Vicenza in Lirica Review 2018: Polidoro

Antonio Lotti’s Long-Lost Work Gets Moving Rendition

By Alan Neilson

Although very few people are now aware of the fact, Antonio Lotti, during his lifetime, was one of Venice’s most highly regarded opera composers. Today he has largely been forgotten, along with his operas and other compositions, and is now known only to the dedicated followers of the Venetian tradition. Born in 1667, Lotti established himself in both his home city and in the Saxon court in Dresden, writing around 30 operas between the years of 1692 and 1719, as well as a variety of other forms, including masses, cantatas, madrigals and instrumental music. Most of his Venetian operas were composed for the theatres of S. Cassiano (Venice’s first public opera house) and S. Giovanni Grisostomo (now the Teatro Malibran) for the city’s carnival. Dying in 1740, Lotti’s operas disappeared from the stage, although his influence can be found in the work of other composers, including Handel, in which it has been argued that “borrowings” from Lotti’s work can be discerned. Fortunately, owing to the innovative programming of the festival “Vicenza in Lirica,” we have been provided with the opportunity of seeing a performance of “Polidoro,” one of Lotti’s few surviving opera scores, which has remained unperformed for over 300 years.

Written in 1714, “Polidoro,” like most operas of the period has a convoluted narrative. Based on a simple Greek myth, Lotti’s and his librettist, Agostino Piovene, were forced to alter its ending to meet 18th century sensibilities. Following the fall of Troy, Iliona swaps the identities of Polidoro, her brother, and Deifilo, her son in order to protect the royal bloodline. Both grow up unaware of their real identities. Eventually a Greek envoy, Pirro, arrives and demands that Polidoro is put to death, in order to put an end to the Trojan royal family. Although the unprincipled ruler, Polinestore, agrees, Deifilo (the real Polidoro) wants to swap places with Polidoro (the real Deifilo), and both show themselves willing to die for each other. Such sacrifices, however, prove unnecessary as their true identities are revealed, and Polidoro ascends to the throne, and punishes Polinestore. The virtue of true and enduring friendship is rewarded, good governance triumphs, and the royal bloodline is preserved.

Diverging Styles

As usual the director of any opera at the Teatro Olimpico must decide on how to accommodate the magnificent fixed scenery, which can be a cause of major problems; how can it be integrated into the performance without it detracting or overpowering the drama? The director, Cesare Scarton, chose the very sensible option of woking with it, by fully incorporating its splendid edifice into the production; there was no attempt to alter it appearance through lighting or to detract from its presence through the use of eye-catching props. In fact, he decided on a very simple, yet effective approach, which was to perform the opera on a bare stage, and to use the theatre’s 16th century architecture and the Classical design of the stage as an ornate frame for the performance. There was no added scenery and no props, instead Scarton relied on sumptuous 18th century costume designs and the singers’ acting skills to carry the drama.

The costume designer, Giampaolo Tirelli, created a flamboyant array of colorful 18th costumes, which sat nicely alongside the 16th century set. The designs, based on sketches by Anton Maria Zanetti (1680 – 1767), were aimed at recreating the wonder and opulence of the baroque stage, with jewels, drapes, feathers, outrageous wigs, and the voluminous use of majestic fabrics. They performed their role so successfully that they gripped the audience’s attention to the extent that any props would have completely ruined the staging.

Scarton’s direction, however, was not as successful, although it was by no means a failure. The problem was that it did not possess a consistent approach, despite the fact that he expressly set out to create exactly that, by focusing on the sensitivities and emotions expressed by each character. Unfortunately, each character appeared to be free to express themselves in their own particular style; for example at one extreme there was Davide Giangregorio as Polinestore, whose acting, at times, verged on the excessive and gave vent to his emotions in no uncertain terms, even throwing himself onto the floor, whilst both Danilo Pastore and Federico Fiorio were more reserved, at times almost static, relying almost completely on the voice to express their emotional state. Other characters operated within these two extremes. Certainly, the acting and gestures were not in line with what is known of the baroque traditions, which Scarton was so keen to create. Nevertheless, the presentation was engaging and did enough to hold the audience’s attention, and it was also largely successful in characterizing the emotions of the characters, albeit in a variety of styles.

Countertenor Revelations

It was on the musical side that “Polidoro” proved to be such a revelation. This is a strongly constructed work consisting of a variety of musical forms, including arias, duets and choruses. The Orchestra Barocca Vicenza in Lirica under the direction of Francesco Erle, played with a refined elegance, reflecting the onstage drama, yet at the same time he elicited a wonderful degree of expressivity, revealing the score’s varied textures and brought out its delightful contrasts. His ability to marry the orchestra and singers into neatly integrated whole was exemplary.

In the lead role of Polidoro was the countertenor, Federico Fiorio. He has a very distinctive stage personality; he appeared to glide through the performance, as if breathing a more refined air, sensitive to, but remaining aloof to any disturbances. His elegantly crafted facial mannerisms were subtly etched, his physical presence almost statuesque. Yet, it all worked wonderfully well, and he convinced in the part. Vocally, Fiorio was no less persuasive, the crystal clarity and purity of his voice complemented his stage personality perfectly. If somewhat monochromatic in parts, it was no less persuasive. Fiorio displayed a wonderful degree of vocal versatility, his short and long coloraturas were delicately fashioned, his lines elaborately and sensitively ornamented, but everything was always subservient to the beauty of his voice.

Fiorio was accompanied by two more countertenors; Danilo Pastore playing the role of Deifilo, and Luca Parolin as Pirro. Both turned in excellent performances. Pastore has a sweet sounding voice with strong, secure top, and produced an elegant reading of the role. The vocal lines were nicely ornamented and he showed skill in crafting pleasing coloraturas. He was, however, able to add an expressivity to the voice that helped bring a sharper definition to the character, which was particularly noticeable in his splendidly delivered recitatives. Parolin in contrast has a more colorful voice. He gave careful consideration to his dynamic and tonal inflections, and also produced a convincing portrayal of his character.

If Davide Giangregorio in the role of Polinestore tended to exaggerate the acting side of his performance, he was far more considerate of the vocal subtleties required. He possesses a strong, richly coloured bass, which he used with a great deal of thought to define the character. His aria, “Eccole orribile,” was powerfully delivered and excellently articulated, and captured wonderfully his self-pitying anger, which brought the third act to a close.

Strong Women

The mezzo soprano, Anna Bessi, played the role of Iliona, who alone is privy to the true identities of Polidoro and Deifilo, and must choose whether to say nothing and allow her son to be killed or speak out and allow the Trojan bloodline to come to an end. It is a pivotal role, and one in which Bessi performed successfully, perfectly capturing the anxiety by which she is completely overwhelmed. She gave a strident performance, so that even her coloratura had a hard edge to it. It was certainly a successful portrayal, although one which was in part at the expense of vocal beauty.

The role of Andromaca was played by the mezzo-soprano, Maria Elena Pepi. In love with Deifilo, she like Iliona, is suffering from considerable amounts of anxiety, but Pepi displayed a more refined understated approach, but to no lesser effect. She has a colourful pallet, which she employed with intelligence and versatility. Recitatives were well-delivered, their meaning clearly expressed.

The role of Darete is not the most interesting, but Patrizio la Placa made a very good impression. He sang in a clear, forceful and controlled manner, displaying a pleasing timbre, an ability to shape the character through dynamic and accented intonations.

Overall, Vicenza in Lirica’s performance of “Polidoro” came as quite a surprise, not simply because it has remained unperformed for over 300 years, but because its composer, Antonio Lotti, is himself little more than a footnote in the history of opera. Expectations were, therefore, not exactly high, yet what was presented was a beautiful work, which successfully explored certain sensibilities of the human condition. The music displayed quality, and the musical forms a high degree of fluidity. Moreover, it was underpinned by a pleasing performance from the Orchestra Barocca Vicenza in Lirica, and accompanied by a committed cast who sang to high standard, in a colurful engaging staging which was pleasing on the eye. It made a compelling case for both Lotti and his opera “Polidoro.”


ReviewsStage Reviews