dionisio re di portogallo at lisbon: rediscovery or stunt?
appa writes on 25.Feb.05 at 15h52
I attended a good performance of Handel's opera Sosarme HWV 30, alias Fernandi Re di Castiglia and, strangely enough titled Dionisio Re di Portogallo, according to a filiation to António Salvi's libretto for Antonio Perti's (1661-1756) opera, that was staged in the theather of the Villa dei Medici near Florence, September 30, 1707. Handel is supposed to have attended the performance, thus influencing his choice of the subject. The performance took place at the São Carlos theater in Lisbon.

It is an opera in 3 Acts. This performance was such that the first two acts were presented one immediately after the other. There was an intermission between the end of Act 2 and the beginning of Act 3.

This production is directed by Alan Curtis, the american harpsichordist and musicologist. Was this idea of titling the presentations of the opera here in Portugal as above just a blatantly obvious publicity stunt, so as to supposedly flatter the portuguese audiences? I wonder. In an interview given to a portuguese newspaper Alan Curtis replying to the question if the opera was going to be recorded and issued by a label, he said that:

Yes. But it will be titled "Fernando Re di Castiglia", since he is the main character.

The singers are:

The staging is assured by:

Some explanations about the cast of characters.

Fernando is the Infante of Castiglia: Infante is the title given to each son of the king except for the eldest or the supposed heir to the throne. Castiglia is the italian name of the kingdom of Castile, one of the independent kingdoms that constituted Spain in the Middle Age. Aragón, was another, that included the actual Cataluña. As was Navarra, and others. The actual historical character was named Fernando IV, king of Castile and León. Today in Spain each autonomous region follows this division that comes from the Middle Age.

DionisioDom Dinis in portuguese was the sixth portuguese king. He was a great reformer and a seminal figure in the establishment of the portuguese nation. Founded in 1139 by Afonso Henriques. The english name of Dinis is Denis. You can read more about him at the Wikipedia.

Isabella: was the wife of Denis. The real name is Isabel, she was the princess of Aragón. She bore Alfonso, the heir to the throne.

Alfonso: the legitimate son of Denis. He would become the king Afonso IV of Portugal. More details about Afonso IV here.

Sancio: he was king's Denis favourite son, even if he was not a legitimate son, but merely his natural son. He was a contender for the portuguese throne against his half- brother Alfonso. In fact it is precisely this rivalry that the libreto explores, although with a large degree of dramatic invention. Sancio portuguese name is Afonso Sanches.

Elvida: her real name was D. Constança, daughter of Denis, and wife to King Alfonso IV of Spain. In the opera she's portrayed as his bride, while in reality she had died eight years before the siege of Coimbra. An event that is essential to the action of the opera.

Altomaro: is a wholly fictional character. He represents Sancio's grandfather. He is the evil element in the plot, without any redeeming qualities.

Synopsis: Fernando, is enamored of Elvida, even before he actually met her, ask for her hand to Dionisio, King of Portugal. In the precise moment where Elvida should join her bethrothed to celebrate the engagement, a violent rebellion irrupts in Portugal. Caused by the rivalry between Alfonso, legitimate heir to the throne and Sancio, one of Dionisio's natural son and his favourite.

Alfonso declares himself rebel against his father. Dionisio is forced the besiege Coimbra, where his son has occupied the royal palace. A sucession of offensives and counter-offensives make the contempt between father and son grow. Illuded by a preverse counsellor — Altomaro — they finish by fighting a duel. Altomaro tries also to induce Sancio to take part against his half-brother, thus winning his father favour and eventually becoming king afterwards.

Fernando, that had already left Castile with a small army to join his beloved, proposes to serve as a intermediary between Dionisio and Alfonso. But Altomaro maneuvers in order to defeat Fernando's purpose. The duel between father and son finally takes place. Isabella, Sancio, Elvida and Fernando appear saving the day by impeding the familial slaughter. Altomaro is exposed and all ends in a idyl ponctuated by a choir beautifully scored by Handel.

Staging: Imagine a scenery that is straight dark red wall, and at the upper left a poster with a crushed beverage aluminum can. It resembled a Coke/Sprite/7 Up/whatever beverage you cant think of. Sosarme is located in the middle East. Is the poster of the can a political statement about the situation in the middle East? Is it an anti-american Iraq war statement? Is it a statement about Palestine? I don't know. One thing is certain. It has nothing to do whatsoever with Portugal or portuguese history.

Alfonso is portrayed as a gangster. With a stripe suit and a 9mm pistol. The Tommy gun was missing but, and that's too bad, because plastically the Tommy gun is much more interesting. His "gorillas" where dressed with black jackets and gloves. West Side Story meets Handel anyone?

A rap singer and some graffitis were missing. But I'm certain that this has already been done in the modern stagings of baroque operas. Or perhaps the inspiration was Warner Brother's 1930s gangster films. In that case the rap singer and the graffiti's would have been anachronistic. Too bad James Cagney isn't alive anymore. With some vocal training he could have been a contender for playing Alfonso.

Sancio is dressed as a chicken thief. With sneakers and everything. He's made to look like a rather easygoing immature pubescent.

Fernando is dressed as 1920s dandy with a white suit.

Isabella is dressed with a dark velvet dress.

Elvida is dressed with a white bridal dress.

Altomaro is dressed as an officer of the former east-german police. He wears a grey long jacket with gallons.

Dionisio was dressed as a late 19th century bourgeois.

The scenery rotates. After the wall with the crushed can poster, a cubicle appears where Isabella and Elvida entertain a dialogue. The cubicle back walls have a triangular shape and each side of the triangle is painted on different colors. dark red on one side, black on the other. A light bulb in the shape of a candle lights the cubicle. This is the ugliest sceneries of all. In the 3rd Act, Scene 3, Isabella sings a beautifull aria: Cuor di Madre e cuor di moglie, full of sorrow, because of the coming duel between her husband Dionisio and her son Alfonso. The wonderful acting and singing of Marianna Pizzolato was sabotaged by the lack of sensitivity of the staging, since it all happened in cubicle. Where Isabella and Elvida living on a social welfare housing complex? It seems so. My, my, how impoverished the portuguese crown must have been for such a thing to happen.

After the cubicle came the dark brick wall. Something remniscent of the 40s and 50s film-noir genre. Sort of a dock warehouse. If you can find any relevance of this scenery towards the action depicted, namely Portugal, tell me about it. Because I can't.

The only scenery that I liked was a painted cloth in the background depicting a sort of garden of paradise. All the lighting was white. It was used only in the amorous scenes between Elvida and Fernando.

Nevertheless there were some beautiful moments. Like the one when Alfonso points his 9mm gun to Fernando, lying in the floor. The singers where static, and the scenery was rotating . The visual effect was excelent.

I'm aware that audiences today are radically different from Handel's day. But is it really necessary to over-simplify things like this in order to have the acceptance of the general public? Does one have to cater for the herd of semi-informed opera goers that go to the opera as someone goes to the supermarket? To buy a little bit of culture? To be violated by Art? To be entertained?

On the other hand where does the vanity of the person responsable for the staging starts and the over-simplification to make it digestible to the crowds ends? I don't know.

I'm sure that are those that could write piles of paper regarding the putative symbology in this staging. But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And I prefer to leave Dr. Freud and his followers out the picture. If something cannot communicate at a visceral level, then it isn't Art. It's something else.

Of course every work of Art has levels of meaning. Only a few can enter its deeper layers, but the vast majority can feel the meaning instantly. Without the need for a course in psychoanalysis. A very wise man wrote that what needs a great deal of explaining in order to be appreciated is not worth much.

The Baroque had a grammar for the sceneries and the acting has it had for the singing and playing. There's plenty of evindence of it. In the paintings, architecture and writing of those days. Why impose an alien Pop grammar on a work that has its own aesthetic coherence? Of course we are not the humans of the 18th century, but we are still, despite all the mess that surrounds us, humans. And I suspect that a 21st century view of Baroque opera that tried to ransom that heritage would provide a much more compelling experience than some Pop run-of-the-mill staging. All true Art is always in great part an hypnotic experience. We are attracted to its core like moths to a light. How can we feel attracted by something that is vulgar, unsensitive, in a word: ugly.

We have only to watch a film like Farinelli or La Carrose d'Or to have a glimpse of how touching the Baroque dramatic grammar is. The path to follow, in my humble opinion, has already been shown, so why persist in serving as main dish an unsavoury salad of Pop and erudite culture?

Now the musical aspects. By far the best performance both dramatically and musically was Marianna Pizzolato. She was without a doubt the best actrice on the stage. She delivered herself to the role of Isabella, and gave us a poignant and apreensive mother and wife. Very good actress, and very good singer. I hope she does more Handelian roles. She's still quite young, and a great career ahead, from the impressions she left here in Lisbon.

The second best was Simone Kermes. She has a beautiful voice and a natural talent for understanding the emotional nuances of Handel's music. Though her acting was uneven throughout the opera. Quite erratic in the first Act, where she seemed to do things without purpose. Her expression didn't match the emotional state that the singing portrayed. She improved in 2nd Act, and became dramatically excelent in the 3rd Act.

She's undoubtedly a born Handelian soprano, and someone whose career is to follow, specially in the domain of Baroque opera. It was the first time I have heard her singing and what a wonderfully pleasant surprise it was.

Now the countertenors. I'm not a countertenor addict. I like it when they sing well. But the phenomenon per si, is not enough to hold my attention. There is now a vast market for countertenors out there. Some are good, most of them are not. There is a certan tendency towards a sort of extra-light singing where they croone in order to please to greatest possible number. Furthermore because of the falsetto it is quite dificult to be in tune and expressive at the same time.

Countertenors I like. Claudio Cavina, Alessandro Carmignani, Henri Ledroit, Pascal Bertin, Dominique Visse, Gérard Lesne, &c.

The best for me was Max Emanuel Cencic. Not because of his voice. Zazzo's voice is more pleasant, but because he has a way of singing where the words are articulated in such a way that captivates the listener. A very good sense of the rhythm of the text being sung. His acting is good. Altough quite not at par with her female colleague Pizzolato.

Second best was Lawrence Zazzo. His voice is appealing and his acting is good although a little bit on the light side. Too Judy-Garland-in-the-Wizard-of-Oz kind of thing for my taste. One thing is indisputable he feels quite at ease with roles like the infante Fernando. I.e., roles that don't require a great emotional range.

Michel Andalò started quite unauspisciously is performance in Act I, Scene I, but improved throughout the opera. I'm not particularly captived by his singing. I had great difficulty understanding the text he was singing.

Stefan Alexander Rankl was mediocre. He's vocally unexpressive and his acting leaves a lot to be desired. He was an obvious vocal casting error.

Vladimir Baykov as Altomaro was bad. He's a more than obvious vocal casting error. He's a bass fit for romantic operas with a deep voice like the ones common in Russian operas, but wholly unfit for Handel. He lacks vocal agility, and is unexpressive to a very high degree. Fortunately he only sings two arias.

Il Complesso Barocco is a competent baroque ensemble. There where a problems with the violins in the first Act. Notes out of the time, the second violins and the first violins seemed te have different conceptions of the tempi.

The horns where disastrous in the 3rd Act, right after the intermission. They finished at a sufferable level.

The concertino Luís Ottavio Santos was the violin solist in the aria Cuor di Madre, cuor di moglie pungently sung by Marianna Pizzolato. He ruined the music, by applying much more of a romantic way of playing the violin, full of rubatos. Not leting the note sound to the end. It sounded like sort of Handel rewritten by Paganini.

The continuo playing in the recitativos was competent, but lacking fantasy. Although is should be stressed that this opera has severely hampered recitativos. Handel tried to please the english audiences by eliminating the recitativos as much as possible. The public of those days preferred arias to recitativos.

The opera itself is far from being one Handel's best. We are very far from the dramatico-musical coherency of a Giulio Cesare in Egitto, or Rodelinda. But it has beautifull moments of music. That irresistible Handel music that enters our ears and challenges our foot.

I would like to see a staging of this opera with an exclusively feminine cast. It would be a interesting twist, and the musical result could be quite interesting, I suppose.

In conclusion a good performance, that I recommend. If you can go to the St. Gallen theater you will spend a wonderful Handelian evening.
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> some comments at orfeo
> by appa on 07.Mar.05 at 16h51
Here are some comments that originated at the Yahoo! group Orfeo.

From: Maria Luisa Leiria

Hi António,

Thank you for your report. I'm sorry you were not as enthusiastic as I was about this production. I've not seen much live operas in Lisbon (nor elsewhere) but I think this one was the best I've seen in Lisbon, because it was the first baroque opera for decades and because the cast and the orchestra was the most balanced I've seen. Usually there are one or two (if we are lucky) good soloist and that's all. The scenarios are never remarkable, the orchestra the choir and the conductors... better not to talk about that.

I'm afraid I can't follow your reasoning. Should I be enthused and raving about the opera just because it was the first? Should I not have my own opinion on the matter?

When you say that "the scenarios are never remarkable", should we accept that as a fact of life, or should we voice our discontentment
at such? Because if we don't the chance of things changing are nil. I find offensive that someone tries to impose a completely foreign universe to a Baroque opera. This has nothing to do with purity, but rather with the adulteration of the work. The work has its own virtues and faults, we don't need an "artist" mediating between the work and ourselves. I like subtleness, I like letting the work talk by itself. It is enough that is our own 21st century view, why make the inevitable the foreground instead of a small part of the background?

So I was very happy to have this and I think the public reacted very well. Some would prefer more glamorous scenarios. Well S. Carlos is not the MET and we are lucky to have any staged opera at the moment. About the wardrobe, well what would be the better solution?

The better solution would have been for Herr Messer to be more modest instead of being vain. I'm not interested in his analysis of the work. I couldn't care less if he sees Alfonso as a gangster. Because
that's his bias. I know that we all have our own bias, but we should strive for making them the less conspicuous possible. Starting from this point, things would have turned out quite differently.

It had to be adequate to both Dionisio and Sosarme. Dionisio lived in the 14th century in Portugal.Sosarme (?) in Asia. Baroque wardrobe.... but why? What I saw was a mixture 20th and 21st century and a mixture of styles, not far from what I've seen last year in Munich (Rinaldo) or on Alcina (DVD). I'm not saying that you should not criticise what you think is wrong, but for me the most importantis the music, and I found it superb, not very to Rodelinda or Giulio Cesare and I can not agree with you. Specially on stage, a cast with no countertenors and only women would not work for me at all.

The wardrobe had to be carefully planned. I'm against this over-simplification. The bad guy looks like a Nazi, the pretender like a gangster, the good guy like an idiot, &c. Why this? Let the public form their own view. I'm against ramming down the public's throat a predigested mush.

I don't agree with you. If I understood correctly you place this opera on an equal foot with works such as "Giulio Cesare" or "Rodelinda". Both musically and dramatically IMHO they are superior. This opera has some beautiful moments, but some less fortunate moments also. The recitativos are quite hampered, and for me they are a very significant part of a Baroque Opera. I confess that I judge a performance of a Baroque opera very much by the way the recitativos are done. That's why I find singers like Vivica Genaux in "Rinaldo" unberable. She has no sensitivity for the rhythm of the words, and their function in each sentence. João borrowed me the CD and I was unable to hear it. I felt an urge to stop the CD player as soon as she started to sing.

As per the all feminine cast. I think that it would have been an interesting thing to try. Of course there are parts like Altomaro that are impossible for a woman, because of the tessitura, but the score can be transposed.