musica Dei donum

Concert reviews

Conti (F): Don Chisciotte in Sierra Morena, tragicommedia in 5 acts
Anne Grimm (Lucina, Maritorne), Keren Motseri (Ondogno), Nicola Wemyss (Dorotea), soprano; Sytse Buwalda (Cardenio, Rigo), Hugo Naessens (Fernando), alto; Niek Idelenburg (Lope), Bernard Loonen (Don Chisciotte), tenor; Matthew Baker (Mendo), Marc Pantus (Sancio), bas; Utrechts Barok Consort/Jos van Veldhoven
concert: Utrecht, April 19, 2002

Francesco Conti (1681-1732), now almost forgotten, was a very famous and highly respected composer in his time. The largest part of his life he worked at the imperial court in Vienna. In 1708 he was apointed first theorbo player, in 1713 he became also court composer. After these appointments he became one of the highest paid musicians in Vienna, who was able to perform his own works with the best singers, since he could pay them well. After falling ill in 1726 he returned to Italy, but in 1732 he returned to Vienna to introduce some new works. It is an indication of his reputation that his successor as court composer, Antonio Caldara, had to step aside to make place for Conti. Shortly thereafter Conti died.
The work performed by the Utrechts Barok Consort was composed for the Carnival season in 1719. It was extremely successful: it was even translated into German, and was performed 25 times outside Vienna, mainly in Hamburg.
Don Chisciotte in Sierra Morena is a tragicommedia, which combines elements of the opera seria and the intermezzo (a form of comedy which was performed in between the acts of the opera seria as a form of compensation for the disappearance of all comic elements from the opera seria). It not only combines these elements, but also ridicules some elements of the opera seria.

I had never heard this work before, and as far as I know it has only been performed in the Innsbrucker Festwochen, under the direction of René Jacobs. I don't know if the work was performed in its original form then, since in Conti's time it lasted about 5 hours. In the performance here in Utrecht, by the Utrechts Barok Consort, directed by Jos van Veldhoven, some cuts were made, and the performance lasted little less than three hours.
It was not a scenic performance, although there were some scenic elements. But even without staging this work turned out to be very entertaining, and its qualities were showed convincingly in the interpretation by the Utrechts Barok Consort.
The way Conti portrays Don Quixote and Sancho Pansa in particular is brilliant. Don Quixote, a puffed so-called knight, who believes that he is a hero, and doesn't want to see the truth, even if it is right under his nose, was perfectly casted with the tenor Bernard Loonen, who is a renowned specialist in this kind of roles. At the end - after he is beaten by someone who pretends to be the giant Pandafilando - he is put into a cage. Then he sings the aria "Qui voltar mi posso appenza", a sort of parody on the "rage aria" in the opera seria. Loonen performed it with the right kind of exaggeration. Also masterly is the characterisation of Sancio (Sancho Panza). His ironic comments on Don Quixote's pretensions are hilarious. He is a rather simple-minded character, without very deep thoughts - so it seems - and his arias reflect that. But in fact he has a kind of craftiness, which makes him see unpleasant truths his master ignores. One of the highlights of the opera is his duet with Maritorne, waitress in the inn where he and Don Quixote are staying, and who is in love with him, but is rejected by Sancio. On the melody of La Follia they compete in name-calling, using qualifications like villan sordido (dirty skunk), falsa femmina (vicious bitch), balordo buffalo (stupid buffalo), vivo sproposito (deformed freak), razza di zingani (gypsy scum), mulatta perfida (cunning half-breed). The baritone Marc Pantus and the soprano Anne Grimm had great success with their performance. Almost all the other roles were very well cast: the sopranos Nicola Wemyss and Keren Motseri, the alto Sytse Buwalda and the tenor Niek Idelenburg. Only the alto Hugo Naessens was a little too weak for the role of Fernando, prince of Andalusia, who has cheated on Dorothea and is after Lucindo, girlfriend of his friend Cardenio. That story line makes sure the work isn't all fun: there are some very moving arias, in particular the 'lament' by Dorothea "Se in vera, e stabil fe" in the first act, where she complains the fact that Fernando has cheated on her.
The orchestra consists of strings and basso continuo only, until the end of the opera, where two horns are used to accompany the battle of Don Quixote against the so-called giant. The orchestra was playing exceptionally well, producing the right kind of 'drive'. Another positive aspect of the performance was the rhythmically free interpretation of the recitatives, which resulted in a very vivid dialogue between all characters. That was one of the characteristics of this performance: the great interaction between the characters and the natural speed with which that was realised.

To sum up: a very impressive interpretation of a fine work, which deserves to be performed more often.

Johan van Veen (© 2002)

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