by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |

Verona's Mini-fest of Venetian Baroque

By Roderick Conway Morris
VERONA, Italy 13 April 1994


At a performance here a few years ago of Verdi's 'The Lombards at the First Crusade,' the melee that ensued when an army of extras trying to battle its way off stage at the end of a scene encountered another contingent valiantly trying to force its way on irresistibly brought to mind Maréchal Bosquet's comment on the Charge of the Light Brigade: 'C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre' - or opera either, for that matter.

Italy's abiding obsession with spectacular grand opera achieves its annual apotheosis in the Arena di Verona's summer performances, when 20,000 or more visitors fill the terraces of the 2,000-year-old Roman circus. Meanwhile, the wealth of 17th- and 18th-century Italian operatic works have fallen almost totally out of the repertoire.

Yet, it is Verona of all places that last weekend indicated a welcome change with its First Spring Festival of Theater and Music of the Venetian Republic, offering, this year, Vivaldi's 'Tamerlano,' Salieri's 'Axur, Re d'Ormus,' operettas by Farinelli and Rossini, and more than a dozen concerts.

The festival's principal venue is the Teatro Filarmonico on Piazza Bra, a stone's throw from the Arena. The original theater building was inaugurated in 1730 with music by Vivaldi; his 'Tamerlano,' staged here seven years later, and now transcribed from a contemporary manuscript, was chosen to open the festival last Friday. Vivaldi wrote several dozen operas, about a score of which survive.

The revival of 'Tamerlano' almost failed to take place because of a union dispute at the theater, but finally went ahead without the lighting technicians. As it happened, the opera opened with the cast in 18th-century costume picking their way through the darkness of the auditorium and climbing onto the stage illuminating their way with candelabras, carrying their props with them in wicker baskets like a traveling theatrical troupe.

'Tamerlano' is a historical drama typical of its period based on the legend of the the Mongol leader Tamerlane. Parts of Vivaldi's score were outstandingly vital and dramatic - confirming that the narrow selection of his oeuvre currently performed gives a seriously incomplete picture of his range (and suggesting that 'The Four Seasons' should be put on ice for a while).

The Teatro Filarmonico's orchestra played with considerable energy under René Clemencic, but revealed that they had some way to go in producing a convincing performance of baroque music. The singers, even more so, seemed not fully to have come to grips with this style of work - though the Korean soprano Kim Sung Eun, in the relatively small part of Idaspe, stood out, her voice pure and attractive, and her diction clear and controlled.

SATURDAY'S performance of Salieri's 'Axur, Re d'Ormus' (the Italian version of his 'Tarare,' which was his greatest Paris triumph) suffered from similar weaknesses, though the standard of singing was higher, and Simone Alaimo (Axur), Giuseppe Morino and Alessandra Ruffini deserve honorable mentions. The score is inventive and accomplished - and Da Ponte's libretto lively and skillful.

The sensation that the lunatics had taken over the asylum reached a new high on Sunday in the two one-act Neapolitan-style 'farces': Giuseppe Farinelli's 'Teresa e Claudio' and Rossini's 'L'Inganno Felice,' a moderately entertaining, if implausible, piece, staged as though being filmed by a Chaplinesque silent-movie crew - a potentially good idea, destroyed by overacting and the relentless upstaging of the singers by the extras.

Rossini was 5 years old at the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, and his inclusion seems to signal that Verona, like other Italian opera houses, still regards an unadulterated program of baroque music as an impossibly risky undertaking - a bizarre state of affairs when Italian music of this period has for many years now been packing concert halls north of the Alps.

Other performances: 'TamerHL lano' (April 16, 24); 'Axur, Re d'Ormus' (April 17, 22); 'Teresa and Claudio' and 'L'Inganno Felice' (April 15, 23).

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023