René Jacobs’ collaboration with the Berlin Staatsoper has gives the audiences in the German capital the opportunity to discover many rarely staged operas, but none so unusual as Emilio de’ Cavalieri’s proto-opera (if it is correct to call it thus) Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo, premiered in Rome in 1600 (yes, 412 years ago). The truth is that, since it has been “unearthed” in 1912, it has had its moment – a staging in the Salzburg Festival (1968-1972) with José van Dam in various bass roles and a surprisingly historically informed 1970 recording conducted by Charles Mackerras and gloriously cast with Tatiana Troyanos (Anima), Hermann Prey (Corpo) plus Arleen Augér, Teresa Zylis-Gara, Edda Moser, Kurt Equiluz, Theo Adam et al.
As René Jacobs explains in the program, his choices for the Berlin performances were based in Cavalieri’s description of instrumentation plus some information gathered in contemporary treaties, but the keyword is tonal variety. Think of a plucked-string instrument – it was there. If you haven’t though of a ceterone, you don’t have to feel badly about this: a copy from the only extant original instrument has been ordered just for the occasion. Jacobs composed as well added parts for strings and woodwind in order to enrich the texture, as it would have been the case back in the 17th century. I am not a specialist, but I found the results very refreshing, especially because after 30 min one has the impression that the same melody is being played again and again. Maybe for the same reasons, Jacobs followed Mackerras’ example and invited operatic soloists (even if they are the kind of opera singer you would not find in an opera composed after 1790). Marie-Claude Chappuis was a delightfully sweet-toned Anima and Johannes Weisser sang with ideal balance between richness of tone and clarity. Both basses, Gyula Orendt and Marcos Fink, sang warmly and expressively and the two choirboys – Thoma Wutz and Raphael Zinser – sang very well and are very good actors.
I have had bad experiences with Achim Freyer, especially the fact that his personenregie usually has to do with making people move like robots in nonsensical circumstances. But, well, Rappresentatione… does not really have stage action, character development etc – and the director proved to be the man for the role. His staging is a feast for the eyes – not in the sense that it is beautiful (in the sense of pleasant), but in its imaginative, fresh-eyed playing with symbolism without ever falling on the trap of laughing at Agostino Manni’s libretto, but rather laughing with it – for all involved, musicians, actors, the audience, everyone were having a great time while taking part in it. It made me think of the stagings of mystery plays by members of the congregation of catholic churches in the northeast of Brazil – non-actors, improvised props and costumes, the mixture of sacred and profane, old and new, serious and comic, popular and erudite references and, most of all, a disarming sincerity in its heterogeneity. Maybe that is why it had such an appeal for me – in any case, I had the impression that I was not alone in my appreciation this evening.