1.1 The past five years have seen a steady increase in the production and performance of early seventeenth-century Italian opera. Notably, several of these productions have found their way to DVD. Joining the ranks of René Jacob and Herbert Wernicke’s La Calisto (Harmonia Mundi, 2006), and Fabio Biondi and Carlo Majer’s La Didone (Dynamic, 2007), each of these productions revisits the pressing question of how best to represent early opera to modern day audiences and answers it in unique ways. From minimalist sets to over-the-top designs that strive for—and at times outdo themselves in achieving—an element of camp, these performances continue the current trend of reintroducing important operatic repertoire that has been previously all but lost to modern-day audiences. However, very few of these important productions attempt a historically informed performance beyond that of the music. What modern audience, after all, would be interested in a production that attempts to recreate the sights, sounds, and technologies of the seventeenth century?
1.2 The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that many would welcome such productions. Indeed, the overwhelmingly positive reception that William Christie and Benjamin Lazar’s production of Stefano Landi and Giulio Rospigliosi’s Il Sant’Alessio (Rome, 1629[?], 1632; rev. 1634) has received is testament to this. In an era where the collective belief often seems to be that early operas need to be modernized in order to appeal to the tastes of today’s audiences, Christie and Lazar demonstrate quite the opposite, going to great lengths to retain historical accuracy, if not authenticity. From its period orchestra to its historically informed sets to its all-male cast where countertenors and choirboys abound, their Sant’Alessio is arguably the closest that modern productions have come to re-creating the sights and sounds of early seventeenth-century Rome.
2.1 As Rospigliosi’s first opera for the Barberini family, Il Sant’Alessio is remarkable both as a literary work and as an opera libretto. Merging elements of hagiography, Jesuit drama, and oratorio, Il Sant’Alessio recounts the story of Saint Alexis, a Roman patrician who abandoned his wife and family in order to devote himself more fully to a life of prayerful asceticism. Upon returning to Rome, Alexis spends the next seventeen years underneath the stairs of his family’s home, living a life of self-denial where he is haunted daily by his family’s grief, mocked by the servants, and tempted by the Devil and his minions. The saint’s true identity is revealed in a letter to his family upon his death, and a chorus of angels and Religion announce that none should grieve for Alexis but rather should rejoice in his life of virtuous self-sacrifice. Alexis’s story is one of inaction and religious contemplation. The work’s overtly religious content, pointed absence of miracles, and subsequent dearth of occasion for flashy display make Il Sant’Alessio an unlikely choice for today’s operatic audiences. And yet, the libretto’s repeated juxtapositions of sensuality and self-denial, luxury and austerity, beauty and restraint, provide countless opportunities for Lazar and his artistic collaborator, Louise Moaty, to explore the various messages embedded within the libretto and to adapt them in a way that remains relevant for modern-day audiences. Perhaps one of the reasons that they are so successful in this end can be found in the sheer number of primary sources and variety of firsthand perspectives that were available to them while they worked to re-envision Il Sant’Alessio for the twenty-first-century stage.
2.2 Though originally commissioned by Cardinal Francesco Barberini for performance during the 1631 Carnival season, Il Sant’Alessio was not performed until the following year when it received its premiere in the family’s new Palazzo alle Quattro Fontane. Two years later, Landi and Rospigliosi revisited the story of Sant’Alessio, revising and enlarging it with new scenes and characters. Its performance in 1634 was commemorated with the publication of a new Argomento della rappresentazione di S. Alessio and a printed score, replete with engravings of eight scenic designs. These sources, together with the printed Argomento of the 1632 version and the firsthand accounts of Jean-Jacques Bouchard, a French traveler who attended a 1632 performance, place Il Sant’Alessio among the best documented early seventeenth-century operas. The current production of Il Sant’Alessio follows, almost to the letter, the details and descriptions contained in these documents, most particularly those pertaining to the 1634 performance.
3.1 From an audience member’s perspective, one cannot help but marvel at the many thoughtful details that went into the lighting, costuming, and staging for this performance. For example, as the notes of the opening sinfonia are played, a double row of candles placed across the front of the stage is sequentially lit, suggesting that the ensuing performance will be completely candlelit. This suggestion is upheld by the soft overhead lighting that complements the flickering candles, creating a chiaroscuro effect. The dramatic play of light and shadow that results transports the audience back in time, playing off the richly paneled set and the deep hued reds, golds, and greens of the handsomely embroidered costumes that are most commonly associated with the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
3.2 As the opera’s action unfolds, what appears to be a traditional two-floor scenic backdrop for a public space (reminiscent of the sets recommended by Renaissance designers for the performance of comedies) reveals itself to be a three-piece structure with multiple doors, windows, and columns. Despite its outward similarity to the engravings of the scenic designs for the 1634 production, this set opens, closes, and moves to create the varied scenes called for by the libretto, allowing for the incorporation of dramatic staging to accompany long passages of recitative or monologue. One notable example occurs in Act II, scene 2. Here, as the Devil describes how he has persuaded Alexis’s wife to go off in search of her husband, the audience witnesses her preparing for her journey through the balcony window. At other points the movable sets replace the need for elaborate stage machinery, as seen when the walls quite literally close in on Sant’Alessio as the Devil reprimands him for his selfishness in letting his family suffer (II, 6). This narrowed stage perspective remains for the next three scenes until Act II, scene 9, when Religion enters, abruptly casting back the confining walls of the set in the manner of a deus ex machina, only without the “machina.”
3.3 What is perhaps most striking upon seeing this production is the fact that it boasts an all-male cast, thereby keeping with the tradition of the seventeenth-century papal court where women were not allowed to perform onstage. Bouchard’s account of the 1632 performance of Il Sant’Alessio notes particularly that the cast was made up entirely of male performers whose “voices were all excellent, being the elite of the papal singers and of Rome,” and he goes on to suggest that impious thoughts were inspired in the minds of the audience members by “the performers who played either women or choirs or angels [who] were beautiful in perfection, as they were either young pages or chapel castrati.” The production of Il Sant’Alessio is no less seductive in its use of countertenors, whose different vocal timbres and use of Baroque stylized gesture lead to the creation of distinctive characters who are as convincing in their physical and emotional portrayals as they are beautiful to listen to. Most impressive is the performance of Max Emanuel Cencic in the role of Alessio’s wife. Cencic’s clear, androgynous voice and sensitivity to tonal shading imbue his performance with a dramatic intensity that is credible in a way that makes the audience want to weep alongside Alessio’s wife as she mourns the loss of her husband. Similarly, Philippe Jaroussky’s pure tone, sweet upper register, and remarkable vocal agility heighten his portrayal of the fragile, almost ethereal Alessio. Other notable performances by Jean-Paul Bonnevalle as the nurse, Xavier Sabata as the mother, and Terry Wey, who performs the roles of Rome and Religion, successfully serve to redefine the modern-day assumption that men who perform women in opera while dressed in drag must serve a comic function.
3.4 No less remarkable is the music for Il Sant’Alessio. As a contralto in the papal choir, composer, and organist, Stefano Landi was exposed to a variety of styles, many of which he included in his opera. Led by William Christie, Les Arts Florissants commendably brings Landi’s score to life, improvising over his printed bass and utilizing a fairly diverse collection of instruments (many of which were identified by Landi himself in the published score). Demonstrating a great respect for Landi’s ability to depict musically the drama of a scene by simply changing texture or style, William Christie and his ensemble effectively capture the music’s theatricality, moving effortlessly between frolicking country dances, demonic and angelic choruses, heartrending moments of psychological self-questioning, and poignant scenes of lament.
3.5 While much of Landi’s score is thoughtfully performed, there are several moments that leave room for improvement. For example, scenes such as “Poca voglia di far bene” and “Ma cola mesto” (I, 3), which feature the comic pages Martio and Curtio, are somewhat difficult to sit through. Despite a high energy performance filled with the type of physical expression that we most commonly associate with commedia dell’arte characters, these pages belie their commedia roots, which encompassed a rich musical as well as theatrical tradition. Singing awkwardly throughout, José Lemos and Damien Guillon intentionally perform with a flat intonation which, when combined with their refusal to blend their voices, grates on the audience’s ears. Notwithstanding their clear attempt to increase the humor in their scenes by providing stark musical and dramatic contrast, the end result does little justice to Landi’s music and Rospigliosi’s text, demonstrating a certain lack of trust in the comedy inherent in the source material with which they are working. Similarly, the uninspired choral performances at the end of Act I and the children’s choruses in Act III make little attempt to explore the great expressive possibilities of Landi’s music.
4.1 Despite a few somewhat-questionable performance choices, the Théâtre de Caen performance of Il Sant’Alessio is a definite “must see.” Its staging, sets, costuming, all-male cast, and informed period musical performance make the performance a rare find—one that could easily be integrated in the classroom as well as repeatedly viewed for pure enjoyment. One small caveat: if this is your first encounter with early Baroque opera and its socio-political contexts, please beware of the liner notes. The general commentary provided by Dominique Fernandez presents a revisionist view of history in its construction of the Baroque period as “a brazen publicity campaign [in response to the attacks of Protestant reformers] launched by the Jesuits who were the most cunning in their malice and methods of seduction.” Such an oversimplification of a period wrought by conflicting political, religious, and artistic ideals contradicts the great attention to historical detail and general aesthetic with which the production’s directors and performers approached this work. Happily, EMI Records counterbalances Fernandez’s ideas about the period by including a DVD Bonus that contains a fascinating interview with William Christie, Benjamin Lazar, and Louise Moaty. Here the directors’ commentaries reveal the great respect that they showed the work and the period, along with the care that they took in re-creating the Baroque aesthetic for their modern-day audiences in as historically informed a manner as possible.
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