Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House
Clelia – Hélène Le Corre
Orazio – Mary-Ellen Nesi
Tarquinio – Irini Karaianni
Porsenna – Vassilis Kavayas
Larissa – Lita Messini
Mannio – Artemis Bogri
Nigel Lowery (director, set designs)
Paris Mexis (costumes)
George Tellos (lighting)
City of London Sinfonia
Giuseppe Sigismondi di Risio (conductor)
Metastasio and Gluck are both crucial musico-historical figures whom we tend to hear about more than we hear. And when opera houses, usually through gritted teeth, deign to present us with Gluck’s operas – works that matter to all those who take opera seriously as musical drama – they will almost exclusively be his ‘reform operas’. Fair enough, up to a point, for it was in that extraordinary series of works that Gluck and his librettists – it was Ranieri de’ Calzabigi who penned the celebrated preface to Alceste – truly reinstated dignity and purpose lost somewhere along the road from Monteverdi to the eighteenth century. One of the principal villains in the piece is, of course, Pietro Metastasio, Caesarian court poet in Vienna, whose codification of the principles of opera seria is held by many to represent everything that is worst about pre-reform opera. Except, of course, that Gluck set Metastasio; so indeed would Mozart. (They both set not only Il re pastore but La clemenza di Tito, even if Mozart’s setting of the latter would be in a heavily revised version.) That is where Il trionfo di Clelia comes in: one of those earlier Gluck works we never find ourselves afforded the opportunity to hear.
And yet, the need for refinement of preconceptions does not stop there, for whilst early Gluck goes unheard, Metastasio stands occasionally heard and frequently misunderstood. He certainly did not see himself, nor should we, as a server of non-dramatic entertainments; rather, very much in the line of Plato and Horace, he wished to present ‘pleasurable instruction,’ and it was the moral purpose of his art that remained most important to him. It is not at all clear that the excesses of opera seria against which Gluck and Calzabigi would protest should be lain at his door, as opposed to that of certain composers. Indeed, ironically, it would appear that the staging of this work was far more ‘Baroque’ than the libretto, so much so that, following its first performances in Bologna in 1763, other European theatres found themselves unable to put it on, owing to the complexity of stagecraft required. This was not, then, quite the ‘noble simplicity and quite grandeur’ (edle Einfalt und stille Grösse) of which Johann Joachim Winckelmann would soon write, and which would become a hallmark, however misleading, of our understanding of Gluckian opera as well as Hellenic sculpture. (The Preface to Alceste concludes with a paean to ‘belle simplicité’.)
The first composer to set Metastasio’s text, Il trionfo di Clelia, had been Johann Adolph Hasse in 1762, celebrating the confinement – those, for better or worse, were the days – of Isabella, consort to the Archduke Joseph, soon to be Holy Roman Emperor and co-regent of the Habsburg Monarchy with his mother, Maria Theresa. Gluck’s setting would be the next, to mark the opening of Bologna’s Teatro Comunale. Other renowned composers such as Josef Mysliceček and Niccolò Jommelli would follow suit (the latter in a somewhat revised version), though this late Metastasian text would never acquire the popularity of many of the poet’s libretti. (Artaserse received not far short of ninety settings.) Fashions were changing; indeed, it was not even that Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice lay around the corner; that celebrated azione teatrale (1762) actually preceded Il trionfo. Yet, for all the necessary deconstruction we might conduct of the qualitative leap between ‘reform’ and ‘pre-reform’ operas, we cannot and should not jettison the musico-historical baby with the coloratura bathwater. Reactions, moreover, were mixed, and counsel against easy reductionism. Perhaps put out by a commission that warned him against undue innovation – this was, after all already the composer of Orfeo – Gluck voiced dissatisfied with the performance of the orchestra, comparing it unfavourably, despite seventeen rehearsals, to the precision and ensemble to which he had been accustomed in Vienna. Yet, despite the failure to be staged elsewhere, twenty-eight performances, many of which sold out, were mounted in Bologna. The Linbury’s performances of this first production by a new consortium, ‘Tutti all’Opera!’, have sold out too, though they amount, less ambitiously, to a mere brace.
Before passing to the music and to the performance, it might be worth saying something about the plot, given that it will most likely be unfamiliar to many readers. The action opens during the truce following the siege of Rome conducted by the Etruscan king, Porsenna (the Italian form for ‘Porsena’), who is in league with the villainous Tarquinio (Tarquinius), who in turn would be restored to the Roman throne. One of the hostages granted by the Romans to Porsenna as a sign of good faith is Clelia (Cloelia), who is betrothed to Orazio (Horatius), the Roman Ambassador. Clelia refuses Tarquinio’s advances, disdaining a throne that is not his to give and pointing out that he is in any case betrothed to Larissa, daughter of Porsenna. Following various confusions and Cloelia’s escape, Tarquinio’s treachery is shown not only to have extended to would-be kidnap of the object of his obsessive love, but to have been political too, if ultimately to no avail; for, impressed by the virtue of Clelia and Orazio and shocked by the duplicity of his erstwhile ally, Porsenna ultimately acts as Roman liberator. Those are the bare bones, though it is not an especially complicated affair: again, much of what is alleged concerning Metastasio seems to emanate from those ignorant of him. (On this occasion, comprehension was not aided by sometimes bizarre surtitles, whose mangled and/or inappropriate language suggested that cardinal sin of translation, use of a non-native-speaker. References to characters ‘exposing’ themselves caused apparently unintentional hilarity.)
I have dwelled on the history, first because it is, I think, important, but second because Nigel Lowery’s production proves such an outright travesty. It would be tedious beyond words, almost as tedious as Lowery’s production, to list everything that was wrong with it, but some explanation needs to be given. Were you to wish to present a compendium of directorial clichés, there would be no better place to come. Following the Overture, there is a considerable musical pause, in which Clelia walks around, the director seemingly more attuned to the sound of her heels than to Gluck’s score. She wears a raincoat and carries – yes, you have guessed it – a suitcase. Before long, we see Tarquinius place a pair of dark glasses – an emblem of deceit, I suppose – upon Porsenna. The setting is vaguely and terribly unsurprisingly something akin to Fascist Italy. Armbands and uniforms remind us of that. What might have been a genuinely interesting prospect, deconstructing the claims to virtue of Clelia and Orazio, is only hinted at. Perhaps I was reading too much into a feeble attempt at a book-burning; maybe it was just there because Lowery has seen such things in other productions, genuinely radical or otherwise. Orazio must choose between love for Clelia and devotion to Rome – AMOR/ROMA, the fulcrum of Metastasian drama – and therefore has to wheel a Cross around the stage for a while. Never mind the chronology, feel the subtle, highly appropriate symbolism. Larissa is presented as an overgrown schoolgirl, who carries a doll around her. At some point, Tarquinio starts to take off Porsenna’s clothes, but does not get very far, and everyone forgets all about it. Someone else – I cannot remember who – takes off a few clothes from someone else – I cannot remember whom – and so forth, though there is not the slightest hint of eroticism. Towards the end, when war is once again the order of the day, Porsenna turns far too nasty and injects someone with a syringe, before ripping the poor person’s heart out. I think, by the look of the uniform, that that unfortunate was a generic Roman; who knows? As for the video projections depicting war itself, they veer between the offensively cartoon-like and the most tired of rehashing. I could go on and on about what we see in the production, but what do we not see? The slightest glimmer of sympathy with or even interest in the work, the slightest hint that the score might be of any importance whatsoever; above all, we witness not the slightest glimmer of any real idea. This, for all its pretension, is as anti- or at least as non-intellectual as crowd-pleasing Zeffirelli. Indeed, not unlike the monster of the Met, all we have is a few designs, which, even when accomplished – credit must certainly be granted to Paul Mexis’s costumes in themselves – tend very strongly to resemble anything else we have ever seen from Lowery, strongly suggesting that he would have been better remaining a designer himself. Gluck and Metastasio deserved far better than a bad parody of an off-night at the Komische Oper, Berlin. (And I speak as an admirer of a good number of productions from that house.) The production was first seen in Athens earlier this year. A recording (link below) was made for MDG – I have not heard it – but the lack of a DVD must surely be accounted a blessing.
The City of London Sinfonia, does not, blessedly, play on ‘period’ instruments, so we were spared the whining strings and so forth one must endure on Youtube extracts from those Athens performances – and presumably on the CD recording too. That said, whilst there was, occasional roughness aside, nothing especially wrong with the CLS performance, it often tended towards the anonymous. The orchestra was really too small; a greater body of strings than 18.104.22.168.1 would certainly have been advisable, especially in the unfriendly acoustic of the Linbury. Something is certainly awry when the harpsichord, an unpleasant sounding version even of its kind, drowns out the orchestra. There was, however, some fine wind playing to enjoy.
Giuseppe Sigismondi de Risio’s conducting tended a little too much at times towards alleged ‘period style’ – in reality, of course, nothing of the sort – but not everything was too rushed or too mannered, and the conductor had limited success in persuading the strings to adopt the pinched style of which he seemed to be fond. Unconvincing ritardandi, however, suggested that he was better playing it straight; the performance benefited when he did. Not that there is anything wrong with fluctuations of tempi in Gluck: Furtwängler’s masterly Orfeo from La Scala would readily confute such a claim. But Furtwängler, it need hardly be added, is never arbitrary. Still, having to cooperate with such a staging may well have taken its toll, and Gluck is not an easy composer to conduct. Indeed, of present-day interpreters – alas, there are not so many – I can only think of Riccardo Muti as a shining example.
As if to revert to stereotypes of opera seria, there was more to enjoy in the singing. Pick of the bunch was Mary-Ellen Nesi's Orazio, her third-act aria a show-stopper convincing one that ‘pre-reform’ – well, just about – vocal display could actually, and despite the staging, have dramatic import. Her mezzo exhibits enviable colour and precision, as does Irini Karaianni’s (Tarquinio), the latter’s lower register especially expressive. Hélène Le Corre proved at times a little colourless as Clelia, though she handled her coloratura well and her smallish voice is not unattractive. Lita Messini was a late substitute as Larissa, so her intonational problems may well be ascribed to that. Whether her strangely gawky schoolgirl act betokened good acting ability, following the director’s instructions, or a lack thereof, must for the moment remain a matter of speculation. Artemis Bogri had a decent showing as Mannio, Prince of Vejenti, Larissa’s lover. However, the tenor, Vassilis Kavayas (Porsenna) seemed strained by a good number of the score’s demands.
The director did not appear for a curtain-call, whether at 9.20, the time at which the website had billed the performance as ending, or at 10.15, when it did.