Innsbruck Festival of Early Music: 2016

Innsbrucker Festwochen der Alten Musik
16-19 August 2016

The Innsbruck Festival of Early Music celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, although its roots go back a further 14 years or so. After some preliminary events, the festival proper ran for the last two weeks in August. It usually features three fully staged operas, although this year the third of them was reduced to a one-night concert performance of the Ruhrtriennale festival’s production of Gluck’s Alceste, conducted by René Jacobs who until 2009 was artistic director of the Innsbrucker Festwochen and, incidentally, the singer at the first concert of the first festival on 24 August 1976.

Rather surprisingly, given the anniversary nature of this year’s festival, the theme was ‘Tragicommedia’ although the events that I saw were rather more ‘commedia’ than ‘tragic’. As with last year, I was unfortunately only able to attend for four days (16-19 August), and so missed many concerts, including René Jacobs’ Alceste, a repeat of the very first concert in 1976, and the whole of the Cesti Singing Competition for Baroque Opera.

I arrived in time for the third and final performance of the comic opera Il matrimonio segreto by Domenico Cimarosa (Tiroler Landestheater, 16 August). This was first performed in 1792 in the Burgtheater in Vienna, to the delight of the Emperor Leopold II who asked for the whole thing (which lasts about 4 hours) to be repeated from the start, after a brief break for the musicians to eat. The plot is based on Geronimo, a wealthy 18th century Bologna merchant, and his attempt to marry off his daughter Elisetta to a Count, who instantly falls for Elisetta’s younger sister Carolina, who has already secretly married Geronimo’s assistant Paolino who, in turn, is lusted after by Geronimo’s sister Fidalma. Firmly in the opera buffa tradition, a continuation of the earlier commedia dell’arte, this engaging romp runs through its inevitable antics, leading, as usual in such operas, to a final resolution.

The set and costume design (by André Barbe) was spectacular: an enormous depiction of a pen and ink sketch of a gigantic hay barn, the singers initially appearing to be tiny WP_20160816_22_23_38_Pro.jpgin their elaborately overblown costumes. It quickly became apparent that the premise of director Renaud Doucet was that the characters were in fact all chickens, as their chicken-like gestures and the increasing presence of eggs became more obvious. The busy toing and froing of the characters made for an energetic production, aided by a pair of acrobatic bluebottles who leapt about the stage, for no apparent reason. Sung in the original Italian, with German surtitles and translations, the only help for English speakers was a brief synopsis of the plot in the programme.

Dating from four months after the premiere of Mozart’s Magic Flute, it was tempting to hear a reflection of the latter’s overture in the initial three detached chords. Further hints of Mozart’s style occurred during the piece, although these were often rather more closely related to the style of Gilbert and Sullivan. Although there were a few impressive arias and consort pieces (including a fine quintet, Deh, lasciate ch’io respiri, and the terzetto Cose farete?) the music did tend towards the predictable, notably with Cimarosa’s repeated use of the same cadential sequence.

The cast of Il matrimonio segreto is unusual in that it is dominated by the two bass characters, here sung by Donato di Stefano and Renato Girolami as Geronimo and the Count. Sopranos Klara Ek and Giulia Semenzato (winner of the 2014 Cesti competition) sang the roles of the two sisters Lisetta and Carolina, with mezzo Loriana Castellano replacing the billed Vesselina Kasarova as Fidalma. Tenor Jesús Álvarez took the role of Paolino. This was a good casting, with fine singing and with two sisters who actually looked reasonably alike, although all the characters were helpfully colour coded by their elaborate costumes. There were several highlights from the soloists, from which I will pick out Giulia Semenzato’s aria Perdonate, signor mio and Renato Girolami’s aria Son lunatico bilioso and cavatina Senza, senza cerimonie.

As with many Innsbruck Festival events in recent years, the resident orchestra was the Italian Academia Montis Regalis (playing period instruments) with their conductor Alessandro De Marchi, the current artistic director of the festival. Harpsichord continuo player Mariangiola Martello deserves a mention.
The festival included a couple of lunchtime concerts in the semi-enclosed pavilion in the middle of the picturesque Hofgarten. In the past couple of years these have be given by students from the Universität Mozarteum Salzburg. The one that I was able to WP_20160817_12_13_15_Pro.jpgsee (on 17 August) was given by a group named Waleska Sieczkowska (Waleska Sieczkowska, violin, Corinna Metz, viola da gamba, and Agata Meissner, harpsichord). Given the setting, their programme had the appropriate title of In den Gärten von Versailles and consisted of French music composed in the decades around 1700 by Lully, Marais, Rebel, Forqueray and Rameau. Their programme started with a Lully harpsichord solo from Agata Meissner, which was followed by a lengthy pause while the remaining players arrived and started to tune up. It would have made more sense for them to have started with a group piece, with the harpsichord solo later in the programme. They then all played Marais’ Sonnerie de Sainte Geneviève du mont de Paris, its multiple sections all based on a repetitive depiction of bells.

Other pieces for all three players included Rebel’s Sonata VI from Sonatas a Violon seul. Despite the name of the publication, this is not for the violin alone, but has parts for all three instruments in two of the movements, and a continuo line for the other two. But it did give the chance for violinist Waleska Sieczkowska (pictured) to demonstrate her impressive skills. I particularly liked the way that she delicately absorbed the ornaments into the melodic flow – an important element of performing French music of this period.

Waleska Sieczkowska.jpgOtherwise the programme was dominated by four solo pieces for the viola da gamba (with harpsichord accompaniment) – a rather curious programming choice, but perhaps explained by the fact that the gamba player also introduced all the pieces. Even in the final piece, they picked one of Rameau’s Pièces de clavecin en concerts (which usually has the harpsichord dominating with the violin and gamba merely in supporting role) where the balance between the three instruments was rather more equal. It would have been nice to have heard violinist Waleska Sieczkowska in a more prominent solo role, and would have made for a more balanced programme.

One annoying distraction was the presence of two young female photographers, whose noisy shutters were an almost constant accompaniment to the music. For some reason, they took more photographs of the audience than of the performers, but were standing very close to the performers to do so. Despite requests from the audience to stop, they continued. They were also very close to the performer’s video recorder, which probably picked up the noise of their cameras – indeed on one occasion they even attempted to place a large camera stand right in front of the video camera, until they were successfully stopped. Although they had no identification, I later found out that they were student interns working for the festival ‘to gain experience’, but who had ignored their apparent instructions to only take pictures during applause or intermissions. I hope they also gain experience in good manners, photographic etiquette, and showing respect for musicians and audiences. As my own photograph above shows, the group had been rehearsing in concert dress until about 30 minutes before the start, which was the ideal time to take photographs.
The evening event on 17 August (Tiroler Landestheater, 9pm) was a concert I have seen a few times before at various festivals – ‘The Early Joke’ with the ten-strong Norwegian group Barokksolistene. The first half of Telemann’s Don Quixote and PDQ Bach’s comedy pastiche Iphigenia in Brooklyn was followed by ‘An Alehouse Session’. As WP_20160817_23_31_26_Pro.jpgthe audience arrived, a couple of stage hands were lazily sweeping the stage floor. They turned out to be the stars of the show, remaining ‘in character’ for much of the first half. During the riotous and apparently improvised (but extremely slick and professional) first set, the pair (Thomas Guthrie and Steven Player) entertained with a range of antics, as did the rest of the group. Under the pretext of the main singer not arriving in time, Tom Guthrie then stepped in to sing Telemann’s Don Quixote, every opportunity for special effects being gleefully leapt on by singer and players. The versatile Guthrie also took on the role of a ‘bargain counter tenor’ in Iphigenia in Brooklyn by Peter Schickele, masquerading as the fictitious PDQ Bach.

Although apparently intended to reflect life in post-Restoration, post-Cromwellian London alehouses, their Alehouse Session also encompassed a wide range of musical styles from Purcell to the folk traditions of the British Isles – and the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, the whole aided by an ample supply of beer.  The importance of London as an international port was reflected in a ship’s working song ‘Haul away Jo’. Purcell’s Coridon and Mopsa was sent up even more than Purcell intended. All good fun, if rather long for a concert that started at 9pm.
A curious combination of two of Mozart’s most famous and powerful sacred choral works made up the programme for another concert by the busy Academia Montis Regalis (choir and orchestra) and their conductor Alessandro De Marchi (Wilten Monastery, 18 August). Quite why it was decided to perform Mozart’s Vesperae solennes and the so-called ‘Coronation Mass’ together in one programme is beyond me. They are very similar in musical style, with large sections of loud festive music for chorus, WP_20160819_14_33_03_Pro.jpgonly briefly relieved by gentler and quieter moments. The soprano has prominent roles in both works, with very little opportunity for the other three soloists to display their wares. They are also both short, lasting less than half an hour each, making for a very short evening (just 80 minutes, including a lengthy interval). Neither work was intended to be performed in one go, but were intended to be interspersed with the usual musical and liturgical goings-on of an important service. For a specifically early music festival, a real opportunity was missed to present these works in something like their original liturgical context, or to otherwise break up the various movements with other instrumental or choral music.

The stage layout was also curious, with the choir divided into two parts and positioned to the right and left of the central orchestra. Fortunately each side include SATB voices, so a degree of balance was achieved. The soloists were also divided to the sides of the stage, with soprano Christina Gansch and mezzo Emilie Renard on the far left and tenor Rupert Charlesworth and bass Marcell Bakonyi to the far right. Incidentally, all four soloists were prizewinners at previous Cesti compeitions. As well as being spaced well apart, they were positioned very close to the audience in the front pews, which must have been uncomfortable both for them and the people sitting so close to them. They were also only slightly raised above floor level, which meant that the two female singers would not have been visibly to much of the audience. One practical suggestion, if this layout is planned in future, would be to place the higher pitched voices (soloists and choir) towards the centre of the arrangement, rather than at the extreme sides. Higher voices are far more directional than lower ones, and a better balance would have ensued if this arrangement had been adopted.

That said, this was a powerful performance, with orchestra and choir both on excellent form, the latter particularly as they were encouraged to sing loudly for much of the evening. But the undoubted star of the evening was the excellent young soprano Image result for Christina GanschChristina Gansch (pictured). She had a leading solo role in several of the movements of both works, but also featured in important extended solo pieces in both – the Laudate Dominum of the Vespers and the equally exquisite Agnus Dei in the Mass. Despite being tucked away on one side, her voice projected beautifully into the large space of the Wilton Monastery. She also demonstrated commendable control of her natural vibrato. She was well supported in several duets by mezzo Emilie Renard, who also gave frequent supportive smiles at Christina Gansch’s performance.

Conductor Alessandro De Marchi kept speeds up, and generally avoided rallentandos at the conclusion of sections. My only real quibble about the direction was his habit of encouraging over-accentuation (or sforzando) to the start of several choral phrases, upsetting the flow and rhythmic pulse of the music. I also think it would have been courteous of him to have specifically acknowledged the contribution of Christina Gansch as the key soloist, rather than just including her amongst the four others. He acknowledged several orchestral players, so it seemed churlish not to include the principal vocal soloist. And finally, I found myself yet again sitting next to an official photographer, although on this occasion her shutter clicks were generally kept to the dying echoes of the frequent Amens and the tiny moment of what could otherwise have been silence between movements.
My final evening at the festival (19 August) was the opening night of Le nozze in sogno (The wedding in a dream), formally attributed to, but now fairly decisively allocated to, former Innsbruck resident composer, Pietro Antonio Cesti. It was given under the umbrella of Baroque Opera:Jung, with singers drawn from last years Cesti singing competition (which I reviewed here). As usual for the annual Baroque Opera:Jung productions, it was performed in the open-air courtyard of the former monastery attached to the Hofkirche. Le nozze in sogno was edited for performance by the late Alan Curtis, one of the festival’s pioneers, and the performance was dedicated to his memory. It was set in Livorno, a free port city in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, with a reputation for liberal acceptance of a wide variety of people.

The plot story line is very similar to that of Il matrimonio segreto, heard three days earlier. A merchant is trying to marry off his niece to a wealthy suitor. But two young men try to prevent this happening and disrupt the wedding by disguising themselves as statues that come to life. Another wedding is arranged between the merchant’s niece and her true love. To ensure the older generation’s consent, they are drugged into a half-sleep during which they dream of a wedding. That turns out to be the real wedding arranged by the young men.

WP_20160819_19_47_20_Pro.jpgThe première was in Florence in 1665, and Cesti’s music demonstrates a transitional stage between the musical style of Monteverdi and other early opera pioneers, and the more developed Baroque opera of the later 17th and 18th centuries. Director Alessio Pizzech and designer Davide Amadei came up with a clever staging, setting the work on the docks of Liverno, with piles of boxes providing a very useful backdrop and vehicles for stage entries and exits, their panels opening up occasionally to reveal additional spaces and scenes. The instrumentalist sat in a boat moored at the harbour-side.

The impressive vocal cast was drawn from previous Cesti competition entrants, although as has happened in some previous years, the first prize winner was not amongst the cast – nor, indeed, the third. To make up for that, it was good to see that one singer who had not got into the final last year, but who I made a point of mentioning as somebody who should have done, was included in the cast. As usual, the young singers WP_20160819_23_13_46_Pro.jpgwere joined by the experienced tenor Jeffrey Francis, who also assists with the vocal training of the cast.  The other singers were Rodrigo Sosa dal Pozzo as Flammiro, Arianna Vendittelli as Lucinda, Yulia Sokolik as Emilia, Francisco Fernández-Rueda as Filandra, Bradley Smith as Lelio, Ludwig Obst as Fronzo, Konstantin Derri as Scorbio, and Rocco Cavalluzzi as Pancratio. It would not be fair to pick out individual singers as all impressed both vocally and as actors.

The instrumentalist were the Innsbruck Baroque Orchestra, consisting of some impressive students from the Salzburg Universität Mozarteum. I am not sure to what extent either Cesti or Alan Curtis specified the range of instruments to be used for the continuo, but musical director Enrico Onofri drew on permutations of cello, violone, harp, three theorbos, a dulzian and two harpsichords, with two violins and two recorder players providing the melodic moments. The choice of continuo colouring was impressive and appropriate, and I was also impressed with Enrico Onofri’s comducting and direction. I assume the opera was performed without cuts – it certainly lasted a great deal longer that the advertised two and a half hours. It was a co-production with the Universität Mozarteum Salzburg and the Theatro di Buti/Pisa.

And so concluded my brief visit to Innsbruck.Next year’s Festival will take place from 18 July to 27 August, the provisional dates for the OperaJung being 23, 25 and 26 August and the Cesti Final on 27 August.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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