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November 28, 2006

Rameau 10 - Pacini nil: London performances of Giovanni Pacini's Alessandro nell'Indie and Jean-Phillipe Rameau's Dardanus

Posted by David Conway

Giovanni Pacini's Alessandro nell'Indie
Opera Rara and the London Philharmonic Orchestra
conducted by David Parry
concert performance at the London Coliseum
19th November 2006

Jean-Phillipe Rameau's Dardanus
Royal Academy Opera
conducted by Laurence Cummings, directed by Robert Chevara
at the Sir Jack Lyons Theatre
Royal Academy of Music, London
20th, 21st, 23rd, 24th November 2006

David Conway sends another despatch from the rear stalls.

Two examples last week of revivals of operatic obscurities, one a disaster, one a triumph, with both of which I will attempt to meet, in the best tradition of Kipling.

Bad news first. Alessandro nell'Indie, by e Giovanni Pacini (1796-1867) seemed as if it might prove of great interest. Opera Rara has a good track record at rediscovering worthwhile curiosities, and in recent years has uncovered Meyerbeer's Margherita d'Anjou, Donizetti's Pia de'Tolomei, and Mercadante's Emma d'Antiocha. Allesandro nell'Indie however proved to be an apostrophe too far.

Whereas the other examples all showed how inspiration and new techniques breathed life into (or at least provide some botox for) the expiring corpse of Italian popular opera in the first decades of the nineteenth century, Pacini is one of those who clearly belonged to the guild of dead-horse floggers.

The first giveaway is that he chose, for this opera first produced in 1824, a libretto by the maestro of 18th century opera seria, Metastasio (d. 1782). Metastasio's highly artificial and conventional texts, valued in their time for their knowledgeable placements of vowels and consonants so as to enable florid vocal display, prevented any sense of dramatic flow and often simply ignored any logic of behaviour in its characters.

After the reforms of Gluck, and the mature operas of Mozart, Metastasio became as vieux jeu in Paris or Vienna, but clearly the audiences of Italian theatres, whose impresarios did not have the vision or finance to keep up with the latest trends, were forced to suffer for rather longer. The story-line and characterisation of Alessandro are both so unconvincing and preposterous that I have no intention of outlining them here.

They wouldn't matter so much if the music could carry us with it. After all, even Verdi wrote a great opera, Il Trovatore, to a clunky libretto (written as it happens by Pacini's brother, Emilio). But alas Alessandro is a sequence of continuous vapidity.

While Rossini had shown how to structure pace and rhythm to achieve emotional climaxes, and whilst Meyerbeer in his Italian period had begun to add Weberian handling of the orchestra and harmonic shifts to point emphases and seduce the audience's sentiments, both of them, aligning these with Italian vocal skills, pointing the way to the golden period of European opera later in the century, Pacini ignored all this. Dramatically and musically, Alessandro just continually starts, stops and dithers in the most exasperating fashion.

Even the spirited conducting of David Parry, the sterling singing of Bruce Ford in the name part, and the powerful performance of Laura Claycomb (whose flaming mane of hair was by far the most dramatic element of the evening) in the role of Cleofide, were unable to hold the attention for long. Like the Bourbons, Pacini remembered everything but learnt nothing, and like them, I fear, his operas are doomed to extinction, all 80 of them. In the context of this hyper-productivity, and the vacuity of Alessandro, I now understand Rossini's cryptic comment on Pacini:

Thank heavens he has no music, or we would all be doomed.
What a relief to turn to Dardanus, yet another jewel in the sequence of productions of the inspirational Royal Academy Opera. For a combination of musicality, freshness and the sheer excitement of watching new talent, these performances by the orchestra and singers of the London Royal Academy of Music consistently uplift their audiences in a way (and to an extent) that the ENO and Covent Garden these days can only dream of.

Dardanus is not a complete unknown; indeed Marc Minkowski made a notable recording of the work in 2001 and there are several recordings of extracts. But these were, apparently, the first performances in England of this work written at the height of Rameau's powers in 1739. The plot is wafer-thin; in a prologue, Venus, having become convinced that such disturbing passions as jealousy and suspicion serve in fact finally to enhance the pleasures of love, orders a staging of the love story of Dardanus and Iphise, representatives of opposing dynasties who are brought together against all odds by way of magic, sea-monsters, etc.

It is quite as inane as Alessandro, but its treatment is sublime - a sequence of delicious singing and dancing (provided on this occasion by students of the London Contemporary Dance School). Laurence Cummings conducted a sprightly orchestra of baroque instruments so as to keep the action neatly flowing.

By its nature Dardanus is more of a variety show than a clothes-horse for voices like its contemporary Italian opera, and a staging like this - directed by Robert Chevara and modestly but sensitively designed and lit by Emma Cattell and Paul Taylor - shows that it can remain consistently entertaining. The opera formed the basis of a contention between Rameau's followers (the "ramoneurs", meaning chimney sweeps) and the "lullistes" who supported the music of his predecessor Lully, and thus contributed to the history of opera wars which although almost forgotten now, were an integral feature of opera in society until the late nineteenth century. The programme quotes a contemporary newssheet claiming in November 1739 that:

more than 1000 Ramoneurs have vowed to keep Dardanus running until Easter.
Unfortunately for London, the Royal Academy Opera could only give us four performances. The cast I saw included amongst its strongest members Claire Watkins as Venus, Louise Deans as a charming Amour (Cupid), a dynamic Dardanus in Allan Clayton, and a powerful performance by Thorbj°rn Gulbrandsey as his rival AntÚnor. Juila SporsÚn was both touching and passionate as Iphise. Piotr Lempa as the magician IsmÚnor had a beautiful quality of bass voice that just needs a bit more focus. The cast and dancers seemed to enjoy themselves thoroughly in the orgy scene, which preceded what for me was the highlight of the evening; the extraordinary dream vision of Dardanus in prison, in which Clayton was truly outstanding. I am quite sure that the alternate cast would have been just as strong, and with different qualities that they could have brought to this fine score.

I urge any readers to put the dates of 5th - 12th March 2007 in their diaries for Royal Academy Opera's next production, an intriguing double-bill of Tchaikovsky's Iolanta and Puccini's Gianni Schicchi.

David Conway's previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.


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Hello!
Your comment about the works of Pacini seems to me highly personal and surely non universally valid. I wasn't able to listen to "Alessandro nell' Indie" yet, but when you consider "Elisabetta Regina d' Inghilterra" e.g., a belcantristic masterpiece, it seems quite ignorant to say that all operas written by Pacini are stupid nonsense. Why should a gifted person not write a lot of operas. Picasso, as well, has painted thousends of paintings and hardly any body would deny his genie...Besides, be honest, how many operas actually do have intelligent librettos??? And, if you personally prefer baroque music: Rameau, after all, has written a lot, too, and was a mere composer of light music...Alessandro was a concert performance, Dardanus a supposedly interesting full stage production; could it be that your judge arose out of this aspect???
Sincerely, Marius Peter

Posted by: Peter at November 15, 2007 02:24 PM
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