Alfredo Casella - La Donna Serpente
Teatro Regio di Torino, 2016
Gianandrea Noseda, Arturo Cirillo, Pietro Pretti, Carmela Remigio, Erika Grimaldi, Francesca Sassu, Anna Maria Chiuri, Francesco Marsiglia, Marco Filippo Romano, Roberto de Candia, Fabrizio Paesano, Sebastian Catana
Naxos - Blu-ray
Opera was striving to find a new voice and direction in the first half of the twentieth century. The shadow of the titans of Verdi and Wagner still loomed large and the continuation of their legacy had descended - arguably - into the decadence of verismo and post-Romanticism. Exceptions that tried to steer a new course found little foothold, although some would later exert greater influence on the development of new music. Some, like Busoni and Stravinsky, looked backward with an almost reformist agenda to take opera back to its roots, looking to Monteverdi and Mozart, and that is also the direction taken by another composer from this period who has been largely been forgotten; Alfredo Casella.
Forgotten at least as far as the opera world is concerned, Casella composing only one opera, La Donna Serpente ('The Snake Woman') in 1932. Casella didn't have any great love for the opera form, but his only opera certainly makes the most of the musical richness that comes with lyric drama and does extend his musical voice. And it's not just musically that La Donna Serpente looks back on the classic form, but it also returns to classical texts of myths and legends, like Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex (1927). In this case La Donna Serpente is derived from a work by Carlo Gozzi, who would also be the inspiration around this period for Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges (1921) and Puccini's Turandot (unfinished in 1924).
Operating under different circumstances, there's little that is obviously allegorical or deep about the fairy-tale story of La Donna Serpente. Miranda, the daughter of Demogorgòn, the King of the Fairies, wants to marry a mortal, Altidòr, the King of Téflis. Her father isn't pleased and puts a condition on her wishes. She must keep her identity secret for nine years and one day. After that time, Altidòr's love will be tested through great trials and if he curses her for what befalls him, Miranda will be turned into a snake, doomed to slither on the earth for 200 years.
Much like Busoni, who also worked on a Gozzi legend with his own version of Turandot using Mozart-like spoken dialogue, Casella looks back at the classical form as a model while striving to find new ways of expressing and extending it beyond its traditional form with newer elements and experimentation. The fairy tale story of La Donna Serpente might not have any great truths to reveal, but it provides Casella with a whole range of colours to work with. That's something that the Teatro Regio di Torino pick up on in their presentation of the work, the production bursting with magical storybook fairy-tale colour.
Casella might only have composed one opera, and it might not have made any great waves, disappearing after its first performances in 1932 and rarely revived after that, but the composer certainly used the medium to its fullest expression, including instrumental passages, sinfonias, overtures for each acts, perhaps overextending what is a simple enough story. But whether it's the humour of its commedia dell'arte inspired characters, the militaristic marches of the rather bellicose land of Téflis, whether it's exploring the tragedies and limits of human suffering or the magical release from our troubles, La Donna Serpente is rich and varied in expression.
If the fairy-tale subject is far from verismo, Casella's treatment reaches the same heights of darkness and light its dynamic range. The instrumental passages and overtures contain some lovely music (which is used very well to develop themes in the story in the Turin production through the use of dance and movement) and Act I and Act II have their moments, but Act III is the highlight of the work, from the lament of Miranda transformed into the snake woman right through to the triumphant storybook ending. It's perhaps no lost masterpiece, but Casella's La Donna Serpente adds another piece to the puzzle of opera in the first half of the 20th century that is now ripe for rediscovery.
The Turin production certainly makes the most of it under the musical direction of Gianandrea Noseda and some fine singing performances. You can't fault how Carmela Remigio meets the challenges of the role of Miranda, and Pietro Pretti gives a strident dramatic Altidòr, but all the cast are good, even if the characterisation is rather one-dimensional. Above all, Arturo Cirillo's production presents the work exceptionally well. There's not much in the ways of sets or effects, but the combination of brilliant costumes and deeply saturated colours and lighting make it every bit as colourful a spectacle as you would expect. Good use is also made of dancers to bring additional colour and movement that fully exploits the opportunities that the work offers.
In High Definition that blaze of saturated colour comes across spectacularly on the Naxos BD50 Blu-ray disc. The DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and PCM 2.0 soundtracks provide two different options for listening to the work. There are no extras on the disc, but the booklet contains an essay by Ivan Moody that gives a good account of Casella and his approach to his only opera and gives an outline synopsis. There is also a full tracklisting in the booklet, which is very useful. The BD is all-region compatible and there are subtitles in German, English, French, Japanese and Korean.
Links: Teatro Regio di Torino, Naxos Direct