Sunday, 21 July 2019

Caldara - Lucio Papirio Dittatore (Buxton, 2019)

Antonio Caldara - Lucio Papirio Dittatore

La Serenissima, 2019

Adrian Chandler, Giulia Nuti, Mark Burns, Robert Murray, William Towers, Owen Willetts, Rowan Pierce, Elizabeth Karani, Eleanor Dennis, Gareth Brynmor John

Buxton Opera House - 13th July 2019

As the director Mark Burns observes in the programme notes, there is a challenge about approaching an old forgotten work as a complete blank slate, particularly a work as rare as Antonio Caldara's Lucio Papirio Dittatore, composed in 1719 and almost unheard of since. Composed for the royal court of the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna, for which Caldera was Vice-Kapellmeister, it's a work that nonetheless that proves to be deserving of revival and sympathetic treatment. Its qualities are certainly borne out by an outstanding performance from period music specialists La Serenissima and some magnificent fine singing, but the direction proves to be unable to do much to enliven the rather dry long drawn out conventions of the opera seria.

It really needs a little more because in many respects Lucio Papirio Dittatore is to the untrained ear indistinguishable in content and approach from the opera seria of Vivaldi, Scarlatti and even Handel in his dryer works. Others too that I may have forgotten or have failed to register in the memory because aside from the bigger names who have been mined in recent decades, baroque opera has slipped slightly out of the picture as far as I can see. All the more reason to be delighted when a company like La Serenissima are prepared to dig a little deeper into what still remains largely buried treasure. Any one of Caldera's 40 or so surviving operas would be a true rarity and surely deserving of the kind of sympathetic treatment of a period music performance.

A largely static period production of a baroque opera seria won't do it any favours or win over any casual opera goers at the Buxton Festival. It's true that there's not a whole lot you can do with a work that is about the traditional struggle between power, authority and love and make it feel fresh, modern and exciting without shoehorning in a lot of contemporary references. We've had all that already in Buxton with Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and David Cameron all referenced in Orpheus in the Underworld, and in Georgiana too to a less obvious nod-and-a-wink extent. Even in a work where a plebiscite or referendum takes place and is eventually overruled, there's no such highlighting of any obvious parallel, preferring to let the content and treatment of Lucio Papirio Dittatore speak for itself.

To his credit, the director Mark Burns does attempt to modernise the themes with a reference to the building wrapping art installations of the Bulgarian artists Christo Vladimirov Javacheff and Jeanne-Claude Marie Denat, the Roman arches and monuments here draped in a fine muslin-like cloth. A casual viewer who hasn't read the programme notes is unlikely to notice this or catch the reference to the artists' background under Soviet Communist rules and its implications of tyranny of the weak. As it stands, with the cloth hangings the same colour as the stone and marble it just makes the arches look a little rough and bumpy, but perhaps on some level it informs the production.

As far as the performances go there appears to be little to the direction other than blocking, moving forward and backward, making entrances and exits. On the other hand it has to be said that the drama, what little of it there is considerably drawn-out, plays out with admirable clarity and holds attention. That is no mean feat in a work of this type, particularly when it appears to be played in full without any cuts, even going as far as to include the coda in praise of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. If you are going to the trouble of reviving a rare work like this you want to do it without compromise, but inevitably that's going to come at the cost of accessibility. I can't fault La Serenissima for their choice and the director has had to work within those constraints, and to be fair, since many like me come to Buxton for the opportunity to experience rare works performed nowhere else, I wouldn't have it any other way.

What provided visual interest on the stage however was the decision to put the orchestra up there with the drama. It's a large ensemble too, occupying a full third of the stage. This was a complete joy to see and it provided the accessibility that that drama didn't, permitting the audience, particularly those with a higher view than the stalls, the opportunity to see how Caldara uses different sections of instruments to vary mood and situation, which part used harpsichord, theorbo and cello continuo, which called on the brass fanfares, which brought in the whole ensemble with percussion and woodwind. Without a conductor, there are two musical directors then for the diverse parts of the work and recitative, Adrian Chandler leading on violin, Giulia Nuti on harpsichord. All the drama is in there and you would miss much of that if it was consigned to the orchestra pit.

Without getting into the technicalities of the plot, like most opera seria works derived from Zeno or Metastasio, Lucio Papirio Dittatore is actually quite simple in outline but needlessly complicated in detail. During the Second Samnite war in 324BC, the Roman army general Quinto Fabio has disobeyed the orders of the dictator Lucio Papirio and launched into battle with the Samnites. No matter that he was victorious and won the day, ending the war almost single-handed; his failure to follow orders amounts to treason and he must be punished. There's only one sentence according to the law and that is death, no matter that Quinto is married to Papirio's daughter, Papiria. Quinto is assured of his actions despite being warned that "Innocence cannot save you from power and envy". In true opera seria fashion, the situation inevitably introduces a lot of lamenting and pleading on the part of Papiria.

That's drawn out to about an hour and a half in the first two Acts, which is tough going. You can see parallels with power and envy clear enough without it having to be spelled out but mainly you see a lot of conventional opera seria. In the second half Papirio shows that he is not actually motivated by envy and is willing to spare Quinto if the people of Rome vote in his favour. Unfortunately the people of Rome, for some reason, decide they want their hero executed. Lucio proves magnanimous and commutes the sentence, forgiving Quinto. The soldier is so overwhelmed with this gesture that he decides he would happily die. And then somehow it's all wrapped up with a happy ending. Don't ask me to make sense out of any of that. There's a fuller synopsis available in the Festival programme, but I'm not sure it's worth the effort, at least not as far making sense of the plot.

What matters is that Caldera's music makes it work, and it is absolutely beautiful music with wonderful sounding period instruments - including a harpsichord, theorbo and chalumeau - delivering vivid exciting rhythms and sounds that are unlike anything else. And it works too because of the singers. Owen Willetts's Quinto Fabio is superb, a countertenor with strength and impressive control, he is able to handle the flights of emotive expression. Rowan Pierce's Papiria too is impressive. Initially saddled with laments for the most part, she nonetheless makes the role sympathetic with an edge of defiance against her father. Eleanor Dennis's Cominio is also excellent in the subplot romance that I've intentionally neglected to include in the plot description for fear of making it any more complicated, but again, the performances make it fit, hold attention and overcome any issues there might have been with the otherwise static stage direction.

Links: Buxton International Festival