Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen an opera by Antonio Caldara (1670-1736). I thought so. And yet, in his heyday he was the highest paid composer in Europe and the author of over 40 operas, as well as much liturgical music. The chance to see a Caldara opera brought us to the quaint spa town of Buxton in the Peak District, 170 miles north of London. This production of Lucio Papirio Dittatore was probably the first since its debut in 1719.
Caldara was born in Venice and followed the waves of political change in Europe, working in Rome, Barcelona for the Hapsburgs and finally in Vienna for the new Holy Roman Emperor, Charles VI, a cultivated despot who liked music enough to sponsor Caldara and other composers at his court, and to actually direct some of his operas from the harpsichord in the royal opera house. Operas were composed to celebrate name days, anniversaries and victories, and such was the case with Lucio Papiro Dittatore, a baroque extravaganza which originally boasted almost five hours of music, complete with intermezzi and dances (not by Caldara).
When the Director of the Buxton International Festival told Adrian Chandler, co-director of the La Serenissima baroque band, that he wanted to do a Caldara opera, the only caveat was that it had to have a chorus since the Festival had engaged one and did not want it sitting idle. Most baroque operas do not have choruses, and the choice fell on Lucio Papirio Dittatore precisely because it did. So down came the score from the dusty archive shelves in Vienna, and Chandler set about the long and complex task of making a performing edition. The dances went and so did reams of secco recitative and ten of the da capo arias, leaving a little over three hours in the performance including one intermission. It was long enough.
The libretto is by Apostolo Zeno, the cultivated poet who preceded Pietro Metastasio at the Viennese court. It is based on a thin slice of Roman history which Zeno claimed (in a preface) that he got from Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy’s history of Rome. It is a fairly simple action which pits baroque vices against virtues—jealousy, pride and anger against generosity and reason. Lucio Papirio, the Dictator of Rome, is furious because his general Quinto Fabio (who is also his son-in-law) has gone into battle against Lucio’s orders and has won! His daughter Papiria pleads for Quinto’s—her husband’s— life, while Quinto’s father Marco, an advisor, insists that Quinto must suffer his punishment for disobeying the Dictator—death. There is a romantic sub-plot concerning Rutilia, the daughter of Marco, and Cominio, who are in love. Servilio, the Voice of Reason, also loves Rutilia, but in the end he nobly relinquishes her to the man she loves (although that man is sung by a woman in tights and a toga). In the end all is resolved happily, so that Quinto Fabio is pardoned and united with is wife and Cominio and Rutilia are also united, and the final aria and chorus praise the perspicacity of Charles VI, the Holy Roman Emperor, which is by contrast that much greater than that of Lucio the Roman Dictator.
Zeno may have woven several references to Roman history into his narrative and he may have been a fine poet, but if this opera is typical, he was no dramatist. After the basic conflicts are stated early in Act I, the rest of the long series of arias is about to-pardon-or-not-to-pardon. Characters vent their frustrations, jealousies, loves and angers in long da capo arias, covering the same ground again and again.
There are occasional choral interjections which are very nice and occasional duets. Caldara weaves three fugues into the score, and he strengthened the usual baroque string ensemble with double choruses of four horns and timpani, although the Buxton production sufficed with only one of these choirs. The highlight of the many arias, for me, was a lamenting siciliano by Quinto Fabio (a counter tenor in the production) accompanied by a plangent chalumeau, an early clarinet. Louise Strickland, the chalumeau player was brought forward on the stage to play with Owen Willetts as Quinto. Also very nice was a duet between Papiria and Quinto. Much of the music, to me, however was routine baroque, pleasant enough, but not particularly moving or compelling.
The production (on July 9, 2019), directed by Mark Burns, was simple to the point of amateurish. Characters came and went, but Mr. Burns did not seem to know what to do with repeats in the da capos. There was a lot of stand and sing facing the audience. Kathy Callister did the designs, which the Program said were inspired by the artist Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude, the couple who wrapped objects large and small. The chorus members brought in wrapped objects, a Romanish arch was wrapped in fabric and every now and again a wrapped chandelier descended from above to no evident purpose. It was all rather silly. Costumes went from cheap plastic breastplates to a cape (for the Dictator) to floor length gowns for the two women, which sort of looked Roman via H&M department store, to modern street clothes. Again, amateurish. For some reason known only to the gods of Rome, a fog machine intermittently blew clouds of “smoke” over the characters.
The orchestra, La Serenissima, was placed prominently stage right, lessening the playing space, but giving us a chance to watch their deft playing as they all stood, except for the harpsichordist and the theorbo player, who were seated.
Musical values were high. Standouts among the cast included counter tenor Owen Willetts as Quinto Fabio and young Rowan Pierce as Papiria. Tenor Robert Murray as Lucio was gruff and tall Scottish soprano Eleanor Dennis was particularly good as Cominio. Elizabeth Karani played Rutilia and William Towers, another counter tenor, was Marco Fabio, the father of Quinto. Bass Gareth Brynmor John was very good as the rational tribune Servilio. All of the singers did their melismatic best with the ornate vocal lines, but I could not distinguish much variation in the da capo repeats. The Festival Chorus did well, but best was the instrumental playing by La Serenissima led by Adrian Chandler (violin) and Giulia Nuti (harpsichord). Charles Jernigan