This year's edition of the Festival della Valle d'Itria in Martina Franca opened with La donna serpente (The Snake woman), by Alfredo Casella, a 20th century opera of some musical value, and of much historical and philological interest for scholars and experts, though it got a much warmer reception by the public than by critics. The Italian 20th century has largely been rediscovered by critics and the public: in 2010 Nino Rota's Napoli milionaria proved a great success in Martina Franca's festival, so this year they continued down this line by choosing Alfredo Casella, a composer whose symphonic works have just recently enjoyed an acclaimed revival.

<i>La donna serpente</i> at Martina Franca © Laera
La donna serpente at Martina Franca
© Laera

The opera premièred in Rome in 1932 with the composer conducting; according to Casella’s account, it was acclaimed by “an incredibly elegant public, full of beautiful, semi-nude women [!], but condemned by the critics”. It has not been prodiuced in Italy since 1982. La donna serpente was composed by Casella between 1928 and 1931 to a libretto by Cesare Vico Ludovici, based upon a 18th century fairy tale by Carlo Gozzi, who also wrote the story Prokofiev used for his Love for Three Oranges. Casella promoted a neo-Classical style widely appreciated by composers of his time after Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. But with Casella, although he adopted classical forms of expression, his emotionality was never controlled. He was never able to restrain his flaming personality, and the effect can be seen in his work. From this perspective, La donna serpente is indeed frustrating, because the score hardly manages to rein in the bizarre and fragmented story. Only in some passages, like the prelude to Act III, is the mystery and tragedy of the eccentric libretto displayed.

The plot concerns Miranda, a fairy priness, who is in love with a mortal, Altidòr; her king Demogorgòn allows her to marry him, on condition that she must never reveal to him her true identity. Miranda is also ordered to put Altidòr through some dreadful tests after which he must swear not to curse her. If he fails, Miranda will be turned into a snake for 200 years. Inevitably, he does actually curse her and Miranda becomes a snake. In Act III, Altidòr, with help from a magician, succeeds in winning her back, after defeating three monsters and overcoming a wall of fire.

Since Gozzi’s La donna serpente combines fantasy and commedia dell’arte, Casella tries to alternate dramatic and comic scenes, like a modern Magic Flute. The music is colourful and riddling, pleasurable in some passages, at times forgettable.

<i>La donna serpente</i> © Laera
La donna serpente
© Laera

The Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia performed excellently under the direction of Fabio Luisi, who once again proved a sympathetic and expert conductor. His reading had a particular fascination for he was able to interweave the different stylistic aspects present in the work. Luisi balanced well blocks of orchestral sound with singers‘ parts. His reading aimed at enhancing the musical patterns; the preciousness and innovations contained in Casella’s instrumental construction was supported by the excellent Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia in all its sections as well as by the Choir of the State Philharmonic "Transylvania" of Cluj -Napoca, directed by Cornel Groza.

Director Arturo Cirillo managed to synchronize dancers, mimes, the choir and the atmosphere players (all in colorful costumes designed by Gianluca Falaschi) creating a sort of a glowing kaleidoscope, within Dario Gessati's set, which was a space formed by steep walls incessantly composing and decomposing.

As for the singing cast, the performances of the two protagonists deserve to be noticed: soprano Zuzana Marková (Miranda) and tenor Angelo Villari (Altidor). Among the other singers, a good contribution came by buffo Domenico Colaianni. There were excellent performances, as ever, by the dancers of Fattoria Vittadini. La donna serpente has rarity value but, on this basis, is more for scholarly interest.