this occasion Morassi failed to provide the direction that was needed; if anything he added to the problems by too often distracting the audience from the singing. As a project aimed at producing a work thought lost for approximately 200 years, however, its value is indisputable.

The opera will be reprised in Jesi this year as part of the Pergloese – Spontini Festival, and is surely worth the price of the ticket for its novelty value alone.


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