Il Teatro dei Differenti in Barga has been dazzling in bringing to the public forgotten or neglected baroque operas. In the past, I have especially enjoyed the performances of Vivaldi’s operas under maestro Sardelli and last year’s Alessandro Scarlatti pastoral, “Equivoci nel Sembiante”, was a delight.
It was yet another brave effort to present the modern “premiere” of Giovanni Paolo Colonna’s (c. 1637-1695) oratorio “La caduta di Gierusalemme (sic)” at the theatre last week-end.
Who was Colonna, (for I’d never heard of him before)? Born in Bologna in the Papal States Colonna became organist and, eventually, choirmaster at the city’s San Petronio church. Most of his works are of an ecclesiastical nature (although he composed one opera, “Amilcare”) and include psalm-settings, masses, motets and at least two oratorios,” La Profezia d’Eliseo” and that Fall of Gerusalem. The Hapsburg emperor Leopold I thought highly enough of him to want to receive every one of his latest compositions.
“La caduta di Gierusalemme” was commissioned by Francis II, Duke of Este and first performed in Modena in 1688. It was highly topical since it echoes the Ottoman Turks’ efforts to conquer Western Europe which narrowly failed at the siege of Vienna only five years previously. What is also interesting for me is that the oratorio’s third performance was in Lucca, in 1695, in the church of Santa Maria Nera (Corteorlandini) – that incredibly beautiful baroque church mentioned in my earlier post on “Heavenly Harmonies”.
The oratorio has six characters. Two of the singers, tenor Alberto Allergrezza and soprano Manuela Ranno came from the cast of last year’s Scarlatti opera – the other were selected from over seventy of the region’s most promising singers in auditions held at Pisa.
Production was by Dagny Müller, with costumes by Santo Costanzo.
After the performance of the Colonna oratorio “La Caduta di Gierusalemme (sic)” I had mixed feeling about music, production and performance.
It’s interesting to note that Colonna died in the same year and month as the UK’s greatest musician, Henry Purcell. However, Colonna was graced with a longer life which was both a plus and a minus. The minus bit is that Colonna was unable to satisfyingly merge the older mannerist severity of style in which he had been brought up with the newer baroque grace in the way that Alessandro Scarlatti was so successfully able to do. However, I was surprised at the operatic nature of Colonna’s oratorio style and felt that this did contribute largely to the decision to stage it – certainly, several of the arias and a wonderful final lament were dramatic set-pieces.
A staged oratorio is a risky thing and only rarely comes off, as in the case of Peter Sellar’s Handel’s Theodora. The oratorio form was never seen in staged dramatic guise in Handel’s (or Colonna’s) time (it was represented mainly during Lent when operatic productions were banned) and Sellar’s setting transposition from ancient Rome to modern-day corporate America was equivocally successful. The same thing was attempted in “la caduta”, with arab terrorists and CIA agents, but the result, although courageous, seemed too static by half.
As regards the performance it was good, with a very fine Jeremiah, and brilliant continuo playing from both theorbo and harpsichord, but the acoustics were sometimes weird with a preponderance of the bass line over an often virtuosistic violin part. This was because the orchestra pit was too boxed in, in my opinion. My ears had never had this problem in previous performances at this theatre – more violins needed?
To sum up: a semi-rewarding evening requiring concentrated listening attention to an unknown work, an unfamiliar musical style, and a minimalist production. Whether I was tired or not, I had to keep pinching myself to stay awake – an especially important state to be in if you are in full public view from a first-level box…
This personal reaction was largely shared by the audience who certainly did not fill the theatre to full capacity and whose applause reflected a success d’estime.
(PS The story is roughly similar to Verdi’s patriotic opera, Nabucco).