Although Tommaso Traetta was an important name among the Reform composers, whose influence on the young Mozart can be clearly felt not only in works like Mitridate or Lucio Silla, but also in Idomeneo, his operas are today all but forgotten. Before Cristophe Rousset recorded his Antigona for Decca a couple of years ago, most music lovers had probably never heard about it before. And yet one may find it now and then mentioned as one of the finest operas composed in Italy in its day, an opinion shared by conductor René Jacobs who conducts its Berlin première in the Deutsche Staatsoper in a staging by Vera Nemirova (the name behind the new Ring from Frankfurt).
It is true that Traetta is a most skilled composer, but the first act is a bit lacking the sort of sparkling imagination that makes audiences draw a direct line between Handel and Mozart when buying tickets and CDs. From act II on, however, the music increasingly gains expressive power and, by the end, if you are not touched, you probably don’t have a heart. What is beyond doubt is its dramatic effectiveness. Marco Coltellini’s libretto is unusually straight-to-the-matter for its time, but it is Traetta the master of theatrical timing who keeps the action flowing seamlessly to its surprising lieto fine.
Vera Nemirova’s clean staging matches the directness and, although it is sometimes too informal for its subject, it ultimately suggests classical elegance and is refreshingly respectful of the action. Her controversial decision of keeping to a tragic ending in spite of the text could be defended as a tribute to Sophocles over XVIIIth century operatic conventions. I am not only sure about portraying Creon as a petty tyrant, with distracting comedy touches involved. At lease for me, this had the effect of belittling the character’s convictions, which are far from superficial. Moreover, I suspect this had a perverse effect on the singer taking the role, who seemed to be feeling obliged to sing his recitatives in an arch way that made the role sometimes closer to an operetta villain than a stern ruler in a serious opera.
Conductor René Jacobs produced an intense, fast-paced and strong-accented performance that makes Rousset’s recording sound gentle (if structurally clearer) in comparison. His casting (curiously made exclusively of singers from the other side of the Atlantic) worked hard to keep with the intensity and sometimes (with one notable exception) would be overshadowed by the orchestra. I’ve had my doubts about hearing Verónica Cangemi in the prima donna role, for her fragile and un-Italianate soprano is hardly prima-donna material. Her creamy yet light-toned voice often sounded brittle and sometimes downright strained. In comparison, Rousset’s María Bayo sounds like a model of classical poise even in the most testing passages and also yet more vulnerable and appealing. That said, Cangemi proved to be, in spite of an unglamorous voice, a powerful singing actress. Her performance was utterly convincing, truly gripping and refreshingly impassionate. And, truth be said, her high mezza voce is exquisite, her trills are effective and, even when tested by the writing, she can keep her pace in very fast divisions (and Jacobs makes things far more difficult by opting for some zipping tempi). As her sister Ismene, Jennifer Rivera too tried the white-heat approach. Although the part has a relatively low tessitura, having a mezzo in this role making things a bit confuse (Rousset has a particularly well cast Anna Maria Panzarella) – the effect was usually nobler and more mature in comparison to Cangemi’s. Although she showed a healthy low register and sang stylishly and with commitment, I had the impression the role did not really showed the strong features of her voice. As Haemon, while Rousset chose a mezzo-soprano (Laura Polverelli), Jacobs hit the jackpot with the incomparable Bejun Mehta, who not only sang with unfailing projection, but also with unbelievable wide tone-colouring: a masterly performance. For some who has been singing Wagner and Janacek, Kurt Streit seemed ill-at-ease with piercing through the period-instrument orchestra in the pit. He would eventually warm for a sensitive account of his big aria Ah, no, non sono gli dei that gave Rousset’s Carlo Allemano a run for his money. Finally, Kenneth Tarver was a clear-toned Adastro, but the role really sits a bit low in his voice.