There can’t be many eighteenth-century singers who have inspired modern-day artistic creations. In fact, just one readily comes to mind: Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi, better known as Farinelli, the celebrated Italian castrato. His singing was known to bring audiences to a state of frenzy and even to arouse them sexually. In our day he has been the subject, among other things, of Gérard Corbiau’s eponymous motion picture from 1993 as well as Claire van Kampen’s play Farinelli and the King (2015).
Van Kampen’s play dealt with Farinelli’s relationship with the Spanish king Philip V, depicting the castrato as a soothing presence, both musically and as a companion, for the king, who apparently suffered from manic depression. We know little about the details of their relationship, but one thing is certain: Farinelli’s decision at age thirty-two to take up residence at the Madrid court in 1737, during what was intended to be a short visit, put an abrupt end to his international career.
Just what it would be like to hear him in the flesh, we will never know. In fact, relatively few music lovers have even seen or heard any work in which he appeared: Hasse’s Siroe (1733) or Caldara’s La morte d’Abel (an oratorio from 1732) are two better-known examples. Things might have been different if Handel had succeeded in luring him to London in the 1730s and produced an opera with him as its star. Farinelli did go to London, but appeared with a company in competition with Handel.
But who was Riccardo Broschi? Was his career favored by nepotism? Or did an opera seria by so obscure a composer really deserve to be resuscitated?
Given this state of affairs, the decision by the Innsbruck Festival of Early Music to give the first modern performance of Merope, which debuted at the Teatro Regio Torino in Italy in 1732 and features music by Farinelli’s brother Riccardo Broschi, was enticing. But who was Riccardo Broschi? Was his career favored by nepotism? Or did an opera seria by so obscure a composer really deserve to be resuscitated?
The conductor Alessandro De Marchi, the festival’s artistic director, strongly believed it did, and the result (as seen on August 11, the last of three performances) bore him out. The first thing you notice, though, is how different Broschi’s music is from Handel’s. As a product of the so-called Neapolitan School, which dominated Italian opera in the eighteenth century and served as the cradle for musical classicism, Broschi’s music is simpler in style and more forward looking. Handel’s later operas occasionally show traces of this incipient mode but also perpetuate his uniquely expressive personal style, born of the Baroque, that makes his operas so affecting for modern audiences.
The libretto of Merope by Apostolo Zeno, Pietro Metastasio’s immediate forerunner as Italy’s preeminent librettist, relates the tribulations of Merope, the queen of Messene, whose husband (the reigning monarch) and their sons have been murdered before the opera begins at the instigation of the monarch’s brother, Polifonte. One son, Epitide (the Farinelli role), has escaped and grown up in another region of Greece. Over the course of twenty-seven arias, one duet, and a pair of choruses, Epitide returns to Messene, is reunited with his mother, and claims his rightful place on the throne.
Epitide (disguised under the name of Cleone for most of the opera) is clearly the opera’s star role. Especially striking are his three arias in slow tempos, with their expressive, long-spanned melodic lines. But Epitide also has a furious aria near the close of Act II, replete with fiendishly difficult coloratura, in which he denounces the false charge that Merope is responsible for the murders.
The long opera seria proved to be effective drama. Another powerful confrontation comes when Merope, believing that Cleone (as whom the prince is disguised) has killed the real Epitide, rebuffs his claim that he is in fact her son. Epitide calls in his fiancée, Argia, to confirm his identity, but she, having been induced by Polifonte to think Merope wants to kill Epitide as she killed the others, refuses to do so. Accordingly, Merope sends Epitide to his death (or so she thinks), learning too late that he is her son. The three characters tellingly reveal their fraught emotional state in successive arias, with Merope’s having short, disjunctive phrases, as if she can hardly think straight.
Merope was staged by Sigrid T’Hooft in that historical style to which at least one festival, the Boston Early Music Festival, is committed for its opera productions; in Innsbruck, modern productions are more frequent. Historical productions obviate the risk of a modern director undermining a work with wacky ideas and enforce conventions about who should be on stage when, but, relying on surviving representations of productions from the period, they can also be unduly limiting and run the risk of looking the same. T’Hooft’s direction was fluent and had some imaginative touches.
The sets, designed by Stephan Dietrich, often had columns arranged in perspective on either side of the stage, with a central backdrop depicting various images. Costumes, also designed by Dietrich, were extremely elaborate for several characters and included plumed headdresses. T’Hooft also appealingly choreographed the opera’s several dance sequences, giving aristocratic treatment to one that included an elegant chaconne; another was amusingly danced by commedia dell’arte figures.
The cast was strong, except for Polifonte; the scheduled singer was ill, and the part was sung from the pit by one person and acted on stage by another, with predictably unsatisfactory results. It is fair to say that no modern countertenor can produce a sound much resembling Farinelli’s, but David Hansen mustered an appreciable amount of volume and displayed a fine technique in Epitide’s bravura aria, and he sang the slow arias with compelling lyricism. Two accomplished mezzo-sopranos, Anna Bonitatibus and Vivica Genaux, did themselves proud as Merope and as the Messenian councilor Trasimede. Arianna Vendittelli’s soprano blossomed nicely in Argia’s arias, and two other countertenors, Filippo Mineccia and Hagen Matzeit, took smaller roles.
De Marchi’s belief in the score was apparent from the nuanced, well-structured, and handsomely played performance he drew from the festival orchestra. Merope may not quite match other non-Handel examples of opera seria from its period, such as Pergolesi’s L’Olimpiade (1735), which De Marchi led with great success here a few years ago in a performance issued on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi CDs. But it definitely has its moments, and with a run time (including two intermissions) of just over five hours (even after some abridgment of Polifonte’s part) it proved the vitality of an operatic genre still derided by some commentators. I wouldn’t have missed it, especially since it’s doubtful that any American opera company would have the courage to tackle anything like it.