The Festival della Valle d'Itria celebrates its 40th anniversary this year with a rich calendar of events, thus confirming it once again to be a major cultural event at international level. This year's list of performances illustrates the three main themes which have always been the pillars of this event: bel canto, Baroque, and Apulian-Neapolitan musical school, a topic that has been a hallmark of the Festival in recent times – the Italian 20th century.

All the productions are performed according to authentic texts and interpretations, creating critical editions of well-known operas, as was the case with Tancredi, Semiramide, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, I puritani, II pirata, L'incoronazione di Poppea, Ernani as well as redescovering forgotten works, thus drawing the attention of Italian and foreign opera buffs. As for Baroque, Alberto Triola, the artistic director, presented a real treat, a 17th century opera which was perhaps his most stimulating choice: La lotta d’Ercole con Acheloo by Agostino Steffani,  a work which had never been performed in Italy before. The production shed light on Steffani's work, as little of his music has been performed in modern times.

<i>La lotta d’Ercole con Acheloo</i> © Laera
La lotta d’Ercole con Acheloo
© Laera

Steffani was a bishop and composer from Castelfranco Veneto: he wrote La lotta d’Ercole con Acheloo in 1689, to a libretto by Bartolomeo Ortensio Mauro. Steffani, whose work has been rediscovered in recent times, was known in his time and among modern specialists mainly for his vocal duets; in 1688 he was appointed Kapellmeister at the court of Hanover and exerted a significant influence on German musicians of his time. La lotta d’Ercole con Acheloo is a one act “divertimento drammatico” as the author termed it, which was first performed at the Hanover court in 1689 and has not been recovered since.

The plot concerns the love of Hercules and Acheloo (god of rivers and running water) for King Oeneus’s beautiful daughter, Dejanira. The tale of the contest between Hercules and Acheloos for the hand of Dejanira is drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This opera was considered a source of inspiration by Georg Frederic Handel, for the several lovely melodies and the rich accompaniments it contains. Actually, Handel raided the score several times and used some of its music in three works: Alceste, Jephtha, and Theodora. The work contains three different ballets that highlight the poetic moments of the drama. The finale is ended by a ballet to celebrate the wedding of Hercules to Dejanira.

The opera stands out for its short duration and the chamber music settings, in contrast to the three to five act opera seria of the authors’ period. The piece is a good example of the style at the court of Hanover, which felt both French and Italian. The single act dramatic and musical structure is divided into short scenes consisting of arias, recitatives, duets, and French ballets framing the action. Written for four countertenors, two altos and two sopranos, La Lotta rests solely in the alto and soprano range, which seems to bring a highly unusual result to its overall tessitura.

<i>La lotta d’Ercole con Acheloo</i> © Laera
La lotta d’Ercole con Acheloo
© Laera

The opera was set in the cloister of San Domenico by Benedetto Sicca, a young theatre director making his debut in opera. The cloister offered an exclusive space where the story could be narrated with a backdrop made from water, an evocative element which suits to the ever-changing emotional states of the characters.

Antonio Greco conducted Ensemble Baroque of the Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia with precision and focusing on a refined, quite impalpable accompaniment, aimed to support the young, talented protagonists Dara Savinova (Hercules), Francesca Pagliuca (Deianira), Richard Angelo Strano (Acheloos), Aurelio Schiavoni (Oeneus) who proved excellent both vocally and scenically in this tense, rarefied, demanding staging.  The cast was well completed by the dancers of Fattoria Vittadini.

We only have to thank the singers, the dancers, the conductor and the orchestra for the quality of their performances. Their interpretations were stylistically and philologically quite perfect, and yet the delivery was full of modern sensitivity.

The task of a festival is to stage works which may be risky: it is not always that you come across a masterpiece, but projects like this make sense all the same, being necessary for the knowledge of less performed or even forgotten works, which are worth being rediscovered. This performance showed that Steffani's music should be explored, thus hopefully paving the way for more of his works being produced.  

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