Pietro Antonio Cesti - La Dori (Innsbruck, 2019)
Innsbruck Festival of Early Music, 2019
Ottavio Dantone, Stefano Vizioli, Francesca Ascioti, Rupert Enticknap, Federico Sacchi, Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli, Emőke Baráth, Bradley Smith, Pietro Di Bianco, Alberto Allegrezza
Naxos - Blu-ray
Considering that it was first performed in 1657 and the plot is almost impenetrable, you'd be forgiven thinking that only half of Cesti's opera La Dori had survived. It's actually one of those early operas that has a complicated backstory that is almost as long as the opera itself; its revelations thrown out there only in the last few minutes of the opera. In some cases you wonder even whether it isn't the better part of the opera that has been left out. With a bit of preparation about the history of the characters however, it doesn't take long to see why the focus of the opera is mostly in the aftermath of the more dramatic part of the story, nor see the qualities that Cesti is able to bring to the then still developing art form of opera.
Including the backstory on the opera would in fact probably only make La Dori more difficult than easier to follow. It's one of those stories (see Shakespeare's late Romances for other examples) where babies are stolen by pirates, where princesses get lost at sea, where identities are switched and where everyone important feels the need for obscure reasons to change their identity by adopting a disguise as someone of the opposite sex. If you factor in that the singer can be a woman playing a man's role who switches to a female disguise and vice-versa, (the use of castrati in the original only complicating the matter further), then really it's better off just getting a vague idea of who the characters are, who they are in love with and the torment it causes them trying to do the right thing for the person they love.
If you're happy enough you've got a basic handle on that then you won't be too concerned about following the various obstacles and additional familiar complications thrown their way. And, rather, you will see why Cesti and his librettist Apolloni choose to commence the story of La Dori at the point it does. It's not about creating action drama as much as human drama in music that carries the sense of backstory within the characters, following through on the path that fate has placed before them. In some baroque opera they stay in this conflicted state until fate or a deus ex machina resolves their dilemma and re-establishes order. That's not necessarily how Cesti treats them in his opera.
There's a greater sense of the human agency here, where the disguises they wear are only a means to suggest that there is more to them than they seem to outward appearances. They carry the troubles that fate has left them and face up to the challenges in front of them and strive to turn things around. There's a richness and strength of personality in each that you can be sure will win through diversity. If that is able to come through despite the complications of the plot, it's down to Cesti's music and the way he uses it to progress the development of the characters and the drama, notably in the use of aria and arioso, expanding the language of opera away from expositional recitative.
In terms of plotting it may seem like La Dori is filled with familiar devices that now seem contrived and lacking credibility, but it's here that those devices were first played out and would have a major influence on opera in the following century. If you can look beyond the magic death potion being switched for a love potion in Tristan und Isolde and instead relate to the depth of feelings that are revealed instead by this device, you should have no problem that an identical switch takes place here. True, this comes on top of a lot of identity and gender switching and a complicated backstory, as well as early baroque conventions like the lusty comic nurse Dirce, but again these are just ways of getting through that everyone, young and old, commoners and royals, have such feelings and ensure similar troubles.
It's not as if you have to work out the knots of a convoluted plot then, since the music makes the characters real and convincing, all the more so when they are sung well in this 2019 production at the Innsbruck Festival of Early Music. Some of the most complicated identities in fact are not necessarily the expected principals, Dori or Arsinoe the bride who is to marry Oronte in her stead since Dori was stolen by pirates. Take Celinda for example, Arsinoe's maid who is actually Dori's brother Tolomeo, in disguise as a woman who has (as a man) fallen in love with Arsinoe. You have someone like Emőke Baráth singing this and suddenly, like Mozart a century later, you can see that there is no such thing as secondary characters but everyone has an equal and important part to play in the drama of life.
Which evidently is to take nothing away from the other characters and singers who are all equally wonderful. The expression of the characters and their development, shown through the singing, is what holds you in the drama not despite the plot, but as the plot. Oronte's early appearances - lyrically sung by countertenor Rupert Enticknap - all carry a sense of elegance and forbearance on his entrances, only to become imperious and irritable at not being able to control events. Alongside Alessandro Melani, also recently revived with L'Empio Punito, an eye-opening early version of Don Giovanni, with Cesti you can see that Handel's mastery and refinement of Italian opera didn't exactly come out of nowhere.
As with any early opera with a complicated plot and a less familiar form, it can be a challenge to stage something like this in a way that helps engage and audience, but the Innsbruck production directed by Stefano Vizioli does it very well. The period settles for a classical 17th century version of antiquity, period costumes and a kind of palatial room that opens out into Babylonian sands and skies, the director making great use of light and colour to accompany the musical expression.
There's much of historical value in the work, but primarily the performance here is fascinating just to hear the music Cesti composed played and with Ottavio Dantone on harpsichord conducting the Accademia Bizantina on period instruments, it sounds incredible here. There's a real kick to the music, the rhythms that comes across exceptionally well with pristine clarity and detail in the Hi-Res LPCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes. There are no extras on the Blu-ray but the booklet contains a tracklist, an essay on the history of the work and an absolutely essential synopsis. It's an all-region BD50, with subtitles in Italian, English, German, Japanese and Korean.
Links: Innsbruck Festival of Early Music