Innsbruck Festival of Early Music, 2018
Alessandro De Marchi, Jürgen Flimm, Viktorija Miškūnaitė, Katrin Wundsam, Emilie Renard, Carlo Vincenzo Allemano, Diego Godoy, Pietro Di Bianco
Naxos - Blu-ray
The idea of a 19th century composer working with a very old text by Pietro Metastasio, set by many baroque composers is an intriguing one. Verdi was keen put some distance between the indulgences of a bel canto era which was still indebted to its 18th century past, beyond even Rossini, the most progressive composer of that era. Somewhere in there however, largely overlooked and unjustly neglected, is Saverio Mercadante, and yet it is in Mercadante, and particularly in a work like Didone Abbandonata, that you can definitely see the building of the bridge that Verdi was later able to cross to take Italian opera forward.
That connection might be more evident in a later work like Il Bravo, seen recently at Wexford Festival Opera (one of the few champions of Mercadante in the opera world), but Didone Abbandonata from 1823 opens up a whole new way of viewing Mercadante's place in Italian opera. Taken up by the Innsbruck Festival of Early Music, with a care towards historically-informed period instruments and performance - which means tuning down from the 20th century standard - this production aims to give the work an authenticity of sound that has done much in the past to present Handel and other baroque works in a new light.
So to return to that initial thought - how would early 19th century opera working with a Metastasio libretto sound? Well in fairness it sounds a lot like Donizetti; constrained to a certain extent by a structure dictated by Metastasio's libretto towards a standard cavatina, aria and recitative arrangement. Mercadante never lets that get in the way of creativity however, the libretto reworked by Andrea Leone Tottola, finding lovely settings for cavatinas, duets, trios and choruses that place his own stamp on the work. That character is more evident here since the period instruments unquestionably give much more prominence and space for the voice to be more expressive.
In Didone Abbandonata, the focus in the cavatinas and duets is on expression rather than ornamentation and there's rather unusually only one brief aria in the whole first half of the opera and it's Araspe, a secondary character, who sings it. In Act II likewise the few brief arias are little more than minor adornments. It's perhaps a bit much however to expect Mercadante to provide a profound examination of human feelings and situations when tied to 18th century operatic mannerisms, improbable twists and lack of naturalism in situations, but Mercadante dispenses with the longeurs of the da capo and drives everything towards showpiece rondos and the finales at the end of each of the two acts.
Mercadante does his bit to create that essential tragedy, but there remains the challenge of finding a suitable stage representation that suits the subject and the musical treatment. Director Jürgen Flimm attempts a kind of half-way house between early 18th century in the military costumes and modern in some of the props - a cement mixer, a fridge, guns, bullet-proof vests - on a rotating stage with a concrete bunker at one corner. There's little that points to the ancient legend, Aeneas even appearing to be preparing for his departure in a canoe with some travelling cases, but yet there is a classical feel to the situation, not striving for naturalism or realism as much as attuning the drama to the varied tones of the work that Mercadante applies.
Some of this is consequently of doubtful character - Flimm for example has Iarbas carry out his sacking of Carthage like he's playing a jazz-hands music-hall song and dance routine - but yet, the desired impact is very definitely achieved. Iarbas - very well sung by Carlo Vincenzo Allemano, even if the dancing around leaves him a little breathless - does have a greater role to play in this version of Virgil's Aeneid. Flimm's depiction of the wholesale slaughter enacted by Iarbas rampaging through the smoking ruins of Carthage at the conclusion and even involved in the death of Dido, does capture a sense of the complete loss and devastation of the Queen of Carthage's world, abandoned not just by Aeneas, but by everyone. There's nothing left but death.
Whether Mercadante's music has the necessary strength to carry that alone it's hard to say, but Alessandro De Marchi's conducting of the Academia Montis Regalis is authoritative and attuned to the situations and overall pace and rhythm. His interview in the enclosed booklet is highly informative on how a complete edition of the score was assembled and how the authentic early 19th century sound contributes to the character of the work. The singing is also impressive throughout, with a superb performance in particular from mezzo-soprano Katrin Wundsam in the trouser role of Aeneas, demonstrating impeccable control over the complete range with dramatic swoops from high to low. Her Act II rondò is just stunning.
Recorded live at the Innsbruck Festival of Early Music in 2018, Didone Abbandonata comes across well on the Naxos BD50 Blu-ray disc. The HD image is initially quite dark with high contrast due to the lighting, but the clarity is more evident in Act II. The DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and PCM 2.0 soundtracks provide two very different listening experiences. The surround giving more space to the instruments, the stereo giving much more presence to the singing. There are no extras on the disc, but good contextual information and a synopsis in the enclosed booklet. The BD is all-region compatible and there are subtitles in German, English, French, Japanese and Korean.
Links: Innsbruck Festival of Early Music