Opera Barocca in Prague’s Clam-Gallas Palace – Sotto Le Stelle – Music of Bononcini and Handel

La Nemica d’Amore fatta Amante [selections]
Divertimenti da camera [selections]
Xerxes – Frondi tenere … Ombra mai fù
Astarto – Overture; Mio caro ben
Xerxes – Frondi tenere … Ombra mai fù
Clori, Tirsi e Fileno [selections]
Water Music [selections]

Clori – Jana Bínová Koucká
Tirsi – Pavla Štěpničková

Danseures Nobles Ensemble [Fileno – Karel Ferjentsik, Satyr – Václav Krajc, Nymphs – Hana Slačálková & Blanka Ferjentsik Wernerová]

Opera Barocca Orchestra [Ondřej Michal (cello),Vit Nermut (violin), Martina Bernášková (recorder & flute), Aleš Ambrosi (oboe & recorder), Martin Šmíd (clavicembalo) & Jiřina Dvořáková (positive organ)]

Rostislav Maria Müller – Production & Direction

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 31 August, 2014
Venue: Marble Hall, Clam-Gallas Palace, Prague, Czech Republic

Jana Bínová Koucká as CloriPrague is jam-packed with tourists, which means that one can hardly walk more than a block or two without being accosted by fiercely competitive leafleteers hawking not strip-clubs or pizza-joints, but rather classical music concerts, some in beautiful interior spaces not otherwise accessible by the public. Most just string together miniatures and excerpts from longer works, all seemingly chosen from a short list of favorites, but when well performed can provide a pleasant diversion.

This performance by Opera Barocca of “Sotto le Stelle” (Under the Stars) was quite another matter, however. Rostislav Maria Müller has conceived and directed a marvelous production, combining music of Giovanni Battista Bononcini and his younger rival George Frideric Handel to create a scenario of Arcadian nymphs, shepherds and satyrs. Instruments of the period accompanied beautifully costumed vocalists and dancers in this delightful performance in one of Prague’s most splendid venues.

Müller’s starting point was Bononcini’s music, an appropriate choice since he was the court composer to the Habsburg diplomat Count Johann Wenzel von Gallas, in whose palace, now celebrating its 300th-anniversary, this staging was held. The theme was also a natural, since Gallas was a patron, and Bononcini a member, of the Pontifica Accademia degli Arcadi (The Academy of Arcadia), founded in Rome in 1690. Müller’s scenario is rounded out with music of Handel based on the same classical characters, myths and idyllic atmosphere that inspired his elder counterpart.

l-r: Dancers Václav Krajc as a Satyr; Blanka Ferjentsik Wernerová as a Nymph; & Karel Ferjentsik as FilenoUsually candlelit in the courtyard, on this rainy evening the rendition was held in the magnificent Marble Hall, a ballroom with white-marble walls, stuccowork ornamentation, parquet floor, damask curtains and brilliant crystal chandeliers. Müller’s scenic and costume designs – artificial flowering shrubs and trees with green and gold leaves and dancers appropriately dressed as nymphs and satyrs – defined the Arcadian setting. The orchestra was costumed as eighteenth-century court musicians with red knee-breeches and loose-fitting white shirts.

The circumstances revolve around the courtship of the nymph Clori by the shepherd Tirsi and the satyr Fileno, the story on which both Bononcini’s serenata La Nemica d’Amore fatta Amante (The Enemy of Love Becomes a Lover) and Handel’s cantata Clori, Tirsi e Fileno are based. Recitatives and arias for Tirsi and Clori by both composers are interwoven with instrumental selections. Although both Bononcini and Handel wrote arias for Fileno, he is silent here, but plays a significant role in the secondary plot, portrayed in dance, in which he and another lustful satyr are at first rudely rebuffed by two nymphs but finally win them over. The satyrs, in whimsical furry costumes replete with horned heads, whiskers and leafy garlands brought considerable humor to proceedings, and the nymphs, clad in low-cut dresses, danced nimbly during the instrumental passages.

Soprano Jana Bínová Koucká as Clori (center); Dancers Hana Slačálková (left) & Blanka Ferjentsik Wernerová (right) as NymphsJana Bínová Koucká was a resplendent Clori. Following Bononcini’s initial Sinfonia, she introduced the story with a recitative, ‘Io che d’amore nemica’, sung offstage, then in the aria ‘Solo e felice’ sung of her happiness as a free spirit, but finally, in the Handel aria, ‘Amo Tirsi’, she declared her love for the shepherd. Tirsi was portrayed by mezzo-soprano Pavla Štěpničková, although sometimes the role is sung by a countertenor. Štěpničková gave excellent renditions of Tirsi’s two Bononcini arias – ‘Prigoniera di finti legami’ and ‘Purti riveggio ancor’ – and one by Handel – ‘Come di rondinella’. The two joined in Handel’s duet ‘Scherzano sul tuo volto le grazie vezzosette’, bringing the story to its romantic conclusion as Clori decides to marry Tirsi at the cost of foregoing her liberty and immortality.

Müller began and ended each half with music drawn from other works by the two composers, starting with the Overture from Bononcini’s Astarto and using a duet, ‘Mio caro ben’, from that opera to stage a final tableau, with maidens bearing pomegranate-laden branches. Müller could not resist the temptation to present a side-by-side comparison of these composers’ respective settings from Xerxes of the recitative and aria ‘Frondi tenere … Ombra mai fù’, the version by Bononcini to close the first half and the setting by Handel, given a spellbinding performance by Pavla Štěpničková to begin the second half.

Throughout the evening the orchestra played with spirit, the continuo (and some solos as well) provided by Martin Šmíd on clavicembalo, Jiřina Dvořáková on positive organ, and cellist Ondřej Michal, the group’s artistic leader. Vit Nermut drew rich tones from his violin, and Martina Bernášková‘s flute and Aleš Ambrosi‘s oboe added lively colorations, with both doubling on recorders to vary the wind timbres. Truly a treat for both eye and ear.

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