Wexford Festival Opera 2019 Review: Dorilla In Tempe
A Vivaldi Opera With Much To Admire, But Production Lacks ConsistencyBy Alan Neilson
(Photo: Clive Barda)
There is certainly something of a Vivaldi revival going on in the opera world at the moment. In less than seven days, I managed to catch Irish National Opera’s splendid presentation of “Griselda,” the first ever production of a Vivaldi opera in Ireland, followed by Wexford Festival Opera’s production of “Dorilla in Tempe.”
They employed two very different, but equally valid approaches; whereas Tom Creed’s direction of “Griselda” emphasized the dramatic side of the work, updating to the present day and attempting to uncover the psychological states of the characters, Fabio Ceresa’s direction of “Dorilla in Tempo” appeared to lean towards an historically informed performance set in Ancient Greece in which the characters idealized their emotions. The word “appeared” is used because Ceresa’s production struggled to remain true to either a consistent staging aesthetic or dramatic emphasis, even if the overall thrust was towards a traditional baroque representation, with the result that one was left disorientated and slightly frustrated.
The tone for the performance was established by the set designs of Massimo Checchetto and the costuming of Giuseppe Palella. Both embraced the baroque aesthetic with elegant, colorful and sumptuous designs. The main set was a white symmetrical antique façade, with stairs running up each side onto a raised area, adorned by classical statues. Flowers, shrubs and trees also played a role, as they were used for decoration and changed with the colors of the seasons; it was not only a nod to the opening sinfonia which contained an excerpt from the composer’s “Four Seasons,” but also created a colorful backdrop, aided in no small part by the excellent lighting designs of Simon Corder.
The seasons also provided a colorful theme which bound the scenes together, while also emphasizing its genre as a pastorale. The set was also functional in that it allowed for easy entrances and exits from the sides, but also from a central door below the raised area. The nymphs, shepherds and dancers were frequently distributed equally on the two staircases, reinforcing the sense of balance and harmony.
The costumes were visually dazzling. Nymphs and shepherd’s were dressed in white classically-inspired clothing, whilst the principals were presented in 18th century dress, with Admeto and Eudamia’s blue, long flowing robes standing out against the cooler, but attractive coloring of the rest of the cast. Dorilla’s dress was suitably bedecked with flowers during the spring. The costumes for the dancers during autumn were particularly eye-catching: dressed in russet brown with animal masks with bare branches rising from the top of their skulls.
Mattia Agatiello’s choreography was wonderfully crafted, in which balance and elegance played a central role. Particular attention was given to gestures so that a character or the chorus would often adopt ornate postures.
Baroque opera was known for its love of spectacle, and although Ceresa understandably stopped short of the baroque excesses, he certainly brought imagination to his staging which contained a huge python that danced its way around the set. There was also a forest which grew on the stage and a scene in which Eudamia’s skirt opens to allow for what appeared to be a performance of a small play in which Filinda appears.
The work culminates with a full stage, the cast symmetrically positioned, with all eyes on Apollo as he rises into the sky, bathed in a golden light. It all worked brilliantly; it was visually pleasing, dramatically strong with a sharply defined aesthetic.
At least it would have been had Cesera stopped at this point. But, he decided to go further.
The opera is defined as a “melodramma eroica pastorale.” In other words, it is a mixture of pastoral and heroic elements, in which Apollo disguised as Nomio falls in love with Dorilla, the daughter of Admeto, King of Thessaly. Unfortunately, she loves a shepherd called Elmiro. Admeto’s kingdom, however, is being threatened by a serpent, called Pitone, which can only be saved if he sacrifices his daughter Dorilla, to which he agrees. Nomio comes to her rescue and kills the serpent, then claims Dorilla as his reward. However, she wants none of it and manages to escape with Elmiro. Eventually they are caught and Elmiro is sentenced to death, at which point Nomio reveals himself as Apollo, and the pair are reunited. There is a subplot centered around Eudamia who also loves Elmiro, who in turn is loved by Filindo.
Unless the idea is to deconstruct the entire work to expose its absurdities through mockery, there is little scope, if any, for the introduction of comedy, and certainly not into a production in which the focus is so clearly upon recreating the baroque aesthetic.
Yet, this is exactly what Cesera decided to do, and it did not work. It was not funny at all and it undermined the heroic element and destroyed the theatrical cohesion. A couple of examples will suffice to illustrate the pointlessness of his ideas: during the summer season, the shepherds are lounging about in dark sunglasses looking cool; during Filinda’s vengeance aria in Act two, a bird on a piece of string on the end of a stick is waved above the audience while Filinda tries to shoot at it with a rifle. I suppose the audience was expected to duck in case they are shot. All this added absolutely nothing; its effect was entirely negative.
Moreover, Cesera had no worries about introducing incongruous items such as sunglasses and rifles into Antiquity, even going so far as to introduce a group of Chinese servants, in Chinese dress, solely so the serpent could be presented as a dragon dance. Again all this is fine, if it is in step with a defining aesthetic, but it wasn’t. It promised so much and at times dazzled, yet its contradictory approaches left one confused and disappointed.
Mirroring the Inconsistent Staging
The musical side mirrored the staging. It too was inconsistent and lacked an overarching approach, although all the individual parts, in themselves, were of a good quality.
The question rotates around whether to create a psychological portrait of the characters, in which the singers internalize the emotions and then give vent to their real pain, love or fear, or whether to present an idealized representation of the emotion, as was considered good practice during the baroque period. Either approach can be employed successfully, but a mixed approach risks confusion and disaster.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what was on offer.
On the one hand, there was the excellent mezzo-soprano Veronique Valdés, who gave a polished rendition as Apollo/Nomio, in which she idealized the emotions. Her singing was refined and elegant with meaning carried through her versatile and imaginative ornamentation, carefully placed accents and dynamic shadings. Everything was precise and delicate. It was also beautifully rendered, and complemented the the decorative aspects of the set.
Maybe, this is what would be expected from a god, even one with very human passions, but this was the approach employed by most of the singers. Mezzo-soprano José Lo Monaco, playing the very human Elmiro, also gave idealized expression of his emotions in which she created a passionate reading built upon her nicely crafted phrasing full of colorful and dynamic contrasts. Her voice displayed an attractive timbre, agility, and a lively coloratura.
Mezzo-soprano Rosa Bova produced a fiery and energetic Filando, in an expressive reading of the part. Her vengeance aria, “Non vo’ che un infedele” allowed her to show off her agile and colorful voice. Her enthusiasm was notable, and allowed her to engage confidently with the part.
The only male in the cast was baritone Marco Bussi, parted as Admeto, who sported a very impressive purple and blue wig. He has a strong stage presence and produced some fine acting. His singing was passionate, but not overly so, allowing for a well-tempered presentation in which he displayed vocal subtlety, clear articulation and skill in developing characterization.
Eudamia was played by mezzo-soprano, Laura Margaret Smith. She created a mixed impression; whilst singing with agility, intelligence, always attentive to detail, and possessing a pleasing coloratura, her interpretation was compromised by weak projection. She was repeatedly overpowered by the orchestra or simply faded into the background.
Unlike the rest of the cast, mezzo-soprano Manuela Custer produced a full-blooded portrayal, in which she dragged up the emotions from deep within herself. It was undeniably an expressively powerful showcase. The problem was that it sat uncomfortably alongside the more idealized emoting of the other singers. Hers was not a delicate, refined reading, but rather one crafted with heavy brushstroke brimming with melodrama. Her embellishments were heavy in coloring, and strongly accented. Her emotions were not tightly focused, but were instead allowed to rage. A larger problem, however, was that she was the the leading character, and her different approach to the other singers led to a degree of disconnection.
The conductor was baroque specialist Andrea Marchiol, who produced a lively reading from the Wexford Festival Opera Orchestra, which included a number of period instruments for the production. However, the orchestra is not a specialist baroque orchestra, and although the ensemble’s playing was spirited, it lacked the rhythmic attack and sharpness one associates with Vivaldi. The orchestral sound was also too dense.
Although the production was ultimately a little disappointing, there was still much to admire, and on the whole, the performance provided further evidence of Vivaldi’s worth as a composer of opera. It should ultimately help in ensuring that the exploration of his stage works will continue.