It’s sometimes a bit of a mystery why some works disappear from the opera repertoire while other, not obviously superior, works enjoy lasting success so it’s always a pleasure to discover an obscure work that is really good (1). Salieri’s Europa Riconosciuta fits that description in my view. It’s basically an opera seria much along the lines of Mozart’s opere serie (opera serias? – who knows?(2)) except that there’s a longish ballet at the end of Act 1. There are long, florid, arias with, for the two female leads, very high tessitura. Two of the three male roles were written for castrati and the one intact male role is for that sort of heroic tenor who crops up in Idomeneo or La Clemenza di Tito. It’s not as formulaic as works of 50 years earlier. There are far more ensemble and choral numbers than in any of Handel’s Italian works. It’s also just plain rather good. Salieri understands singers and he writes really good melodies. I guess he was just a bit unfortunate to have that pesky Salzburger as competition.
It’s based on a rather obscure classical story concerning Europa and Semele, their husbands and suitors, and the succession to the kingdom of Tyre. All of which is really just a peg to hang some dramatic and challenging music on. It’s the work that opened La Scala in 1788 and was revived for the reopening, after renovations, in 2004 when it was recorded for video.
Luca Ronconi’s production is straightforward as far as storytelling goes (just as well as this is seriously convoluted) but it’s visually striking. For the most part the stage is sparsely populated and monochrome. The only splashes of colour are Isséo’s (and his cavalry) dark red leathers and Semele’s numerous sparkly dresses. The soldiers, of which there are many, look they have escaped from a particularly austere Formula 1 team. The chorus sings from underneath the stage which is raised to make this possible. It’s pretty spectacular in a Julie Taymor Titus Andronicus sort of way.
The ballet that concludes Act 1 is almost twenty minutes long and would no doubt be cut or otherwise mucked about with in many houses but this is La Scala where they take their ballet seriously. There’s serious classical choreography (kitten heels and pointe both) by Heinz Spörli and as well as the excellent corps de ballet there are two first class International soloists in Roberto Bolle and Alessandro Ferri. Spörli provides them with an appropriately virtuoso pas de deux. This is unquestionably the most impressive dancing I’ve seen in an opera production.
There’s some notably good singing. Semele, sung by Désirée Rancatore, and Europa, sung by Diana Damrau, both get display arias with wicked coloratura and F sharps above high C. Both knock them off with aplomb. The third soprano is Genia Kühmeier, as the Cretan king Asterio. Her music is more dramatic but less showy (written for soprano castrato) and she manages it well. Mezzo Daniela Barcellona sings the alto castrato role of Tyrian general Isséo. She’s a big, muscular, dark toned mezzo (with a big sword). It’s classic opera seria mezzo territory and the fans of mezzos with big swords will not be disappointed. Giuseppe Sabatini sings the villain Egisto with appropriately big voice and just the right amount of moustache twirling. The chorus sounds really good too and Riccardo Muti conducts like a man possessed getting brilliant, dramatic, even thrilling, sound from the orchestra.
The sound quality is strikingly good, especially the surround track(3). Video quality isn’t so striking. It’s typical “just before HD” DVD quality. It’s quite watchable but lacks definition at times. I found it almost impossible to get stills of the ballet due to motion blur. Pierre Cavassilas’ video direction is pretty good and even his odder decisions; for example we see a lot of Muti and the audience during the finale, are perhaps appropriate to the celebratory nature of the proceedings. The booklet contains a much needed synopsis but nothing else. There are no extras on the disc. Subtitle options are English German, French and Italian.
If you have any taste at all for works like Idomeneo I think you will be most pleasantly surprised by this. If you have a taste for virtuoso singing and terrific dancing you won’t be disappointed either.
- Especially in a week when Canadian regional companies seem to be announcing seasons drawn entirely from the Operabase “Top 40”.
- “Opera seria” is already a plural in Latin so how does one superpluralise it?
- It’s described as Dolby 5.1 on the box and on the disk but the box has a DTS logo and no Dolby logo. Who knows?