Niccolò Jommelli - Il Vologeso (Berenice, Queen of Armenia)
Oper Stuttgart, 2015
Gabriele Ferro, Jossi Wieler, Sergio Morabito, Sebastian Kohlhepp, Sophie Marilley, Ana Durlovski, Helene Schneiderman, Catriona Smith, Igor Durlovski
ARTE Concert - July 2015
You'd be forgiven for thinking you've seen this one before, but according to the Stuttgart Opera web site, the last performance of Jommelli's Il Vologeso was in Lisbon in 1769. Given that, you might think that it looks like it has been written from a Pietro Metastasio libretto and maybe you've heard a setting of the work by another composer, but the libretto was written by Guido Eustachio Luccarelli and other settings of the work are even more obscure than Jommelli's version. There's no question however that Il Vologeso follows a familiar opera seria structure and themes, but as seen in Stuttgart's delightful production, it is still something of a marvel and has undoubted qualities of its own.
The plot, the characters and the way they behave is however very familiar, so it almost seems superfluous to describe the plot, but it's worth it since a synopsis is hard to find elsewhere and it is instructive to note where the differences in Jommelli's treatment lie. There's always a backstory before such an opera starts and in the case of Il Vologeso, we're in Parthia just after it has been conquered by Lucius Verus, so that puts it at 166 AD, and the Parthian king Vologases (Il Vologeso) is believed to have been killed in combat. Berenice the Queen of Armenia and fiancée of Vologases is being held prisoner by Lucius Verus, who is in love with her.
As the opera opens, Berenice, believing that the King of Partha is dead, is readying herself to submit to the rule and the advances of the conqueror, Lucius. Vologases however is not dead and disguised as a servant he attempts to poison the Roman emperor. When Berenice attempts to drink the poison, Vologases has to admit to the plot and for his efforts is condemned to be thrown to the lions in the celebratory games. His true identity however is not uncovered, but Berenice sees something in his manner that gives her hope that Vologases might still be alive and gives her cause to hesitate (and sing long arias about her predicament) over whether to submit to the attentions of Lucius.
Lucius is forced to reconsider his plans as well when his financée, Lucilla arrives unexpectedly in Parthia. Lucilla is the sister of Marcus Aurelius, the joint-emperor of Rome, and Rome is suspicious of what Lucius Verus is up to in Parthia. Just to complicate matters further in the familiar love triangle scenario, Aniceto, Lucius's aide, is actually in love with Lucilla as well. As the various characters mull over their difficult positions in true opera seria fashion, the games commence and the game commences. When Berenice finds herself in danger of being mauled by one of the lions, Lucius lends his sword to the unidentified condemned man and in the process reveals his feelings for Berenice not only to Vologases, but to an aghast Lucilla as well.
If a lot of this sounds like standard Baroque opera material (there's even a 'throw him to the lions' scene in Pergolesi's La Salustia), the work is only as good as how the rough gem stone is cut and polished. In the case of Il Vologeso Jommelli proves to be a craftsman whose work here is given a sympathetic setting by the production team of Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, and polished to near perfection by Gabriele Ferro and a fine cast. The production, despite the initially dark post-war setting, is bright, matching the light rhythms and clarity of the music. There's nothing heavy here; all the emotions are in full display - as you would expect from an opera seria - but the difference here is that all of them are motivated by love.
You could argue that this is the case with most opera seria - think of what motivates all the extreme sentiments even in the power struggles of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito (now there's a composer who knows the infinite workings and expression of the human heart). In the case of Jommelli's bright and vivid score for Il Vologeso, it's much easier to feel sympathy for the predicament of all the characters, since the music makes it clear that they are ruled by their hearts. That's not to say that Jommelli's writing lacks variety of mood or expression. It's elegant, gentle, passionate, aching, furious, pained - every expression associated with their love for another, not just some effort to assert power or gain favour.
At least, it's given that expression in the performance of the ensemble of Staatsorchester Stuttgart musicians, who play with wonderful rhythm and precision, making the beauty of the music and its complex expression in relation to the drama clearly evident. It helps that there is an orchestral flow maintained that is not broken up by long sections of recitativo secco, but credit should also be given to the directors Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito (and unfortunately their contribution is usually overlooked or dismissed) who manage to keep a work like this visually and dramatically engaging.
Anna Viebrock's stage and costume designs present a semi-classical tableau (some cardboard figures from paintings are even brought on in the second half of the work) of pillars and ruins, but the background is slightly more modern, looking like a modern war-torn city in Balkans or the Ukraine. There is a slight effort in this to connect the modern world to the ancient story, the characters initially in modern casual tracksuits, dressing up to become the figures of Lucius, Vologases and Berenice, but for the main part of the drama - right up to the final moments when the shell-shocked refugees return to reality - it's played mainly period without clever references or anachronisms.
The performers all sing and play out the intense drama with single-minded involvement for the nature and predicaments of their characters, ensuring that there is not one weak element. Dramatically little new happens in the second half of the work - there's a lot more to-and-fro wavering, appeals and rejections - to such an extent that there seems no way out of it. Their problems seem insurmountable, but their love drives them on, and love does eventually conquer all. Ana Durlovski's wonderfully rounded and intense Berenice has the most extreme anguish and rage as her beloved Vologases dies, returns, is executed, is reprieved. Unable to face yet another horror, she seems to submit to taking poison but her fate - returning to the real world - seems to be left open in this production.
Links: ARTE Concert, Oper Stuttgart