Cavalieri Rappresentatione di anima et di corpo Naxos

Emilio de’Cavalieri (c.1550-1602)
Rappresentatione di anima et di corpo (1600)
Anett Fritsch (soprano) – Anima
Daniel Schmutzhard (baritone) – Corpo
Florian Boesch (bass) – Consiglio
Georg Nigl (baritone) – Tempo, Mondo, Anima dannata
Cyril Auvity (tenor) – Intelletto
Arnold Schoenberg Choir
Il Giardino Armonico
Giovanni Antonini, conductor
Robert Carsen, director, sets and lighting
rec. 2021, Teater an der Wien, Vienna
Naxos NBD0161V Blu-Ray [101]

Cavalieri insisted throughout his lifetime that he, and he alone, was responsible for the invention of the operatic form, and that this work – the cumbersome title translates as The representation of the soul and body – was the first example of the new and fashionable genre. This claim, although it was admitted by his rival Peri (whose Euridice produced the same year had a good case for precedence), has been subsequently questioned by many and with ample reason. The work was designed to be performed in a church, not in a theatre; its plot features no individual characters, simply the personification of various vices and virtues; and unlike Euridice it is decidedly sacred rather than secular. It falls in fact into the same category as the anonymous English Everyman, an allegorical morality play descended from the line of mystery plays and designed to engender in its audiences a sense of piety and sanctity, rather than the more earthly delights in which opera is so adept.

Indeed it is very far from clear precisely under what circumstances the Representation was first performed – the substantial booklet with this set says nothing whatsoever about the issue – apart from the fact that it was staged in costume in front of an audience splattered with cardinals and bishops. The score itself as published a few years later is basic in the extreme, confined simply to the vocal lines and a figured bass which was clearly designed to act as a basis for improvisation by whatever players were available. In this recording Giovanni Antonini (I presume, in the absence of any indication to the contrary) has taken advantage of this freedom to supply editorially not only extremely elaborately decorated vocal lines but also rich and varied instrumental accompaniments featuring whole ranks of assembled cornetti and other wind instruments, as well as the normal range of basso continuo. To this score has been added a modern realisation of the stage action, including an entirely new spoken prologue (to replace the original spoken introduction to the work) which adds an element of Brechtian alienation with a discussion between the performers about what exactly it is they are about to deliver. This modern gloss on the original, added to the clearly contemporary double denim costumes given to the singers portraying the body and the soul, leave us very far removed indeed from any sense of authenticity either in the music or the dramatic elements.

But the important thing is, does it work? And I am afraid to say that, at least so far as musical authenticity goes, it is a non-starter. The editorially supplied parts for the wind instruments sound authentic, but in the manner and style one would associate with Monteverdi’s Vespers – written, after all, for the best virtuoso players of the day – rather than any forces that might have been available for ecclesiastical performances at the time. And indeed, given the speeds at which the players are asked to produce their tucketings, as well as the sheer length of time they are required to keep up such feats of virtuosity (even Monteverdi allowed his instrumentalists substantial periods of rest!), the players here clearly sound unsettled and ill at ease with both their tuning and articulation. This applies particularly in the lengthy instrumental interludes between ‘scenes’ which appear to have been editorially provided, since Cavalieri himself omits them from his score. The singers manage better, with Anett Fritsch particularly charming as the soul in a whole raft of delicate lines; but again one encounters the feeling of undue haste, of singers being hustled through their ornamented lines when they could have with more expressive advantage have allowed their voices to expand into the more lyrical phrases.

On the other hand, dramatically this is quite spectacular. Robert Carsen can be an annoying producer at times, but on this occasion he has clearly thought hard about the meaning of the work and the text, and is prepared to allow Cavalieri to make his didactic points without totally satirising them. It is of course totally impossible to engage with disputes about the advantages and disadvantages of heaven and hell in polite modern society, and here Carsen has great fun with characters being pulled up to heaven and down to hell on suspended wires in an almost haphazard fashion; but he has prepared for this comic contrast with a very beautiful scene where the body and soul are stripped of their worldly blue denim to reappear clad in white for their final ascent into the hereafter, whilst being confronted with a reflected image of themselves in their nakedness. I am sure that Cavalieri’s assembled cardinals and bishops would not have approved.

The beautiful singing of Frisch is ably abetted by the personable Daniel Schmutzhard as her worldly equivalent, and Georg Nigl is properly dark-toned as the villainous personification of Wordly Power. The remainder of the cast are excellent in their various roles, and the greater part of the dramatic action elsewhere goes to the chorus who provide excellent focus. Apart from the occasional unseemly scrambles from the wind players, the strings and continuo provide a good support. Paul and Peter Landsmann are credited as ‘film directors’ which presumably means that they are responsible for pointing the cameras in the right direction, a function they fulfil admirably. The presentation by Naxos is excellent, with a full cast list, track listing and synopsis, and we are also provided with five pages of an interview with Carsen as the director. All of this is provided in both English and German, and the video is furnished with subtitles in both these languages as well as Italian, Japanese and Korean.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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Additional credits
Margherita Maria Sala (contralto) – Piacere
Michal Marhold, Matúš šimko (bass, tenor) – Compagni
Carlo Vistoli (counter-tenor) – Angelo custode
Giuseppina Bridelli (mezzo-soprano) – Vita mondana, Anima beata
Costumes and sets – Luis Carvalho
Lighting – Peter van Praet
Choreographer – Lorena Randi
HD 16:9
PCM stereo
Subtitles – English, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean
Regions A,B,C