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The city that does not forget baroque period operas

04.09.2015


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Innsbruck Festival of Early Music, which will be held for the 40th time next year, presented a Baroque Period opera this year -like every year- that has not been staged for centuries. This year, the lottery was won by the Neapolitan composer Nicola Porpora, who is recognized by being castrato Farinelli’s teacher. It was a great privilege to listen Porpora’s Il Germanico opera that lasts for 4.30 hours, from outstanding performers of our day.

Austria’s Innsbruck city that is enclosed by Tirol Alps, gained an art and especially music identity, due to being court of an arm of Habsburg dynasty here in 17-18th centuries. As a natural result of this accumulation, it turned into one of the most important centres of Europe in terms of performing Early Period music that has been thriving since the second half of the 20th century. Innsbruck Early Music Festival (Innsbrucker Festwochen der Alten Musik) that’s being held in August every year since 1976, plays a big role in helping the city become famous. Due to this festival that I have attended as a guest first time in the August of 2012, I had the opportunity to visit this cute Austrian city for the first time, which initially resembles nearby Salzburg, especially with its streets and buildings in the old city, but has a more different character.     


This year, once again in August, after attending Wagner’s Ring tetralogy in Bayreuth Festival and heading back to my country, I wanted to breathe the marvellous clean air of this beautiful city which is on the piedmont of the Alps; by changing my route to Innsbruck for only two days. Of course, the Alpine weather was an excuse for my visit! My main intention was to get a chance of watching the third and last performance of a Baroque Period opera in Innsbruck, which was going to be staged for the first time after 300 years. It was Neapolitan composer Nicola Porpora’s Il Germanico opera that drew me to Innsbruck Early Music Festival this year, which was laid aside and forgotten after being staged for the first time in Rome in the year 1732.    


In Baroque Period music, the name Nicola Porpora (1686-1768) won’t seem familiar at first to the music lovers that bear in mind important names like J.S. Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and Telemann. Cineastes and especially people who are interested in classical music themes on the silver screen would recall Porpora character from Farinelli movie, which was watched with interest in movie theatres until recent past. Nicola Porpora who we saw as Farinelli’s singing master and impresario rival of Handel in London in that movie, was also one of the leading composers in Neapolitan School in the 18th century. As we can recall from the movie, Porpora was invited to London to be the chief composer of a new company named Opera of Nobility by a few noblemen, in order to compete with Handel’s company. With an opera student’s words, Porpora was recognized as, “the best singing pedagogue among composers and the best composer among singing pedagogues”. However he was not an opera composer in the equal level of Handel. The prominent feature of his opera composing was writing difficult musical scores that can be pulled off by his extraordinarily talented castrato students like Farinelli and Caffarelli.


The renowned conductor Alessandro De Marchi, who has been the director of Innsbruck Early Music Festival since 2010, is also the name who took the opera Il Germanico from the shelf that it has been dusting for centuries. De Marchi considers that learning Porpora’s arias is equal to work in the singing techniques area itself. This standpoint emphasizes the “functional” feature of the Neapolitan composer’s stage works, however, with this, we should never reach the opinion of Porpora was untalented in creating mise en scene and finding melodies. Porpora in fact was an outstandingly talented musician who composed wonderful music within the aesthetics of 18th century’s Neapolitan opera, just like De Marchi emphasized and we witnessed in this year’s festival.



Porpora composed Il Germanico when his fame surpassed London and spread to his country Italy. In the premier, which was held in Teatro Capranica in Rome, in 1732, castrato Caffarelli, who was seen among the most famous stars of the day, gave an incredible performance in the role of Arminio. As for the other lead role Germanico, it was performed by experienced alto castrato (an emasculated male singer who is rich in bass tones) Domenico Annibali.


Porpora’s opera seria (serious opera) Il Germanico, which says hello to the world again this year, is based on the story Germania by Roman historian Tacitus. In the first act, Rosmonda says to her husband Arminio, the prince of Germania, that her father Segeste handed the city over to Romans and committed treason. Arminio becomes mad when he hears this, so he starts to prepare a counter attack against Romans. The commander Germanico, who leads the Romans invaded the city, sends his aide Cecina to Arminio with a peace offer. Arminio refuses this offer and loses the war he started. He gets sentenced to death since he refuses to serve the ancient Rome. Germanico is affected by Arminio’s honourable defense of his people as a commander, so he allows his enemy to see his little son for the last time before his execution. Arminio realizes that, after his execution, his son will become a captive of the ancient Rome, and in order to save his son’s future, he sacrifices his pride and declares his obedience to Romans, and the opera concludes with a happy ending.


Porpora’s 3 act opera Il Germanico, was performed in 16th August 2015 in Landestheater, which has the title of “being the first opera hall founded among the countries that speak German” and it lasted a whole 5 hours, including two 15 minutes breaks. Landestheater’s cubic shaped auditorium was packed, there wasn’t any space even in the top gallery, where you can watch the performance while standing. This was going to be the last performance of Il Germanico, which was performed only two times before this one, on 12th and 14th August. Academia Montis Regalis was conducted by Alessandro De Marchi and the singers Patricia Bardon (mezzosoprano) performed as Germanico, David Hansen (countertenor) performed as Arminio, Klara Ek (soprano) performed as Rosmonda, Emilie Renard performed as Ersinda, Hagen Matzeit (countertenor) performed as Cecina, and Carlo Vincenzo Allemano (tenor) performed as Segeste.


The opera was staged by Alexander Schulin and used Alfred Peter’s costumes, and one of its first settings after Act 1’s curtain was open, was aiming to take the audience into a military quarters in a battlefield. The greenery which was tangled with the nets slouched from the top to the stage was building a desert tent image and preparing the audience for a military themed opera at the beginning of the performance. The overture that has a marching rhythm and a trumpet score in a very high tone in the middle, was supporting this military air. The other units in the first setting of the Act 1 were grey walls, stairs and arched doors. However, I had to wait till the Act 3 to see the most impressive setting and light usage. Due to the models of 18th century period Neapolitan opera, there was an opera a numeri (number opera) in front of us and that meant we were going to watch the story unfolding with a recitativo secco between the characters, accompanied by harpsichord and when the dramatic intensity elevates, we were going to listen to the arias, duets and trios that the composer placed between recitatives.



Alessandro De Marchi again managed to gather a team from the singers who are today’s experts in the Baroque Period at the utmost quality in Landestheater. I am saying “again”, because I was witnessed that this same, meticulous conductor had gathered another team at the same quality, in two different productions I watched in 2012 too. Besides, three singers I watched that year, also came to this year’s Innsbruck Festival. Hagen Matzeit and Carlo Allemano whom I watched in Francesco Provenzale’s La Stellidaura Vendicante, in this same hall in 2012, fulfilled their performance successfully, and David Hansen made my jaw drop with his outstanding performance in Domenico Scarlatti’s comedy La Dirindina. That night, I wasn’t only watching a top countertenor in that stage founded in Innsbruck’s historical Ambras Castle, which has a wonderful setting and acoustic. It was like Farinelli came to the future from a few centuries ago and singing in our presence. If one of the factors that made me give a short break in Innsbruck, after a really tiring work in Bayreuth Festival, was to see Porpora’s opera, then the other factor was the excitement of watching Norway-Australian descent marvellous countertenor David Hansen on the stage again. In the 2012 interview I made with De Marchi, the conductor told me that he discovered Hansen in Monteverdi’s opera The Return of Ulysses that was staged in Oslo.


After watching the performance, I said to myself that I was so right to come to Innsbruck, in order to watch Il Germanico and David Hansen. Hansen was at his peak in both his vocal and acting performance as the proud and self-confident prince of Germania, Arminio. After opera’s first aria Serba il costante il core, Hansen’s aria A lei che il mondo adora made the great essential impact on not only me but also everybody. In this aria that he sings with a great bravura, we felt Arminio’s fury and hatred towards his father in law Segeste, who sold his own country to Romans, to the bones. Hansen’s Farinelli-like vocal acrobatics were also heralding the other wonders we were going to listen, in the further scenes of the piece. After he loses the battle, Arminio wants to kill himself by taking a medicine, however he is stopped by his aide Cecina. The aria Empi, se mai disciolgo that Hansen sings in this scene under the influence of these same dark emotions, was equally spine chilling. Of course, Porpora also wrote some lyrical arias for his main character Arminio that he can reflect the mastery of his singing in legatos besides reflecting his bravura side. I noted down on my notebook that the arias Hansen sang in Act 2, Parto, ti lascio. Ti lascio a cara, in which he says goodbye to his wife, and he sang in the end of Act 3, E questa l’ara, non vacilla e trema, accompanied by strings’ exquisite pizzicatos, as the moments that enabled us to listen Hansen’s mastery of singing in legatos, marvellous pianissimos and relaxed crescendos.



Again, in our 2012 interview, De Marchi told that the castrato parts in Baroque Period operas were thought that they couldn’t be sang till the very recent dates to our day and he also emphasized that with the huge development of countertenor singing techniques in the last decades, we stepped into a new era. “Recently the biggest development was in the falsettist’s side” said De Marchi and continued with a determination, “the best countertenors of our day now can handle the typical tessitura of a female voice and they can even perform in the big halls”.


We started with Hansen but the opera’s real main character was Roman commander Germanico who invaded German soil and gave the opera its name. Porpora wrote this role for an alto castrato voice type. Like I mentioned before, in its premiere this role was performed by castrato Domenico Annibali who had a thick voice tone. In Innsbruck, this difficult role was performed by American mezzosoprano Patricia Bardon. At the beginning of the Act 1, Bardon immediately showed her good qualities with her aria Questo e il valor guerriero, that crowns the dialogue between Germanico and Segeste. Creating an effective profile with her all white costume and staff, she performed this aria solidly, however, while singing her aria Qual turbine che scende towards the end of Act 1, her lower tones sounded a bit weak. On the other hand, it should be noted down that she sang the really long aria Nasce da valle impure in which Germanico squares accounts with his nemesis Arminio in Act 2, under a very dramatic and effective light usage.


In the last scene of the same act, during Germanico, Arminio and Rosmonda trio, it was a nice touch that, due to Landestheater’s moving stage, the characters could get through the turning settings. We can say that, this place changes were a reflection of the excitement that elevated with the Rosmonda’s spoiling Germanico’s conspiracy towards Arminio, and it added the necessary adrenaline to a Baroque Period opera like Il Germanico that is always facing the danger of being static. Patricia Bardon successfully conveyed the emotional dilemma she sang about in her aria Per un momento ancora at the beginning of the last act. Even though he seemed so strong from the outside, we saw that the character Germanico has a forgiving, sensitive and thirsty for love nature, and he was reflecting these kind of emotions he was trying to suppress in his dialogue with Ersinda.


Carlo Allemano drew a convincing portrait of Segeste with his acting and nice coloured tenor voice that resisted the fraying of the years well and it was obvious he hasn’t lost his touch on agility, of which has a great importance in Baroque Period singing. I have found the countertenor Hagen Matzeit who played Cecina more mature and solid, comparing to his 2012 performance of Armillo in La Stellidaura Vendicante, again staged in this same hall. Klara Ek, who is one of the most wanted sopranos in recent years, is not an unfamiliar name for my country. She was the soloist of the concerts that Bilkent Symphony Orchestra performed Mahler’s 4th and 8th symphonies in the last two seasons. Ek was highly praised in these two concerts for both with her voice and her performance.


In order to understand how extensive the repertoire of Ek is, it was necessary to watch her sing Porpora in Innsbruck. She has a highly convenient, fluent, sweet and beautiful toned voice for singing a Baroque Period piece. As a matter of fact, it was the considerably lighter soprano parts that she undertook in 4 and 8, that made us listen to her in Mahler’s works. She was responsible for one of the most difficult parts dramatically in Il Germanico. Rosmonda is a character constantly in pain, who is stuck between her father and husband. The singer revealed outstanding performances in terms of agility, portraying the distressed mood successfully, in the arias Rivolgi a me le ciglia which was at the beginning of the Act 1, and Son qual misero naviglio which was at the end. We also noted the woodwinds that accompanied gently, especially to the second aria. She achieved a great harmony in the impressive coda at the end of the duet that she sang with Arminio, towards the end of Act 3. Pouring snow over the stage at that moment was a nice idea of the director. Mezzosoprano Emilie Renard who played Ersinda, was the name that completed the ranking singer cast of Il Germanico. The dramatic burden that was loaded upon Rosmonda by the composer was spared from Ersinda, and the role’s emotional interaction with Germanico’s aide Cecina was put forward. Renard impressed with her Act 1 aria Al sole I lumi that she sang especially in a tempting manner, in the scenes that she flirted with Cecina.



In every Innsbruck Festival for the past five years, after Scarlatti opera I watched in 2012, the Italian conductor Alessandro De Marchi who -like the directors before, including Rene Jacob did- presents beautiful forgotten examples of Baroque opera; once again proved in Porpora’s opera, how meticulous and pedantic Baroque Period expert he is. Academia Montis Regalis, which consists of mostly Italian, 32 young and middle aged musicians, performed their duties in a beautiful harmony with the singers on stage, on the downstage that was reserved for the orchestra (I am not saying orchestra pit since the musicians were positioned on the same level with the audience) of Landestheater auditorium, which is very suitable for performing this period’s vocal pieces. Although libretto was cut in some passages; with a 4.30 hour run time, long recitatives and da capo arias, in Il Germanico, like many Baroque period operas, one of the factors that allows us to overcome the feeling that makes today’s audience say “it would have been better if it was a little bit shorter”, is that De Marchi and the musicians were extremely experienced with this repertoire. The reason behind the tone that Academia Montis Regalis produces being darker and more fresh than we are used to is that, the standard tuning value was 392 Hz in the year 1732 when the premiere of Il Germanico was performed in Rome and this was deeper than 415 Hz which is preferred for today’s Baroque Period music. (This value was determined as 440 Hz for Romantic Period and later).


However there is an issue that makes me sad about this Il Germanico production. It wouldn’t be right for this opera to go back to the dusty shelves that once taken from, only after just being staged for 3 performances, when it is clear to have been produced with hard work that lasted for months. The conductor Alessandro De Marchi, whom we had conversation with after the performance, also shared our thoughts; however what tied his hands about this matter is the tradition that the new operas presented every year in Innsbruck Early Music Festival would not pass on to the next year, and every year a new opera would be staged. On the other hand, De Marchi is very eager about the CD recording of Il Germanico to be made as soon as possible. People following closely the conductor’s discography, are close witnesses of the quality of albums he released with Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, Decca and Sony labels. (De Marchi showed that he was not only assertive with Baroque Period music, with the Decca labelled recording of Norma opera of Bellini in which mezzosoprano Cecilia Bartoli sang).     


It is wondered which forgotten opera will be brought down from the shelf and meet with opera lovers by Innsbruck Early Period Festival; which is one of the most important addresses that especially pre Baroque Period and Baroque Period music enthusiasts must certainly visit.     


Serhan Bali

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