When Vincenzo Bellini died all too young from a fatal illness, he was not the first Southern Italian opera composer to do so: two decades earlier, in 1813, the best physicians that Queen Caroline of Naples could summon had been unable to save the 22-year old Nicola Antonio Manfroce, who had already been composing music at her court for four years. With an eye on this year’s theme of Naples, the Festival della Valle d’Itria closed last night with Manfroce’s tragedy Ecuba: the story is the death of Achilles, but not as Hector predicts it in The Iliad or as we know it from other sources – Paris, the arrow and the famous heel are not involved.

Carmela Remigio (Hecuba)
© Clarissa Lapolla

Rather, Manfroce and librettist Giovanni Schmidt make Hecuba – in her guise as mother of the slain – the central figure, turning her into an implacable fury, at whose command Achilles is murdered on the altar of his marriage to her daughter Polyxena: King Priam has sanctioned the wedding as a means of making peace between Greece and Troy. Polyxena (who is head over heels in love with Achilles) is distraught, as is Priam and ultimately Hecuba herself when the vengeful Greeks overrun Troy.

The title role is full of tension and fury, overlaid with a mask of Machiavellian concealment. It requires a proper dramatic soprano and that’s exactly what it got in the shape of Carmela Remigio. The orchestral scoring is heavy compared to last night’s Il matrimonio segreto – one senses that Manfroce had been studying his Beethoven – but Remigio was easily able to project above it and show herself as a real dramatic force. Still, this is bel canto and her voice remained smooth with a certain sweetness when required: this was a very complete performance.

Roberta Mantegna (Polyxena), Norman Reinhardt (Achilles)
© Clarissa Lapolla

When Hecuba reveals her dastardly intent to Polyxena, demanding that Polyxena murder Achilles herself, she faces a dilemma. Should she be disloyal to he mother or her father? Does revenge for her slain brother justify both murdering her own bridegroom and imperilling a possible peace for the nation? The role, however, offers less dramatic scope to a soprano than the title role because Polyxena’s response is to sit passively on the fence: the most she attempts is a half-hearted attempt to get Achilles to call off the marriage. Within the limitations of the role, Roberta Mantegna sang strongly and sweetly, another soprano able to deliver beauty of voice and expression of strong emotions. Norman Reinhardt was an eloquent Achilles, more persuasive as the ardent lover than as the peerless military hero; Mert Süngü provided good support as Priam, albeit finding it harder than the others to rise powerfully above the orchestra.

© Clarissa Lapolla

The setting, by director/designer Pier Luigi Pizzi, is stylish, starting from the opening scene of Hecuba mourning the dead Hector in classic Pietà pose. Costumes are simple but very effective: purple robes evoke Trojan royalty, Achilles’ stylised armour evokes our well-understood images of Greek heroes without attempting cheesy photo-realism. However, we could have done with more thought on the stage movement: things were often somewhat static, most noticeably so at Achilles’ death – what should be a scene of mayhem was decidedly underwhelming.

I find it difficult to love the libretto of Ecuba, which reduces the heroic figure of Achilles to a standard Renaissance lovestruck youth and makes both Polyxena and Priam little more but onlookers, with an overweening dose of “woe-is-me”. But the most welcome feature of the evening was the discovery of Manfroce’s music, which is full of life. Sesto Quatrini roused the Orchestra del Teatro Petruzzelli di Bari to a stirring account: incisive, powerful, driving the action while leaving space for the singers in the romantic passages. It makes one muse sadly on what we lost and on what might have been if Queen Caroline’s physicians had saved Manfroce for a longer career.

[Update: an earlier version of this review stated the conductor as the advertised Fabio Luisi. We apologise to Sr Quatrini for the error; we were notified of the change only after publication.]