One of the members of my Trust is unshakeable in his belief that 18th century opera should be performed in 18th century costume with a couple of Greco-Roman pillars as scenery. He has a point. From contemporary art by Hogarth and Longhi it does appear that Baroque operatic heroes dressed as royalty, their hapless opponents in knee-breeches too but with a hint of Turkish dress; the ladies in boned silk or an Arcadian shepherdess and castrati in a flamboyant combination of all of the above.
Early opera was of course written in hommage du roi or the local Duke; the characters of Greek myth or Roman legend were lofty archetypes, battling with moral dilemmas. Even in the case of what was in fact an internecine war, such operas conventionally had a happy ending in which the magnanimous ruler (usually Roman) forgives those who transgressed.
The Innsbrucker Festwochen der Alten Musik’s production of Porpora’s Il Germanico at the Tiroler Landestheater would have delighted my acquaintance from the Trust. This event was the first performance in modern times of an opera premiered in Rome in 1732. Alessandro di Marchi, conductor of the Academia Montis Regalis, had produced a performing edition of the score and for some months the production was advertised as the next revival to be undertaken by Parnassus Arts (artistic director, Max Emanual Cencic.) Latterly other names started to appear on the Innsbruck website, meaning we had little idea of which of two named casts we were going to hear, until I noticed from her Twitter feed that the feisty Franco-British mezzo, Emilie Renard had started rehearsals.
In the event, it would appear that Parnassus could not find a way for this to work in their already busy schedule, so the Innsbruck performance turned out to be my first opportunity to hear the Australian sopranist, David Hansen live. This production, beautifully directed by Alexander Schulin with a slice of Roman forum on a revolve (designed by Alfred Peter) proved to have even further delights in store.
Germanico is set (who’d have thought it) in Germania. Counter-intuitively, Germanico himself is actually a Roman general, systematically conquering all the city states in Germania. The local ruler is Segeste, father of two daughters Rosmonda and Ersinda. To prevent slaughter, Segeste has handed over his city state to the Romans. His daughter Rosmonda is married to the Germanian general (not to be confused with the Roman general, Germanico) Arminio. When Germanico annexes the city, he is met by Arminio’s wife, accusing her father of betrayal.
His other daughter is in love with Cecina, a Roman officer. It is in the vested interest of these two that Germanico will triumph over Arminio, so that they can marry. Segeste attempts to broker peace to pre-empt Arminio’s revolt. Arminio refuses to surrender and is defeated and captured. Acts Two and Three depict Arminio’s refusal to swear allegiance to Rome until first his wife risks execution and then his son.
I imagine that when Parnassus proposed a co-production to the Festival, planning both to record it and tour the production around Europe, it was envisaged that Max Cencic would play Germanico and Franco Fagioli would take the role of Arminio. Instead of this dream team for those of us who wish to hear castrato roles sung by men, the rather grand yet cold figure of Germanico was taken by the Irish mezzo Patricia Bardon. Ms Bardon was wearing a magnificent 18th century-style suit in white satin and sporting a cane. Her Germanico moved convincingly like a man, remained dignified throughout and embodied a Roman lawgiver, determined to civilize Arminio and his barbarian rabble. Ms Bardon’s voice is warm, mellow and really quite powerful at the lower end of her range. It is beautifully consistent in timbre and focus throughout its compass, leading me to fear she would struggle to find the necessary flexibility in the coloratura. In the event, Porpora gives his noble Roman more “line and length” arias than fiery ones in which Ms Bardon was able to move this critic to the edge of tears with the sheer beauty of sound and her artistry. In those arias which did demand flexibility, it made a change to hear just how difficult it is to control a large, operatic, focused voice in navigating such runs and ornamentation.
In the role of Ersinda, the second daughter of Segeste, we had Ms Renard, perhaps better known on these shores for her wonderful vocal clarity and mischievous boyish bravado in trouser roles. Ms Renard is a truly exceptional Baroque singer who brings a special energy to her performances, whether in trousers or a skirt. As Ersinda her coloratura was exceptional and seemingly effortless. Playing a woman, she was required to be coquettish in her interaction with her Roman lover, Cecina (played by Hagen Matzeit.) The physical interplay between these two characters was for me one of the highlights of this production. Mr Matzeit is a very fine Senesino countertenor with an attractive individual timbre to his voice. My dear friends, if it is 18th century “authenticity” you crave, then we must brace ourselves for the variety of fright wigs that entails. My heart went out to Mr Matzeit, as his wig got the vote for worst ever spotted in Baroque opera. He carried it well.
The Italian tenor Carlo Vincenzo Allemano had it all. Because it is now some time since I last sang in four-part harmony, I tend to forget just how much the voices overlap in pitch, but not in timbre. In contrast to all the afore-mentioned mezzos, Mr Allemano (not an intended pun on Germanico I trust) sounded much older and definitely more masculine, nearer perhaps to the “maleness” of the baritone voice. His acting was superb, full of poignancy, bravado, exasperation and yet somehow conveying the dignity of a father too. Here too was another very fine Baroque singer I would be delighted to hear again – Mozartian with an Italianate bloom to the voice if you will.
Segeste’s other daughter was played by Klara Ek with a fragility and brittleness to her voice which sometimes suited the role; at other times I felt she lacked power as well as the ability to sustain a focused tone in those line-and-length arias which are supposed to make the audience weep. In less impressive company I am sure she would make a fine put-upon heroine.
And now to the pièce de résistance – the performance of Mr Hansen as Arminio. I knew he has an exceptional high register or extension as his singing of Ottone in Vivaldi’s Griselda is available to hear on YouTube. I knew also that he effectively brings in his own coterie, very much in the manner of an 18th century castrato. This wasn’t the first or only performance, but at least a row of the audience comprised Hansen groupies. It can be odious to make comparisons, but to all you Baroque countertenor aficionados out there, Mr Hansen has a much more consistent timbre to his voice throughout its compass (unlike Mr Fagioli’s three voices, which make him unique.) His extension is pure and beautiful, if a tad underpowered perhaps. His sound has a beauty to it and a dynamic range which puts him ahead of Jaroussky in my personal rankings. He has a similar smooth sound to Scholl or Daniels with the addition of a sixth or so at the top. Like Zazzo, he cuts a masculine dash as a hero and is a fine actor.
Overall this was an excellent production, well worth a special trip to Austria. Porpora’s music, like that of Vinci is well worth rediscovering.