Rappresentazione di anima et di corpo is the first example of drama completely set to music which arrived to the present day. The Theater an der Wien has aptly chosen it for the opening of the season. The libretto is a sacred text written by a cleric, Agostino Manni, from the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri, where the premiere took place in year 1600. The text is heavily moralising and pedagogical and the characters are the embodiments of philosophical and religious concepts: Time (Tempo), Reason (Intelletto), Counsel (Consiglio) are all trying to guide and advise Body (Corpo) and Soul (Anima), tempted by Pleasure (Piacere), World (Mondo) and Life (Vita). Body is of course easily tempted, but Soul helps him find the right path to God, with the help of a Guardian Angel. All this seems to point to an oratorio, but the lively interaction among the characters, and, most of all, the new style of the music – stile recitativo – might point this out as a first opera. Composer Emilio de’ Cavalieri was very proud of having invented this style, a boast that many of his contemporaries challenged. The style, called also recitar cantando, is the one Monteverdi made famous shortly after.

Daniel Schmutzhard (Corpo), Anett Fritsch (Anima), Arnold Schoenberg Chor
© Werner Kmetitsch

Director Robert Carsen takes an intellectually honest, intelligent approach to a text that, nowadays, feels alien. Body and Soul are represented as a man and a woman, an affectionate couple, holding hands, hugging, taking care of each other. Carsen wisely steered away of any sexual charge in this couple’s interactions: they are companions, helping each other make sense of existence. This take was successful and emotionally intense; the idea that body and soul are friends, first and foremost, was deeply moving. The chorus and a large number of dancers are constantly on stage, commenting on the events and helping visualise them. At the beginning they are dressed in everyday clothes (costumes by Luis Carvalho), then change into neutral black for the first scenes. When Pleasure and his two acolytes enter the stage, all dressed in bright red, the dancers, in the same colour, take part in the drinking, dancing with heavy sexual innuendo. Body is fascinated, Soul explains that these are false pleasures, and the only real pleasure in the divine path.

Daniel Schmutzhard (Corpo) and Florian Boesch (Consiglio)
© Werner Kmetitsch

The atmosphere became heavier, with the moralising characters more and more bigoted, and Body and Soul ever more lost. The World enters dressed in gold, showing his power and his riches, and Life follows, with her beauty and charm. Here even Soul is tempted, surely there must be a way to serve God and still enjoy the world, and life? But the Guardian Angel rebukes her. Earthly life is an illusion, the word is destined to crumble. Afterwards, everybody surrounding Body and Soul is dressed as a bishop in full regalia, but in gloomy black. Counsel and Reason present hell’s horrors and heaven’s delights, first with their own words, and then interrogating the damned and blessed souls. Dancers strapped to the ceiling are lifted up, as the blessed souls responded, graciously flying around, only to turn contorted and disfigured as they are lowered down, below the stage, when the damned answer. At this point Body and Soul, overwhelmed, have a moment of sanity and reject this Manichean vision: they run away, to the front of the stage, where they are joined by all, Counsel, Reason, Time, World, Life, Pleasure, and together they praise God with happy singing and dancing. It is such a liberating, fun ending to an intense piece.

Matúš Šimko, Daniel Schmutzhard, Margherita Maria Sala, Anett Fritsch, Michal Marhold
© Werner Kmetitsch

The musical production was extraordinary. Giovanni Antonini led Il Giardino Armonico in a lively performance, with tempi on the fast side, and incredible community of intent between pit and stage. The small ensemble featured splendid period instruments: dulcian, cornetto, violone, gamba, lirone, lute, theorbo, ceterone. They played with competence and passion, with wonderful solo passages in the many orchestral parts.

Cyril Auvity, Anett Fritsch, Daniel Schmutzhard, Florian Boesch, dancers and chorus
© Werner Kmetitsch

The singing cast was worthy of such an orchestra. Annett Fritsch’s silvery, bright soprano was perfect for Soul, matched by the warm baritone of Daniel Schmutzhard, Body. Reason was the fantastic Cyril Auvity, whose extremely high tenor sounded luminous, natural and full – he was my favourite. Bass-baritone Florian Boesch sang Counsel with authority and charisma, while baritone Georg Nigl showed comic flair as the World and Time. Carlo Vistoli sang the Guardian Angel with a countertenor showing some occasional acidity, but great interpretation and remarkable projection. The cast was completed by Giuseppina Bridelli (Life), Margherita Maria Sala as Pleasure, and Matúš Šimko and Michal Marhold as Pleasure’s companions. All the singers, with no exceptions, including the Arnold Schoenberg Chor masterfully prepared by Erwin Ortner, sang with elegance and style, with total commitment to their part.

This season opening at the Theater an der Wien was an unmitigated, tremendous success.