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04 Jul 2009

The Ravenna Festival: La scuola napoletana

Ravenna once served as the capital of the Roman Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries C.E.

Now it is a lovely Adriatic seaside spot filled with remnants of the Roman and Byzantine Empires, along with fine museums, gold mosaics and many 17th century palaces. There is an elegant 19th century theatre as well as several other locations suited to musical and theatrical performances. For the last 20 years, Ravenna has had an important multi-disciplinary festival. This summer’s program (June 14-July18), includes 80 different events for an expected audience of 70,000 (approximately 25% of which are non-Italians). Its € 6 million budget is financed by a consortium of Italian central and local authorities and of private sponsors, along with box office receipts.

Riccardo Muti and his wife, Cristina, tirelessly promote the festival in part through international partnerships. In previous years, Ravenna has brought to the attention of Western European theatres jewels like the Moscow Helikon Opera and the Lithuanian National Opera. This year the main events are co-produced with the Salzburg Festival and the Paris Opéra. Other events will include the Maggio Musical Fiorentino. Internationally renowned Christoph von Dohànyi and Pierre Boulez are scheduled to conduct in addition to Muti.

This summer Maestro Muti continues to concentrate on his long-standing project concerning the “renaissance” of the La scuola napoletana (the “Neapolitan School”). In the 17th Century, Naples was not only the most populous capital in Europe but also the principal European music centre. There were important conservatories, each with a strict and disciplined course of studies. Music was on the top of the political agenda, with highly subsidized major theatres such as the San Carlo within the Royal Palace complex. Musicians (especially composers and castrati singers) were exported to all the Royal Courts of the continent with London and St. Petersburg being the most prodigious consumers. The Neapolitan Pietro Metastasio, official poet of the Vienna Court, became the most influential librettist of the age; and, through his librettos, Italian became the language spoken by the aristocracy in many a Court. [Editor’s Note: Click here for the full texts of Metastasio’s drammi per musica.]

The “Neapolitan School”, therefore, was fundamental in the development of musical theatre in general and of opera in particular. It faded away for several reasons: a) changes in tastes by a wider and no longer only aristocratic audience; b) the disappearance of the castrati (whose roles are often sung by mezzos or altos and, in certain cases, transposed for baritones); c) the high cost of stage sets and machinery.

Maestro Muti’s efforts to bring back the “Neapolitan School” have thus far succeeded. The Salzburg Whitsun Festival has been dedicated to this “School” for several years. This year he focuses his attention two composers: Giovanni Paisiello (actually born in Taranto but a leader of the School and a favorite of Russian Empress Katherine the Great) and Niccolò Jommelli (known in modern times mostly, if not solely, for his sacred music).

Jommelli’s Demofoonte had its revival in Salzburg in May of this year. It was then staged in Paris at the Opéra Garnier in mid-June. In Ravenna, it will be staged at the 800-seat Teatro Dante Alighieri on July 3-7. A European tour is planned for the fall. Demofoonte is one of Metastasio’s most popular libretti. It was set to music by 73 different composers, with Jommelli himself having composed four different versions (Muti is staging the last one). It is a “clemency tale” (e.g. like Mozart’s Titus) where the main plot simply consists of the king forgiving all his foes, albeit complicated by some five parallel sub-plots. The message is that royalty must be authoritarian because it is tolerant and forward-looking. In short, a benevolent despot is what we all need. Metastasio and Jommelli steered far away from any Revolutionary notions, lest they offend their aristocratic patrons.

Demofoonte follows all the rules and standards of the typical opera seria: vocally demanding arias, many of which are in the da capo form, along with the occasional duet and ensemble. And of course a happy ending after a series of adversities for all concerned. Cesare Lievi (stage direction), Margerita Palli (stage sets), Marina Luxardo (costumes) and, of course, Riccardo Muti conducting the Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini do their very best to attract a modern audience’s interest in this 3½-hour “clemency tale”. The cast is immaculate. Dmitri Korchack and Maria Grazia Schiavo are particularly commendable. It is easy to foresee that they have a brilliant future ahead. As for Jommelli’s Demofoonte, music schools should consider it insofar as it offers excellent training for young singers. Ultimately, it may reach some innovative opera house.

Paisiello’s Missa Defunctorum is also a rarity. Salzburg’s and Ravenna’s performances are practically the first performances in modern times (although some musicologists say that there is evidence of a performance in Florence in 1940 among the celebrations for the second centenary of the composer’s death). Paisiello is generally known as an opera buffa composer at the Courts of the Naples Kings , the Russian Empress and even Napoleon . The Missa Defunctorum was initially composed in 1789 when two children of the King of Naples died during a small pox epidemic. It was revised ten years later as a Requiem for Pius VI.

In the fall , the Missa Defunctorum will be toured by Muti and the Cherubini Orchestra in several Italian Churches and concert halls. In Ravenna, the performance took place in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classes— a site well known to Byzantine specialists for its gold and green mosaics.

Although a sacred musical work, Paisiello’s Missa Defunctorum has a strong operatic temperament. This requiem mass is quite different from those of Mozart, Verdi and others. It is a two-hour, one act opera where sorrow is mixed with hope. It is highly lyrical rather than dramatic. It is gentle, almost tender — like a late 18th century opéra larmoyant . The real drama is mostly at the end: the impressive chorale ‘Libera me’. The audience was enchanted; a good sign that Paisiello’s Missa Defunctorum may enter the repertory and may possibly be heard in Chicago where Muti is Music Director of the CSO.

Giuseppe Pennisi

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