Monday, February 23, 2015

Il Vologeso - a long-forgotten work makes a memorable return at Stuttgart Opera

Niccolò Jommelli's Il Vologeso, which I neither knew nothing of nor knew what to expect, surprised immensely. From the wonderfully bright and buoyant overture right through to the more regal extended orchestral ending, the snappy, tireless conducting of Gabrielle Ferro and the Stuttgart Opera Orchestra proudly and vibrantly showed off Jommelli's music - a music rich in texture, unpredictability and variation of mood. Though most of Jommelli's output was opera seria, he was the composer of many comedies and I imagined his music suiting it to bits.

Premiering in 1766 in the German town of Ludwigsburg near Stuttgart to a libretto by Metastasio (who went on to write three libretti for Mozart), the story is based on the sufferance of the Parthian king, Vologeso, after his capture by the Roman general Lucio Vero. Lucio is in love with Vologeso's bride-to-be, Berenice, Queen of Armenia but his position of power rests upon marrying the Roman Emperor's daughter Lucilla. Unsurprisingly it gets more complicated than that but the story moves easily with understated stylistic acting.

From director Jossi Weiler, love unrequited, love put to the test and love rekindled are all tossed about in a conflict that no longer belongs centuries past. Under a Renaissance loggia fronting a modern archetypal Italian town eight youths unite in what seems a game of dress-ups, enacting a story in which acting blurs with reality. It felt dramatically inspired and visually powered by an anachronistic painterly aesthetic courtesy of Anna Viebrock's sets and costumes and Reinhard Traub's subtle lighting.

Both dramatically and vocally, the cast delivered fervent and expressive performances. Sophie Marilley lost no time in displaying security and strength as Vologeso. Her beautiful, dark tones and commanding highs belied her gender while eliciting compassion for her plight. Likewise, Ana Durlovski as Berenice, impressed with the sense this role was years under her belt. Her performance was instilled with both pain and strength which she could express throughout her coloratura and every trill. With Marilley, the couple excelled with perfectly balanced duets.

Sophie Marilley (Vologeso), Ana Durlovski (Berenike), Sebastian Kohlhepp (Lucio).
As Lucio Vero, Sebastian Kohlhepp showed ruthlessness and calculated charm, exercising them with vocal flair, warm tone and solid projection but could have impressed with greater fluidity and confidence during the coloratura passages. Eye-catching from the start, bright to the ear and clean in tone, Helene Schneiderman was endearing as the impetuous Lucilla, unflinching in her love for Lucio but taking an opportunity to flirt with Lucio's friend Aniceto, who is in love with her. Igor Durlovski's Aniceto was assured, jovial and the holder of a dashing schizophrenic altus/bass while Catriona Smith revealed strength beyond her stature as the Roman envoy. After a short but fine vocal starter, in smaller roles Thomas Elwin and Thembinkosi Mgetyengana wove across the stage sporadically to detail the picture.

There was a best moment when Weiler literally spilt the action onto the audience's lap when Vologeso was ordered to be thrown to the lions. From a side aisle he pushed his way through the fourth row in full voice and stopped. Lucio moved forward and stood erect on the front edge of the orchestra barrier, also singing, before Berenice jumped into the audience 'lion pit' to save Vologeso and 'killed' a sound-over roar. Even before Lucilla joined the action in the orchestra pit, the audience was amusingly startled. It was a theatrical and vocal hit.

When the final orchestral passage played, just as in the beginning, the performers disrobed and cast aside their characters but, rightfully or not, left me with an impression that their contemporary onstage identities were much like those they played. Perhaps Stuttgart Opera will find another Jommelli work to revive, next time a comedy and, with the same team, I'd have no qualms about spruiking it.

Photo courtersy © A.T. Schaefer

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