Ferdinando Paër (1771-1839) is one of a group of composers – with Spontini, Cherubini and Mayr – who is usually referred to as “transition” composers in Italian opera, bridging the gap between Mozart and Rossini. Their work is not presented often in opera theatres around the world, so the Teatro Regio’s effort to resurrect this all-but-forgotten opera is welcome and commendable. This production relies on the work of Giuliano Castellani, whose critical edition is the foundation of this cultural event.

Agnese was composed in 1809 for the private theatre of Count Scotti, in Parma, and was performed by amateur singers. Immediately after this intimate première, the opera was presented in all the major Italian theatres, and it was a resounding success: In 1814, it filled La Scala for over 50 nights, surpassing Don Giovanni, which was presented in the same season. When Agnese arrived in Paris, where Paër was employed as Napoleon’s court composer, he made several modifications, cutting some numbers and adding others. Castellani’s edition presents all the music written by Paër, both in the Parma and the Paris versions. This choice was appropriate from a musicology point of view, but it risked breaking the dramatic unity of the work, slowing the pace. Fortunately, the musical direction was in the capable hands of Diego Fasolis, who rediscovered this work in a concert version in Lugano about ten years ago. His reading of the score was full of love, relying on a lucid, thoughtful vision of the orchestral texture. His energetic gestures helped to keep the pace brisk, driving the reduced Orchestra del Teatro Regio di Torino with a rich palette of dynamics. The orchestra was the best player on the field, every solo perfectly on point, and their performance was extremely enjoyable.

Agnese is an opera semi-seria, which depicts human madness. When Uberto’s daughter Agnese elopes with her beloved Ernesto, Uberto loses his mind and believes her dead. Most of the story takes place in a mental institution, where sympathetic doctors, security guards and administrators try to help Uberto regain his wits, to no avail. Agnese, betrayed and abandoned by Ernesto, goes back to her father to ask for forgiveness, unaware of his troubles. Ernesto is repentant of his philandering ways and follows Agnese to ask her for forgiveness. The opera ends with Uberto regaining his mental clarity when he hears Agnese sing an old song, and a general reconciliation occurs. The plot presents several fairy-tale elements: the protagonist’s flight through the forest, the characters being two-dimensional, the magical restoring of Uberto’s health. Leo Muscato’s production exploited these elements by setting the action inside gigantic, early 19th-century-style medicament boxes that opened to represent different rooms: Don Pasquale’s studio (the director of the mental institution), or Uberto’s hospital room. The depiction of mentally ill patients was a bit tone-deaf and dated, but it fit with the magical, unreal atmosphere.

María Rey-Joly, in the eponymous role, showed a mellow, lyrical soprano, which at the beginning seemed a bit empty in the middle register, but, in the second act, found a better foundation and richness. She was particularly effective in the larmoyant style, but she also approached the last difficult aria (“Da te solo”) with boldness, receiving great acclaim.

Uberto, the father, was Markus Werba: his interpretation was full of emotion, and his bass well suited to the part, with good high notes and great support. Uberto has several madness scenes, inspired by Paisiello’s Nina; Werba was very effective, conveying his character’s madness without losing elegance and style. Edgardo Rocha was Ernesto, the unfaithful repentant lover; he had two of the most challenging arias, the second one (“Ah! Se il fato”) written by Paër for the famous tenor Marco Bordogni for the Paris debut of the opera. Rocha sailed through the coloratura and the high notes with his customary rock-solid belcanto technique. His voice found its place in the nose too often, but overall his performance was exciting. The director made a mockery of the character of Ernesto: he had an improbable blonde tuft and acted in an exaggerated and affected manner. Rocha was irresistible, his natural comic vein perfectly suited to this interpretation. Filippo Morace, as Don Pasquale, showed perfect style and a measured, elegant interpretation of the buffo character, although his voice lacked the projection required in the large Teatro Regio. Giulia Della Peruta was an adorable Vespina, her high soprano well suited to the spirited maid. The other singers rounded out the performance, contributing to a well-deserved success.