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GRAMOPHONE (05/2023)
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Naxos  2110750

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Reviewer :
Alexandra Coghlan

Pipping Peri’s Euridice to the post by a full eight months, Emilio de’ Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima, et di Corpo (1600) is, to quote director Robert Carsen, ‘the first conscious attempt to tell a whole story in words set to music’. But if Rappresentatione’s chronology is unambiguous, it’s about the only thing that is. Sitting right in the groove between sacred meditation and secular entertainment, it’s closest perhaps to unfashionable forms like masque – a tricky beast to bring successfully to the stage.

Carsen tackles it head-on in his 2021 staging for the Theater an der Wien. There’s no getting away from the piece’s moralising narrative, which sees Soul and Body torn between the guidance of Time, Reason and Counsel and the temptations of Pleasure, World and Life, and Carsen embraces the abstraction. The chorus (the Arnold Schoenberg Choir), all jeans and business-casual, gather as if in a departure lounge, clutching their suitcases. Life, as Carsen’s newly rewritten Prologue tells us, is a waiting room, where all must remain until they choose their path.

That path takes them, in Carsen and Luis Carvalho’s spare designs, through sombre religious ritual and worldly pomp, down to hell and up – almost – to heaven. Dancers and chorus largely take the place of sets. This is a human drama played out like a living Bosch canvas, striking stage pictures giving us the simplicity of naked souls suspended in mid-air, the gilded vulgarity of Mondo’s earthly court.

The musicians of Giovanni Antonini’s Il Giardino Armonico festoon this dark, stark, often monochrome staging with bold sweeps and slashes of colour. From belching dulcian and bright cornetto to the arid snap and crunch of gamba and lirone, it’s a glorious shifting set of shades and textures, and the continuo-playing is often surprising and always virtuoso.

It’s a shame, then, that the balance and sound quality on the DVD are less than ideal. The pit booms while the singers seem distant, recessed, with a fair bit of ambient sound cluttering the mix. It makes it harder to get a grip on Carsen’s characters, locking them into arm’s-length archetypes. Anett Fritsch is a bright-toned, bright-eyed Anima, Daniel Schmutzhard’s Corpo the good-time guy ready to give it all up and follow her lead. Georg Nigl (Mondo) and Giuseppina Bridelli (Vita mondana) have a lot of fun among the damned, balanced by Florian Boesch (an authoritative Consiglio) and Cyril Auvity (Intelletto), tone occasionally bleating and uneasy.

Remaking the morality play for an immoral age, this Rappresentatione is as entertaining a sermon as you’re ever likely to see. Does it belong in the opera house? Carsen certainly makes a persuasive case.


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