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Alessandro MELANI (1639-1703)
L’empio punito (1669) – Dramma per music in three Acts to a libretto by Giovanni Filippo Apolloni based on Filippo Acciaiuoli’s adaptation of El burlador de Sevilla y Convidado de piedra by Tirso de Molina
Reate Festival Baroque Ensemble/Alessandro Quarta
rec. Reate Festival, Teatro di Villa Torlonia, Rome, Italy, 2 October 2019
Director: Cesare Scarton
Video Director: Maxim Derevianko
NTSC DVD All Regions. Dolby Digital 5.1
DYNAMIC 37871 DVD [136 mins]

Over a hundred years before Mozart and da Ponte created their enduring masterpiece Don Giovanni, Alessandro Melani became the first composer to write an opera based on the legend whose ultimate literary source for both works was the play El burlador de Sevilla y Convidado de piedra by the Spanish monk Tirso de Molina.

Filippo Acciaiuoli’s adaptation of the drama differs somewhat from Mozart’s more familiar version – and therefore from de Molina’s original too – by setting it in Classical Macedonia, and changing some of the plot’s details as well as the characters’ names. Acrimante is the libertine who, in this account, has a wife, Atamira. She rather parallels the role of Donna Elvira in that, despite all the humiliations she has suffered, she still loves him. When King Atrace comes to hear that Acrimante has designs upon his sister, Ipomene, he seeks to kill the philanderer, but Atamira requests that she attempt the deed instead, because in reality she wants to save him by substituting a sleeping potion for poison. The effects of that give him a foretaste of hell as he dreams about an excursion there, where he promptly lures Prosperina.

Ipomene and her lover Cloridoro stand in place of Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, although the Commendatore figure is taken not by her father, but Tidemo who fatally interrupts Acrimante as he attempts to ravish Ipomene. Bibi is analogous to Leporello, but Melani’s opera introduces a love interest for him in the form of the lusty nurse Delfa, a comic archetype taken over from Venetian theatre who is played in drag as such roles often are. The ambiguity in gender is paralleled in this production by the shepherdesses who appear, the transvestite one being left for Bibi’s attentions whilst Acrimante seduces the other.

Cesare Scarton’s direction and Michele Della Cioppa’s set designs tautly combine an abstract staging on a series of sloping, raised squares, like stepping stones, between two panels, with modern dress for the characters. That enables much lithe choreography across the stage by the singers and actors, making this an engaging if even sometimes busy and exhausting production, without the use of extraneous props. Even the stone effigy of Tidemo is omitted, so that his spirit is evoked merely by a projected, otherworldly voice, offstage, and it is only Acrimante’s own writhing which dramatises his downfall and banishment to hell. If that disappoints viewers who prefer more traditionally theatrical spectacle, it does keep within the more suggestive, pantomimic, or even psychological parameters which Scarton’s conception seems to lay out.

Like the operas of Stradella – a composer with whom Melani’s older brother collaborated – the score of L’empio punito marks a midway point between earlier 17th century examples by the likes of Monteverdi, Cavalli, and Cesti, and the formation of fully-fledged opera seria, in that more use is made of ariosos and arias than in those operas which came before. Conducting from the harpsichord, Alessandro Quarta’s interpretation of the music matches the speedy presentation of the action on stage, scarcely pausing for breath between numbers. Much of the time that works well in keeping up dramatic tension and excitement, but sometimes the listener will surely yearn for that to slacken for a moment during some of the more extensive and musically beautiful arias and duets, and also to let the solemn interjections of the spirit of Tidemo to sink in.

The cast of young singers convincingly maintains the fast pace of the staging, but it is a pity that the boxed-in and rather recessed sound of this recording puts them at a disadvantage, particularly in relation to the orchestra who are further forwards in the acoustic. Where the instrumental layer is detailed and punchy, especially with the particularly pungent plucked timbres of the continuo section, and by rarely performing below mezzo forte in volume, the vocal lines come across as more generalised, although the singers do otherwise generally seem to bring nuance to their music.

Mauro Borgioni’s Acrimante registers as a more or less vocally sturdy and seductive force, whilst Giacomo Nanni as his servant Bibi is jocular and responsive, though just as tonally secure and idiomatic. Where Michela Guarrera often soars over the instruments as Ipomene, sounding charmingly expressive, Sabrina Cortese’s Atamira matches her for urgent and passionate singing, particularly as she bewails Acrimante’s infidelity. It is no wonder that the latter’s subtle vocal allure elsewhere also captures the attentions of the king, Atrace, whose performance by Alessandro Ravasio comes over as authoritative but also restrained, rather than extrovert or charismatic, but that suits the character in contrast with Acrimante’s swagger. Alessio Tosi presents an amusing appearance as the buxom, bewigged Delfa, and his fruity, arch singing realises the comedy of the part without descending into vulgar excess. Other parts complete a performance that is never less than acceptable.

Despite the shortcomings of the recorded sound in this release, it is worth persevering for this otherwise lively recreation of an opera rarely seen or heard, by a composer who also rewards attention.

Curtis Rogers

Cast
Atrace – Alessandro Ravasio
Ipomene – Michela Guarrera
Cloridoro – Carlotta Colombo
Atamira – Sabrina Cortese
Acrimante – Mauro Borgioni
Bibi – Giacomo Nanni
Delfa – Alessio Tosi
Tidemo – Riccardo Pisani
Corimbo – Luca Cervoni
Proserpina – Maria Elena Pepi
Demonio – Guglielmo Buonsanti
Due Pastorelle – Maria Elena Pepi, Luca Cervoni
Coro di Stallieri e Diavoli – Luca Cervoni, Riccardo Pisani, Guglielmo Buonsanti
Actors – Gaetano Carbone, Alessandro Gaglio, Valerio Leoni, Guido Targetti

 



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