Niccolò Jommelli: Il Vologeso
Ana Durlovski (Berenice), Sophie Marilley (Vologeso), Sebastian Kohlhepp (Lucio Vero), Helene Schneiderman (Lucilla), Catriona Smith (Flavio), Igor Durlovski (Aniceto), Staatsorchester Stuttgart, Gabriele Ferro (conductor), Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito (stage directors), Anna Viebrock (set and costume designer), Marcus Richardt (video director)
Recorded live at Oper Stuttgart (9-30 May 2015) – 182’49
1 Blu-ray disc Naxos NBDOO67V – Booklet in English and German
This video recording of an operatic rarity provides an intriguing introduction to the music of the little-known Niccolò Jommelli thanks mainly to the ardent conducting of Gabriele Ferro and the committed performances of the singers. It loses points, though, due to the muddled direction of Jossi Weiler and Sergio Morabito, a duo I have experienced once before, when they messed around with Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera.
Vologeso, king of Parthia, is the title role, but the work’s alternate title is Berenice, Queen of Armenia. (She is not the Berenice of Handel’s opera and others.) (And, BYW, Armenia never had a queen named Berenice. But the rivalrous kings in this work are historical - they were enemies during Rome’s futile, multi-century effort to conquer Parthia).
In this plot Berenice is a woman torn between two men who love her. She is held captive in Ephesus by the Roman co-emperor Lucio Vero, and finds herself responding to his wooing as she believes the missing Parthian king, whom she has loved since childhood, had been killed. Lucio, though, is betrothed to Lucilla, daughter of co-emperor Marcus Aurelius. She arrives from Rome accompanied by a senatorial ambassador, Flavio, who is in love with her. Lucio Vero has a servant/confidant, Aniceto, also in love with Lucilla, and who gives Lucio self-serving advice.
A dramatic turning point occurs when Vologeso turns up alive, badly scarred and with just one arm. Mezzo-soprano Sophie Marilley gives an intense - even feral - characterization of the desperate captive. The action unfolds as the six characters go though various stages of love, hatred, plotting, and misunderstanding. Fifteen arias are sung and each act ends with an ensemble number. Jommelli was an exact contemporary of Gluck, but his music is much livelier. His arias avoid the patience-trying da capo patterns of Handel and so many others. Gabriele Ferro’s statement in the booklet notes the complexity of the orchestration; he divided the strings into three sections to bring forth its contrapuntal flavour. It is a delightful listening experience.
I wish I could say the same for the visual aspects. The unit set (showing a drab modern-day street as seen through a dingy ancient portico) fails to show us the various locales mentioned in the synopsis (a prison, arena, palace, etc), but does provide space for the lively physicality of the numerous confrontations. The orchestra pit is raised to a degree so that the players are part of the scene. A wide set of stairs leads from stage to pit, and much action tumbles into the pit - and even, at times, into the audience. At one point when Vologeso (in chains) urges Berenice to spurn Lucio they get into a desperate clinch and roll down the steps. Immediately following, Berenice is confronted by Lucio who promises to restore Vologeso to his throne if Berenice succumbs to his wooing; she batters him, drawing blood, while singing passages worthy of Mozart’s Donna Anna. Lucio then contemplates murder-suicide - and on it goes. Later on, in an aria with torrents of coloratura, he implores Lucilla, the woman he has spurned, to feel compassion for him because the woman he loves has spurned him. Such is the sense of entitlement of a Roman co-emperor.
The extreme vehemence of the passions expressed leads at times to outright laughter (mine at least - I heard none from the Stuttgart audience). Each character is lovelorn and each gives a heartfelt performance, notably Ana Durlovski as Berenice. Tenor Sebastian Kohlhepp perseveres in a manly way with Lucio Vero, one of opera seria’s great dunderheads. Like many other tenor tyrants in these kind of works (Lucio Silla in Mozart’s opera, Grimoaldo in Handel’s Rodelinda) he abruptly sees the error of his ways and restores Vologeso to both his throne and true love, while he dutifully teams up with the faithful Lucilla.
One way the directors tweak the plot lies in their treatment of Lucilla. Played straight she is the opera’s goody-goody whose true love for Lucio Vero eventually makes him see the error of his ways. The historical Lucilla was not yet 15 when she was married to Lucio. Helene Schneiderman sang the role when it was recorded (also with Stuttgart forces) in 1999. She still sings well but her age (and sense of chic) make her look more like a calculating middle-aged woman pursuing a younger man, thus a stereotypical comic figure. In addition she seems to respond to Aniceto’s advances and in one scene he voices some of her lines.
As for Aniceto, Igor Durlovski gives an intriguing performance billed as a counter-tenor. This singer, however, is normally a bass, and uses both his voices in this role. When advising Lucio in his sole aria he is a counter tenor, but when expressing his true self (and indicating his designs on Lucilla) his impressively macho voice is used. A two-faced character is thus also two-voiced.
The other lovelorn figure is Flavio; Catriona Smith handles her lines with verve and masters the art of the slow burn as the women Flavio loves remains stubbornly enamoured of the oblivious Lucio.
The work is long and one gradually succumbs to a siege mentality thanks to the relentless staging. Then the directors short-change the ending. Jommelli’s music gives way to a rather subdued postlude; one can imagine a stately dance with the correct lovers restored to one another. Instead the players cast off their costumes and enact various stages of profound unhappiness.
Despite the variable staging, watching a DVD of such a work where five of the six characters have high voices helps one differentiate between the players. What we get to see in opera houses features only a small number of works from the fecund 18th century. Anyone with curiosity about the broader repertoire will find this work of great interest.
ConcertoNet also has a review (in French) of a live performance in Stuttgart.