(Teatro Regio Torino, directed by Ottavio Dantone, 2017)
My New Year’s Day treat was this opera, staged at the Teatro Regio in Turin earlier this year and now released on DVD. I already knew the CD recording, conducted by Dantone with a slightly different cast, but I always find it difficult to truly appreciate an opera until I’ve seen it staged. The adventurous Dehggial and Thả Diều actually went to Turin to see it in the flesh, and their posts whetted my appetite; not that it needed much whetting. How could I resist an opera about Darius I, which neatly forms the third instalment of a Baroque Persian trilogy, alongside Xerxes and Artaserse? Served up with intrigue, romance and a very, very silly princess, this proved to be a deft comedy, well worth the wait.
Officially, we’re in Persia in 522 BC, not that you’d know it. The modern set design is similar to that conceived for Hipermestra: more Arabian than Achaemenid, with oil wells, modern dress and a proliferation of gold-rimmed aviators. The old king Ciro has died, leaving his two daughters as heirs. The path to the throne lies through marriage to his eldest, the beautiful but rather dim Statira (Sara Mingardo). Her younger sister Argene (Delphine Galou), blessed with genuinely Achaemenid ambition, longs not only for the throne and for power, but also for Statira’s most prominent suitor: the nobleman Dario (Carlo Allemano). Argene will do all she can to charm Dario away from Statira. With the help of her maid Flora (Romina Tomasoni) and Statira’s lovelorn tutor Niceno (Riccardo Novaro), she might even be able to wangle the crown for herself as well.
Dario may be the leading suitor, but he certainly isn’t the only one. Statira has two other eager men hanging around: the general Arpago (Veronica Cangemi) and the statesman Oronte (Lucia Cirillo). All she has to do is choose. But therein lies the rub. Statira is so innocent, so unbelievably naive, that she doesn’t even understand what it means to be a wife. (Semplicità, ‘simplicity’, in a not entirely flattering sense, is the adjective most frequently used about her by other characters.) In a series of comic skits, her tutor, maid and sister run rings around her, exploiting her unworldliness in the hope of achieving their own nefarious ends. Meanwhile, the suitors swagger and boast about their fine qualities. I’m amazed how keen everyone is to become King of Persia, given the limited life expectancy of the position, but there we go. Oronte also has a further problem to contend with, beyond Statira’s indecisiveness: he’s actually already engaged to marry the unfortunate Alinda (Roberta Mameli), who tags after him in the usual manner of the Rebuffed Baroque Fiancée™.
This kind of plot abounds in Baroque opera, but Dario is striking because it’s clearly meant to be a comedy, with poor Statira as the butt of most of the jokes. ‘She is both naive and a fool, I promise you,’ Niceno says wearily at one point. She’s horrified when he tells her that, after marriage, her eyes, lips and bosom will belong to her husband (how dare any man plot to steal her eyes?). Having decided that all prospective husbands are evil deceivers, she rebuffs Dario, who finds Argene eagerly waiting to catch him on the rebound. Unfortunately for Argene, he refuses to think of anyone but Statira, and the result is a delicious letter-writing scene, during which noble Dario fails to notice Argene’s desperate attempts at seduction. Of course, in a Baroque opera one should never leave a letter in the wrong hands, because it will almost certainly be used against you. This fate befalls Dario: faced with apparent proof of his betrayal, Statira tries to get angry. She attempts an aria about being tormented by furies, but you can tell her heart isn’t in it: she’s just too nice. For the same reason, she finds it so hard to choose among her suitors that she initially just accepts them all (perhaps a very subversive attempt to establish a male harem?), making things even more complicated.
Vivaldi demands a great deal of agility from his singers, but the cast were more than up to the job. His virtuous hero was sung by Carlo Allemano, whose voice was a highlight of Cavalli’s Xerse: a reverberating tenor, set deeper than that of Anders Dahlin, who sings the role on the CD, but with a sensuality and grandeur that suits the part. My only qualm was visual, and for this I apologise, because I’m about to come across as irredeemably shallow. Dario is a romantic role: a tender and earnest lover, and the real Darius was only thirty when he became king. Allemano is a little older than that, and a little stouter than I’d imagined, which made it slightly hard for me to buy into the casting. Having said that, his acting can’t be faulted and his voice is so pleasant that sometimes I listened with my eyes shut and could imagine him as an infatuated young man: the only one of the three suitors to desire Statira for herself, not for her crown.
While Allemano played it relatively straight, Sara Mingardo was clearly having a ball with the role of Statira. This princess wouldn’t have lasted a minute in the Persian court. She’s more likely to talk to furry baby animals than make speeches: indeed, her closest operatic relation is the sweet-but-dim Semira of Artaserse. Mingardo was both vocally and dramatically excellent, playing up her character’s naivete. One of the funniest scenes was the ‘singing lesson’ aria, in which Niceno offers Statira a song that he has written for her: a coded declaration of love. Between the A and B sections, fluttering strings hinted that she would imminently come to understand the message. But did she? Trusting and open, Mingardo’s Statira frowned at the score while Niceno waited hopefully, his hand creeping towards hers – but all was in vain. ‘Niceno,’ I wrote in my notes, ‘it’s hopeless. She has no brain‘. And Statira doesn’t. She’s lovely, but utterly out of place: a Disney princess in a world of basilisks.
And chief among those basilisks is Argene, Statira’s smart (and smarting) younger sister. Galou was in fine fettle, pulling out all the stops with a performance of robust, eye-rolling, man-eating scheming. It’s very unusual to have contraltos in the two main roles of a Baroque opera, and so this alone would have made Dario interesting, but Galou and Mingardo should be highly commended for their lively interpretations of the characters, without which the opera would be considerably less enjoyable. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that the villainous Argene gets her comeuppance, but at least she gets to go out on a high, with a dramatic exit aria. I’ve never seen either Galou or Mingardo before, but they’re both now on my list of singers to watch out for.
The secondary roles were also well sung. There were times when I thought that Tomasoni’s Flora was a touch overacted, but she had a lovely voice and her first aria was very appealing, with a light and flirty ending. Her fellow conspirator Niceno has a bit more to do and Novaro made the most of it, again egging up his role. His second aria was especially good: a sly, slippery tune which underlined this professor’s double-dealing; but I also enjoyed his storm aria. I’ve heard opera characters compare themselves to plants in storms before, but they generally choose grandiose things like oak trees (see Osroa’s aria in Adriano in Siria). Niceno is more realistic about his status, comparing his heart to ‘a shrub on a mountain at the mercy of the winds‘. No false modesty there.
At first I struggled to distinguish the suitors, but I soon figured them out: Arpago was wearing red camouflage and gleaming aviators, while Oronte was (rather strangely) dressed as the foreman of an oil gang, wearing high-vis jacket and vest, and a hard hat. Unfortunately the characters are never really developed beyond two-dimensional rivals for Statira’s love, and I didn’t think the production did all that much for them either: their grand ‘battle’ in Act 1 came across more like a stagey spat in the playground of a girls’ school. Both Cirillo and Cangemi are talented sopranos, but they seemed to be struggling to inject colour and emotion into their arias, and I wondered if the roles were set a little too high. It felt as though Vivaldi was so interested in the machinations between Argene, Niceno, Flora, Dario and Statira that he switched off when turning back to the other suitors. Oronte has the slightly larger part, and Cirillo did her best to give the character depth, even though we all know he’s just a weaselly opportunist who’s quite ready to murder his unfortunate fiancée at the slightest hint of a throne.
As the said fiancée Alinda, Mameli had a more obviously sympathetic role. Having only recently seen her in Poppea, I enjoyed her singing here, though she did have quite a lot of vibrato, which isn’t strictly Baroque. For some reason the costume designer had given her a bindi between her eyebrows, following the rather confused cultural setting of the opera. I drew comfort from brief nods to the Mesopotamian setting: an altar and throne decorated with Babylonian rosette motifs taken from the Processional Way, and a section of the Tribute Bearers relief from Persepolis. For those less historically pedantic than me, though, this is a clear, crisp staging, placing the characters firmly in the limelight.
Needless to say, this story of Darius’s accession is false in almost every respect which, given my previous experience with opera libretti, really shouldn’t surprise me. It is true that Darius (eventually) succeeded Cyrus as King of Persia; it is also true that he married Cyrus’ daughter; but the real story was considerably more complicated and, indeed, so operatic that you almost wonder why the poets didn’t gobble it up whole. Cyrus died on campaign and was initially succeeded by his son Cambyses who, in turn, was murdered on his return from fighting in Egypt. Cambyses was succeeded by a man claiming to be his brother Bardiya (or Smerdis), but who actually (according to Darius’s later self-justification) was a lookalike impostor, who could be distinguished from the real Bardiya by the fact he had no ears. Nobody had noticed this, because the new king had withdrawn into seclusion and only saw the women of the royal harem. The real Bardiya, said Darius, had been assassinated months earlier by order of Cambyses.
And how did they find out that the impostor had no ears? Thanks to the wit of Cyrus’ daughter, who had been married first to her brother Cambyses and was then passed to the false Bardiya with the rest of the harem. She (knowing full well that her younger brother did have ears) managed to get word out to a band of loyal Persian noblemen, who vowed to depose the impostor. These were the Seven and, if the librettist had done a bit of research, he could easily have used their names for Statira’s two suitors, rather than falling back on the generic Arpago (Harpagus) and Oronte (Orontes), neither of whom can be matched with any real person at the time. Darius was one of the Seven; others were Otanes, who would become the father of Xerxes’ wife Amestris, and Megabyzus, the grandfather and namesake of my beloved general. Having decided to stage a coup, the Seven had to decide the future of Persia and (again according to Darius) he managed to carry the argument with a passionate defence of monarchy.
But who would become king? Here, reality makes opera look highly logical. According to legend, the Seven rode out together to watch the sunrise and they agreed that whoever’s horse neighed first after the sun rose would become king. Luckily, Darius’ servant had been briefed with a stratagem and, somehow, ensured that Darius’ horse neighed at the appropriate moment. Darius became king, took over the royal harem and married Cyrus’ witty daughter as his primary wife. Her name was not Statira (which was the name of Darius III’s daughter), but Atossa, and she was very far from foolish. In fact, she was probably closer to Argene than Statira. An influential, wise and powerful woman, she ensured the succession of her son Xerxes and lived well into his reign – having personally selected Amestris to be his wife. Although Statira is a wonderfully funny character, I can’t help feeling sad that someone as smart and ruthless and canny as Atossa has been written out of what could have been a brilliant role.