On 19th November 1714 the Habsburg court in Vienna celebrated the nameday of Holy Roman Empress Elisabeth Christine with an operatic pastiche, L'Atenaïde, for which three court composers (Marc'Antonio Ziani, Antonio Negri und Antonio Caldara) each wrote an act. After Acts I and II, a prototypical opera buffa were performed, as was soon to become the practice in performances of opera seria (these interludes, which had their own plots and characters, were known as ‘intermezzi’ and would usually be written by a different composer and librettist). As part of the Resonanzen early music festival at the Konzerthaus, baroque ensemble I Turchini performed Francesco Bartolomeo Conti’s Dorimena e Tuberone, the interlude to L'Atenaïde and the first piece of its kind ever to be performed in Vienna, alongside the ballet music also written for the occasion by Nicola Matteis Jr.
Mezzo-soprano Romina Boscolo and baritone Giuseppe Naviglio gave a spirited performance as the titular pair Dorimena and Tuberone, who, owing to Tuberone’s pathological shyness, are only joined together in happiness after a lengthy courtship. In the second intermezzo he is so reluctant to woo Dorimena that he attempts to bewitch her with a magic wand, though the plan backfires and it is instead she who casts a spell, forcing Tuberone to dance – which Naviglio actually did – to the strains of a catchy aria, ‘Ballarino saltarino’. Any tension between the two is swiftly dissipated as Dorimena spontaneously consents to be Tuberone’s bride, and the interlude concludes with a duet full of tenderness and the occasional light-hearted reference to their magical mishaps.
The comedy is a straightforward one, but no prior knowledge of it, or even the Italian language, was necessary here – Boscolo and Naviglio made it easy to understand what was going on without resorting to hammy acting. Boscolo, whose smoky chest voice made me wonder if she isn’t more of a contralto than a mezzo (Dorimena is an alto role), added imaginative colourings to the text’s comic and mock-tragic elements (her self-pitying ‘ohimè’ was amusingly whimpered). Giuseppe Naviglio also excelled with a performance very much in the spirit of what Thomas Allen does with his buffo roles. It goes with the territory, but tone was booming on occasions, though, impressively, not when Naviglio was required to spit out reams of text in a patter; here, musical line didn’t suffer at the expense of comic wordiness. My only quibble was that the final number – in which the magic wand’s patter theme plays alongside extravagant declarations of affectation between amoroso and amorosa – was repeated as an encore. Once was a charm; twice, rather cutesy and twee.
I Turchini accompanied sensitively, though a two-manual harpsichord would have better served the quieter moments of the recitatives, and instrumental forces of six violins but only one viola and cello led to spotty balance.
Matteis’ ballet music gave the ensemble a chance to shine, which they did with unfussy, expressive playing. A little more flair and liveliness may have been more effective: the music itself – very much churned out to imperial order – is none too inspired, and the lack of contrasts in this performance meant that the ‘Grottesque’ didn’t really live up to its name and the innocuous theme of the ‘Chaconne’ was repeated what sounded a good five times too many. Dynamics were stuck between mp and mf, and while I Turchini play with vibrato, just a touch more could have added some extra colour to the writing. The closing ‘Ciacone’ establishes a more solemn tone, presumably to prepare the audience for the opera proper that would resume after. While the ensemble played with a darker sound and fuller texture, the sudden change of mood should perhaps be put down to a change of composer (Matteis borrowed this movement from Caldara).
With two strong singers carrying the evening, this was a delightful performance of an obscure operatic curiosity.
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