The small Dutch company Opera Trionfo, collaborating with Theater Osnabrück in Germany, is currently touring with an ambitious project, Tommaso Traetta’s little-known opera Antigona. At its Dutch première in Amsterdam, Floris Visser’s staging vibrated with violent emotions and the cast gave physically explosive performances. They literally hurled themselves against the forbidding city walls that formed the set. Musically, things were a couple of degrees cooler, with several of the modest-sized voices remaining stagebound. Although not big on finesse, conductor Andreas Hotz kept the Osnabrück Symphony Orchestra burbling along briskly. On balance, this Antigona deserves to be seen, and not just because it is a rarity.

Erika Simons (Antigona) © Jörg Landsberg
Erika Simons (Antigona)
© Jörg Landsberg

Traetta wrote Antigona for St Petersburg, where he was Catherine the Great’s music director. The libretto is derived from Sophocles and centres on Oedipus and Jocasta’s daughter, Antigone. Defying a decree by her uncle Creon, King of Thebes, Antigone performs burial rites for her disgraced brother Polynices and is condemned to death. Structurally, Antigona is a transitional work. It contains Baroque elements such as dry recitative and da capo arias, but many of its solos, duets and choruses flow into each other, as in Gluck’s operas. Its première was in 1772, ten years after Orfeo ed Euridice, with which Gluck started his operatic reform, eliminating Baroque showiness in favour of dramatic and musical clarity. In this context, Antigona lags behind its times. Nevertheless, it is a splendid score replete with beautiful melodies. At key moments Traetta’s music has great tragic impact, such as when Antigone keens over her brother’s body with a chorus of mourners, or when Creon reconsiders his treatment of his niece and her fiancé Haemon, who is also his son.

Katarina Morfa (Emone) and Christian Damsgaard (Creonte) © Jörg Landsberg
Katarina Morfa (Emone) and Christian Damsgaard (Creonte)
© Jörg Landsberg

In the title role Erika Simons was the emotional fulcrum of the drama. She moved with feline grace and sang with unbroken intensity. Her soprano, slender and focused, was at home in the high-lying part. The finer details of Baroque vocalism eluded her, as well as the rest of the cast, an excusable fault in a company showcasing young singers. While Simons expressed Antigona’s fierceness with her bright timbre, Lina Liu’s warmer soprano conveyed her sister Ismene’s softer make-up. Liu lacked crispness in the recitatives, but she sang beautifully, with pliant lines. Costume designer Dieuweke van Reij dresses the sisters severely, in blouses chastely tied at the neck. Why would two young princesses dress like joyless governesses? Because Antigona and Ismene of the cursed House of Laius are the products of an incestuous marriage for whom sex is probably synonymous with catastrophe. Antigona only sheds her strait-laced outfit after Creonte (Creon) sentences her to be buried alive. In fact, the whole of grey, rocky Thebes is dressed in workaday grey or khaki uniforms circa 1940. This starkness conveys the grimness of the political crisis triggered by Antigona’s brothers, Eteocle (Eteocles) and Polinice (Polynices), who kill each other fighting over the Theban throne. In the opera the brothers are dancers, here they are very convincing actors. Kevin Ruijters as Polinice, who keeps returning as a ghost to haunt his family, deserves a special mention.

There is one trouser role in Antigona – Emone, who defies his father and chooses to be interred alive with his beloved. Katarina Morfa exuded the required testosterone for the rebellious prince, but her cloudy mezzo-soprano frequently got lost in the unflattering acoustics of the Stadsschouwburg. Similarly, tenor Christian Damsgaard’s Creonte was less rounded vocally than theatrically. Damsgaard commanded sympathy with his tortured portrayal of the initially unbending, then contrite, ruler. Unfortunately, by the third act he was too vocally spent to bring off Creonte’s moment of self-awareness and one of the opera’s gems, the aria “Ah, no, non son gli dei”.

Kevin Ruijters (Polinice) and Kenneth Gérard (Eteocle) © Jörg Landsberg
Kevin Ruijters (Polinice) and Kenneth Gérard (Eteocle)
© Jörg Landsberg

Daniel Wagner stood out in the short role of Adrasto, the king’s confidant, his pleasing tenor taking wing and projecting well. The Osnabrück Chorus, expertly directed to move both as a crowd and as individuals, combined grandeur with pathos. Their sound was dominated by the sopranos, which is not necessarily a bad thing, and could have been venue-related. The basso continuo on fortepiano and cello was perfectly competent but, like the rest of the orchestral playing, lacked expressive subtlety. Antigona ends happily, with a feast of dances and celebratory ensembles. Creonte reverses his sentence in time and Antigona and Emone get married. Visser will have none of this and, in the spirit of Sophocles, has Creonte arriving too late to save either. He truncates the finale and brings the curtain down after the wedding chorus, which becomes a hymn ushering the dead lovers into the next world. This forceful ending preserves the power of the original myth, where faith and personal relationships clash disastrously with political expediency. There will be eight more performances of Antigona throughout the Netherlands, the last one in December of this year.

***11