As everyone knows, Salzburg was Mozart's home town, though he had little love for it, and celebrating him is the cornerstone of the locals' fortunes. For the last three years, under the musical leadership of the Salzburg favorite Riccardo Muti, the Whitsun Festival has focused on the legacy of Naples. Naples, of course, is the city where Muti was born and trained. Equally to the point, it was, in its 18th-century glory, a musical center of signal importance to the young Mozart. Whether it was the place where Mozart became Mozart, as some have been saying of late, is open to question, but not the richness of the forgotten legacy that is being brought to light.
"Why doesn't anyone know Jommelli?," Muti was asking everyone in sight in late May, on fire with his discovery of Demofoonte, the exceedingly strange opera chosen for revival this year. A flip answer might have been because Muti hadn't known him either, and no one else had gone looking.
In Demofoonte, Niccolò Jommelli (1714-74) was choosing a very popular subject. The libretto, by Pietro Metastasio, the unrivalled master of his art, was set to music over five dozen times, and four times by Jommelli alone. The version Muti chose was the last and, we are told, the richest in the virtuosity of the instrumental writing as well as the expressive range of its accompanied recitatives.
The synopsis, like that of so many baroque operas, makes impenetrable actions that on the stage are not really hard to follow. The best preparation is a close look, just before curtain time, at the dramatis personae.
OK, let's see. We have Demofoonte, the King of Thrace. Next, there is Timante, "thought to be his son." (Uh-oh.) Then Dircea, to whom TImante is secretly married. Then Matusio, "thought to be Dircea's father." (This was where I started wondering if I could keep things straight.) And finally a foreign princess, another son of Demofoonte's (apparently bona fide, in this case), and a captain of the guards. Let the games begin!
After a whirlwind of an overture, we plunge straight to the heart of the drama. A virgin is to be sacrificed to Apollo, it seems, a yearly rite. Demofoonte has put his own daughters out of harm's way but refuses to exempt Dircea from the lottery. Her father, who requested special dispensation for her, is enraged. The pious Dircea, however, has graver causes for concern. Not only has she committed the capital crime—as yet undiscovered—of marrying Demofoonte's heir without royal permission; she has also borne a child. What catastrophe will befall if Apollo is offered not a virgin but a mother?
As we are to learn, the secret pair are not the people everyone thinks they are. For a while, indeed, all signs point to their being brother and sister, a predicament too ghastly to contemplate. But no, Demofoonte's virtuous queen (deceased) switched them at birth to ensure Demofoonte an heir (shades of Gilbert & Sullivan). Dircea is Demofoonte's daughter, TImante Matusio's son. If Apollo is still demanding his yearly virgin, perhaps one can be found. The world can be set right, and it is.
Whether the story is more or less gripping than that of countless equally convoluted plots set by Handel and Vivaldi is moot. What lends this opera a special fire is Jommelli's fierce formal originality. Metastasio specialized in arias that were written in two sections but conventionally set in three: the opening A-section, the contrasting B-section (which often clinches a poetic conceit set up in the A-section), followed by a repeat of the A-section, with embellishments at the discretion of the performer. Jommelli, who knew this formula perfectly well, violates it regularly in this score. The text of the A-section returns, but set to different music. Ears accustomed to the standard A-B-A aria, as what music lover's today are not?, are disoriented and fascinated in equal measure. Artificial as a character's plight may seem—too hackneyed to be of interest, perhaps, or too preposterous to be believed—the joys and sorrows expressed in the music ring true.
Though the cast featured no marquee names, several of the performers are well on their way to important careers. One who stood out was the mezzo-soprano Josè Maria Lo Monaco as Timante, eloquent in the laments of Timante, an enormous role. Equally noteworthy, in a very different vein, was the soprano Eleonora Buratto, glittering as the justifiably capricious alien princess Creusa. Cesare Lievi's production struck rather a stilted chord, perhaps by default. Visually, the memorable feature was Margherita Palli's set, an architectural fantasy as thoroughly askew as the king's family tree. Inconveniently for the actors, columns lay flat on the floor, while a triumphal arch floated overhead for a ceiling. (The transformation I was hoping for—the rearrangement of the scenery to symbolize the restoration of order—never happened.) As usual at the Whitsun Festival, the players in the pit were those of the Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini, the training ensemble founded by him in 2005. Occasional insecurities in the brass section aside, the young players covered themselves with glory.
Though Muti's previous Neapolitan rediscoveries—Cimarosa's Il Ritorno di Don Calandrino in 2007, Paisiello's Il Matrimonio Inaspettato in 2008—have gone on tour, even as far afield as Moscow, the world seems to be taking notice now in a different way. From Salzburg, Demofoonte proceeded to the Paris Opera, and thence to the Ravenna Festival, where performances are scheduled for July 3, 5, and 7.
In related news, the publishing house Ut Orpheus, of Bologna, has committed to bringing out critical editions of all the scores Muti has selected for the Whitsun Festival. Volume 1, presented in Salzburg in May, is Demofoonte. The operas and oratorios—including Paisiello's monumental Missa defunctorum, performed this year—represent a significant enrichment of the repertory; reliable, easily accessible editions are indispensable to their further dissemination. More good news: the Neapolitan series, originally scheduled for three seasons, has been extended to five. The preview of the 2010 edition is posted on the Salzburg Festival website. The adventure continues.