Scarlatti And Handel At Martina Franca

Festival della Valle d’Itria, Martina Franca, 28-29 July, 2018–The Festival della Valle d’Itria in Martina Franca, Puglia draws faithful audiences by sticking to a winning formula: by presenting obscure operatic titles and selecting casts on the basis of their vocal merits rather than their fame. This was the approach cultivated by artistic directors Rodolfo Celletti (1980-1993) and Sergio Segalini (1994-2009), and clearly it remains in full force today. I caught two rare operas at the start of my visit–Scarlatti’s Il trionfo dell’onore and Handel’s Rinaldo in a “pasticcio” version created by the composer’s contemporary Leonardo Leo–and both were gloriously sung.

And both premiered in Naples in 1718, which provided a fascinating snapshot in time. The musical styles adopted by both composers contrast markedly. Naples in the 18th century was clearly a hub of musical experimentation and creativity.

That creative spirit shone through in the performance I attended of Il trionfo dell’onore, Scarlatti’s only comic opera, which was presented in the gorgeous setting of the Masseria Palesi–an ornate baroque farmhouse/fort perched on a hill overlooking the prickly countryside of Puglia’s Itria Valley. The open-air courtyard may not be ideal for opera (the orchestra had to be placed on ground level to the side of the makeshift stage), but the Milanese theatre collective Eco di Fondo used the space intelligently in what was a highly entertaining production.

The experience begins with immersive theatre. We are asked to sign a memory book while taking our seats, before we hear via a pre-concert announcement that the masseria’s former owner, Riccardo Alberoni, has died (for sale signs positioned in the windows above lend believability to the charade). Thereafter, slickly choreographed pandemonium erupts, with the courtyard’s central clock spinning anticlockwise to suggest backwards time travel and singers emerging unexpectedly to deliver their parts from windows above. The sets evoke a 1950s Italian trattoria populated by women in bright frocks and gritty tobacco-chewing laborers. A young cast, many of whom hail from the festival’s opera academy, recount the complex love story with clarity and verve.

Riccardo, a Don Giovanni-like trouser role, was compellingly portrayed by Australian soprano Rachael Jane Birthisel, who cut a real stud in leather jacket and swept-back hair. Federica Livi and Erica Cortese brought bags of personality to the parts of Doralice and Leonora, both old flames of Riccardo, and the lyric soprano Suzana Nadejde gave a spunky reading of Rosina, the feisty maid here reimagined as a waitress. Countertenor Raffaele Pe as Erminio was the standout singer. He dispatched his coloratura commandingly, and provided a hilarious account of the overly-zealous klutz bent on saving Doralice from the amorous clutches of Riccardo.

But it was tenors Francesco Castoro and Nico Fanchini, as the sparring husband and wife Flaminio and Cornelia, that best lit up the stage. Their spicy exchanges in coarse Italian, set to music invested with gamboling rhythms reminiscent of Purcell’s drinking songs, were delightfully earthy. The Ensemble barocco del Festival della Valle d’Itria sounded scrappy at times, but conductor Jacopo Raffaele drew shapely playing and nicely emphasized the music’s irregular pulse. Scarlatti broke operatic ground by interspersing the comedy with moments of pathos, thus imbuing characters with greater complexity, and these melancholy passages were movingly performed.

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It is hard to imagine that Il trionfo was premiered in the same city and year as the version of Rinaldo I heard on the following evening. Handel’s score, characterized by its regal magnificence rather than anarchic ribaldry, sounds like it comes from different planet. That said, an element of bawdy fun does make it into the 1718 rewrite, via two comic spoken roles introduced by Leo to please local audiences. Key arias such as the challenging “Venti turbini” were cut along the way (perhaps the 45-year-old superstar castrato Nicolo Grimaldi, back in the title role following the 1711 London premiere, had by now lost some vocal agility). This new edition of the score, created by the young Sardinian musicologist Giovanni Andrea Sechi, is an interesting peculiarity, but it is not as good as the original.

But the big downfall of this production, which was performed in the open-air courtyard of the Palazzo Ducale, was the staging. Director Giorgio Sangati has devised a farfetched scheme in which librettist Giacomo Rossi’s warring Muslims and Christians are reimagined as opposing musical tribes of rockers and pop stars. Rinaldo becomes Freddie Mercury, Armida becomes Cher, and Almirena wears a cross on chain like Madonna in the video to “Like A Virgin”. The opening set–a large grey wall topped with illuminated letters spelling out “Gerusalemme”–is unattractive, while stacks of bird cages that move into view during the Act 1 garden scene are less bland but visually incongruous.

The director leaves singers to their own devices, and the single clear example of deliberate direction he provides, in which characters play air guitar to music for the battle scene, is too little too late. Fabio Luisi conducted with characteristic precision and attention to detail, but there was little sparkle, spontaneity, and fire in this reading. As a result, Handel’s most vivid operatic score sounded dull. La Scintilla, the baroque band based at Zurich Opera, is a top band, and indeed it gave a cultivated rendition of the score. But more abandon is required if this music is to convince.

Thankfully, the singers provided stronger performances. Teresa Iervolino, the rising baroque mezzo, was a powerful Rinaldo and sounded particularly impressive in her show-piece aria “Or la tromba”. Tenor Francisco Fernandez-Rueda has a light voice but was heroic as Goffredo, and the rich soprano of Loriana Castellano as Almirena sounded divine in “Augelletti, che cantate”. Best of all was Carmela Remigio’s Armida: the soprano gave a larger than life performance and raised pulses as she roared through her arias with tigrine intensity. The Neapolitans would have lapped it up.