This is the third year of Riccardo Muti’s 5 year tenure as Artistic Director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival and the programme again highlights music of the Napoletano school.Muti is, of course, a native of Napoli and its been rumored that one of his favorite pass-times is to delve into dusty old scores from the various Napoletano conservatories that flooded the world with composers, musicians and singers during the 18th and 19th centuries. This year he unearthed an opera seria, Demofoonte, by a greatly admired and lauded composer of his period, Niccolo Jommelli. We’ll be hearing Jommelli’s third setting of one of Pietro Metastasio's most often set libretti. The great Roman born poet was the source of most opera seria of the period. It was said that his lines often sang themselves and his sense of drama and pacing was unparalleled. His subjects were often mythical, sometimes historical and always involved love unrequited or thwarted, identity mistaken and royal power as both a force of corruption and beneficence.
Opera seria had its conventions - recitative, most often only accompanied by harpsichord and bass continuo, moved the story along and arias allowed the characters to give vent to their reactions to what had just happened. At the end of an aria the singer always exited the stage whither it made dramatic sense or not. Duets where uncommon, trios even less so and choruses tended to be sung by the principals only at the conclusion as the clemency of Tito or glory of Caesar were praised by all and sundry - including often characters who had met a grizzly end but were resurrected because a bass or contralto line was needed to swell the ranks. The castrati ruled the stage - those “singing capons” who also were a product of both the barber’s knife and the music schools of Napoli. The Caesar who sang of “coming, seeing and conquering” did so in a contralto or soprano voice while holding a heroic pose center stage sporting a plume bedecked helmet. Giovanni Velutti (right), one of the last great castrati, had the height of the plumes stipulated in his contract - he also demanded a dramatic entrance on horseback whither justified by the action or not. Given that castration is frowned upon today - a good thing unless you're really looking for authenticity - these roles are often sung my women, though the sudden wealth of counter tenors these days has seen a return to men in the roles. Muti has chosen women for the main roles and counter tenors for the secondary characters.
But we will be hearing the popular French counter tenor Philippe Jaroussky in concert of heroic arias on Sunday morning - following the old tradition matinee at Salzburg means late morning. Saturday morning brings a matinee by Fabio Bondi and his Europa Galante - Farone Sommerso, an almost unknown cantata by Francesco Nicola Fago retelling the story of Pharaoh's swimming accident in the Red Sea. That evening Accordone, one of my favorite groups, will be presenting a new programme intriguingly called The Temptations of Evil and inspired by the Napoletano scholar, alchemist, arts patron and all-round eccentric Raimondo de'Sangro. The Festival concludes Monday morning with a performance of Paisiello’s Mass for the Dead conducted by Muti with a cast of young singers in the Felsenreitschole - most familiar as the place where Julie Andrews and the kids did their disappearing act from the nasty Nazis.And of course the maestro will, as he was for the opera, be leading his exceptional group of young musicians - the Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini. This group of young musicians changes regularly as they serve an exceptional apprenticeship under Muti and then move on to the major orchestras of the world.
Its going to be a full weekend but then that’s what a Festival should be.
Photos: Riccardo Muti by Silvia Lelli; Philippe Jaroussky by Simon Fowler
30 maggio - Santa Giovanna d'Arco