Vicenza In Lirica 2019 Review: La Diavolessa
The Comedy Misfires And Undermines The ProductionBy Alan Neilson
(Photo: Beatrice Milocco)
Last year’s edition of Vicenza in Lirica met with notable success for the production of Antonio Lotti’s 1713 opera, “Polidoro.” In resurrecting this forgotten work, which had remained unperformed for over 300 years, conductor Francesco Erle and director Cesare Scarton, made a strong case for the opera. The music and staging combined to produce, despite the occasional acting excess, an elegant, refined and appealing work, which made a compelling argument for a further exploration of Lotti’s theatre works.
Of course, with such success comes the pressure of higher expectations, and it was with a production of Baldassare Galuppi’s “La Diavolessa,” in a new edition prepared by Erle and Franco Rossi, that this year’s Vicenza in Lirica attempted to build upon last year’s achievement.
Misjudging the Work
Written in 1755, and premiered at Venice’s Teatro S. Samuele, to a libretto by the great comic playwright, Carlo Goldoni, “La Diavolessa” helped establish the popularity of opera giocosa. Today, although it has not been entirely forgotten, it is rare indeed to find a performance, but a recording of the work does exist from 2004 on the CPO label.
The work incorporates the usual characteristics of opera buffa, with its mix of light and semi-serious themes, high born and low born characters, misunderstandings, mistaken identity, and musical styles. In simple terms it is a tale of a quick-witted couple, Dorina and Giannino, who plan to take advantage of Don Poppone’s greed, in order to swindle him out of some money. Along the way they are confused with an aristocratic couple, Count Nastri and his wife, who are themselves confused for a couple of Turks, with the usual comic consequences. Not having much luck, Dorina and Giannino resort to disguising themselves as devils from Hell to frighten Poppone into handing over the cash. They also administer a good beating to boot. Of course, all ends well, and everyone is reconciled. It is not a profound story by any means, and relies upon its comedy to move the drama along.
The director for this production was the experienced Bepi Morassi, who unfortunately appeared to misjudge certain aspects of the work. Whilst on the positive side, he allowed the drama to flow in an easy to follow manner, his handling of the comedy was heavy-handed in the extreme and entirely one-paced, generating only a very rare snigger from the audience; exaggerated gesturing can only take you so far.
His idea of having the singers interact with the orchestra can work on occasions, but not so in this case: Dorina produces the music for a Venetian air, and has the conductor come to the stage, who examines it with exaggerated puzzlement, before returning to his podium to continue from his score. It was laborious and slightly embarrassing as the audience watched in complete silence. The use of two servants with attitude, who were wont to do as they were told, managed only to distract from the main characters and added little. The fun simply was not present, it was all too predictable and failed to ignite.
Nor did Morassi deal effectively with the Teatro Olimpico’s imposing fixed set. Rather than working with it or overpowering it with an imaginative staging, he used industrial black and metal platforms, which he laid haphazardly about the stage, for the cast to use occasionally. They were ugly and totally out of sympathy with the classical set.
Of course, there were some well-constructed, imaginative scenes, such as when Giannino and Dorina appeared as devils, or rather as something more akin to astronauts, with suits adorned with flashing lights, but they were all too rare.
On the other hand, the 18th century costumes designed by Carlos Tieppo were excellent; they were colorful, and nicely tailored to enhance characterization, so that Poppone was dressed as a typical middle class burgher, with an obvious potbelly while the Count and Countess were elegantly dressed in light blue courtly attire. They were entirely in sympathy with Olimpico’s fixed set and, at least to a degree, helped offset the ugly platforms. Likewise the lighting, engineered by Andrea Grussu, was sensitively designed to define the dramatic circumstance.
It is rare to be able to watch a conductor up close and in detail, but in the Teatro Olimpico, with its raked seating, the orchestra and conductor are in full view, and watching Francesco Erle on the podium was a very interesting experience.
He is a conductor who uses his whole body. You can see the contours of the music in his movements, his arms rising and falling, his torso arching backwards, then forwards. It was possible to imagine the sound of the orchestra and his body as one.
He also elicited an excellent performance from the Orchestra Barocca del Festival Vicenza in Lirica, which produced at times a lively and, at times, elegant performance, which was always in tune with the dramatic intentions of the libretto.
The only downside was that Erle did not always respond to the singers’ occasional inability to project their voices with sufficient strength, and allowed them to be overpowered by the music.
The singers were a young and fairly inexperienced group, but there were many creditable performances.
La Contessa was played by the soprano, Ligia Ishitani Silva. She produced a solid, if occasionally understated singing performance. She has an upper register with a wonderful crystalline quality with piecing top notes, and an impressive coloratura, although there was mechanical edge to it which might not please all tastes, and she would certainly have benefited by singing with a little less constraint. Her acting was well-managed and successfully captured the aristocratic persona.
Arlene Miatto Albeldas cast in the role of Dorina gave a forceful, if occasionally uneven performance, with much to admire. Giving considerable attention to her vocal characterization, Albeldas, more so than any of the other singers, was attentive to the text and its articulation, emphasis, and intonation. She created a multi-layered portrayal which had real depth and a dramatic edge, although this was occasionally at the expense of vocal beauty. Her voice possesses an interesting timbre. She is confident and has a strong stage presence.
The tenor, Lucas Lopes Pereira, was parted as innkeeper and fixer Falco. In complete contrasts to Albeldas, there was only cursory attention given to characterization, both vocally and through his acting, with the result that his performance was fairly flat. On the positive side, Pereira’s voice has an attractive timbre and, although he also sang inconsistently, there was evidence of quality.
Stepan Polishchuk gave a solid, if one-paced, performance in the role of Don Poppone. His voice has an appealing texture, suitable for a buffo role, but at times he lacked the necessary variation in intonation to bring the comedic nature of the character fully alive. The impression was reinforced by his acting, which while initially amusing, was too one-dimensional, and relied on a few stock gestures. The fact that he was also the focus for much of the comedy, added to the shortcomings of the production to truly engage.
Soprano Lucia Conte was parted the role of the housemaid, Ghiandina, who is in love with Don Poppone. She produced a bright, vibrant performance, in which she was fully engaged with her character. Her voice sparkled with an energetic fizz, and her coloratura was a delight. She has a breezy stage presence, perfect for the role, and successfully attracted the sympathy of the audience.
Ultimately, however, two artist stood apart.
In the role of Il Conte Nastri was countertenor Ettore Agati whose singing was agile and fluid. He embellished his lines imaginatively, his phrasing was intelligently crafted, and his coloratura was attractively rendered. The musical highlight of the evening was his Act one aria, which was sung with grace, elegance and skill, and showed off his sweet sounding voice to good effect.
The second standout performance was that of baritone Omar Cepparolli in the role of Giannino. He possesses a distinctive, warm, full-bodied, singing voice, and a solid technique. He sang with confidence and clarity, articulated his words with precision, exhibited excellent vocal control throughout the evening, and was particularly adept in delivering purposeful recitatives, in what was an accomplished and well-focused performance.
In many ways, this production of “La Diavolessa” suffered from the high expectations which followed the success of last year’s production of “Polidoro.” Undeniably it was not as good, but it still had much to offer. Musically, Erle produced a engaging reading, which highlighted the work’s many qualities. There were notable contributions from a number of the singers and dramatically the work holds together well. Where the production failed was in its inability to inject any sense of fun into the proceedings, which for a work defined as a “commedia giocosa” was a serious problem.
Overall, Vicenza in Lirica must be applauded for its decision to present “La Diavolessa;” staging such a rare work is always a gamble, and in this case it partially paid off.