Those of us who happen to be the one ‘friend who is into opera’ know that sooner or later there will come a moment when someone may ask you to explain this or that plot to them in preparation for attending a performance. In my experience, such attempts are usually confusing for both sides, eventually leaving me – and my friends – wondering if I’m not actually an imposter. While this may be the case, I also believe that some operas are simply too convoluted to allow a linear, concise retelling. How to approach, for instance, certain Baroque works that are crowded with characters, subplots, and unexpected turns of events? 

Raffaele Pe (Anastasio)
© Matthias Baus

If the audience is only marginally touched by the problem, artists are not. Such was the quandary that befell director Barbora Horáková with her new staging of Vivaldi’s last Roman opera Il Giustino for the Staatsoper Berlin, under the baton of René Jacobs. Featuring seven major characters and heavily relying on self-borrowings for a score which, at its full length, totals a duration of almost six hours, Il Giustino certainly constitutes a challenge for any new production.

Confronted with the task, Horáková decided on what could be described as putting the opera in quotation marks. The Czech director devised an extra narrative frame where the making of the production is presented – or at least hinted – to the public at the same time as the unfolding of the production itself. In particular, shortly before the beginning of the sinfonia a few children rush on stage screaming and running around as if on a school trip to the theatre. While not directly involved in the action, the children regularly reappear throughout the opera, suggesting that the events may be filtered through their imagination. 

Olivia Vermeulen (Amanzio) and Kateryna Kasper (Arianna)
© Matthias Baus

This would possibly explain not just the intricacies and twists of the plot, but also the stylised quality of the staging, which fluctuates between clichéd reconstructions of Baroque theatre practices and modern-day, if bizarre, costumes. The overall result is that of a veritable pastiche – as if someone had pressed random buttons while customising a video game. Yet, oddly enough, this patchwork turns out to be effective, visually if not dramatically. Indeed, one might argue it would be tone-deaf not to imbue with a good quota of eccentricity operas like Il Giustino, which carry within them a propensity for spectacularity and comedy. Horáková’s ventures into conceptualism, such as the emphasis on the importance of fortune in the story, are perhaps the weak spot in a production whose most valuable merit is that of keeping the audience entertained.

Raffaele Pe (Anastasio) and Kateryna Kasper (Arianna)
© Matthias Baus

A committed champion of 18th-century opera, Jacobs undertook the responsibility of not only conducting, but also editing Vivaldi’s opera in order to make it stageable. Given the considerable length of the full score, this entailed several cuts, which nevertheless preserved both the integrity of the plot and the character of the music. Jacobs’ edition doesn’t posit itself as irrefutable, rather serving as a charming and practical, viable theatrical option. Leading the Akademie für Alte Musik through his own edition, the conductor brought out a clear, limpid sound predictably reliant mostly on strings, yet also attentive to other specific, well-calculated timbral effects. As is usually the case with these scores, orchestration choices leave some room for creativity, which Jacobs made sure to put to good use without excess. Careful dynamic balance proved beneficial in the alternations between tutti and solos, and while the singable quality of the melodies always stood out in the arias, recitatives were also conducted with consideration of Vivaldi’s ingenious harmonies.

Christophe Dumaux (Giustino)
© Matthias Baus

Because of the habitual employment of castrati by Roman theatres at the time, Il Giustino features an unusual concentration of roles written for high voices. It is then particularly crucial to differentiate the cast, making sure not to flatten out each part’s peculiarities. Being the only character who actually develops throughout the opera, Giustino is required to sing a variety of arias which span from his cavatina, a topical aria di sonno, to more heroic and assertive moments. Christophe Dumaux’s wide-ranging, precise and rich-toned contralto promptly adapted to such evolution, offering an exhilarating portrayal of the soon-to-be emperor. 

Siyabonga Maqungo (Vitaliano) and Helena Rasker (Andronico)
© Matthias Baus

By contrast, Raffaele Pe’s Anastasio maintained a remarkable consistency of tone, enthralling the audience with a tender, sensitive soprano which generated a curious opposition with his boastful appearance. Much like the two countertenors, the two prima donnas also distinguished themselves with antithetical traits. If Kateryna Kasper’s Arianna made a commanding, emotional counterpart for Pe’s Anastasio, Robin Johannsen sang an impressively multifaceted Leocasta, tracing her evolution into an assertive young woman. Yet the great success of the evening also owed much to Siyabonga Maqungo’s Vitaliano, whose coloratura was no less than impeccable, Helena Rasker’s charismatic Andronico, and Olivia Vermeulen’s imposing performance as both Amanzio and Fortuna.