Wolfgang Katschner — Lautten Compagney Berlin
Compagnia Marionettistica Carlo Colla & Figli, Milano
Handel’s “Giustino” as Puppet Opera

Stadthofsaal, Uster, 2019-12-03

4-star rating

2020-01-03 — Original posting


Handel, "Giustino" @ Uster, 2019-12-03 (© Rolf Kyburz)
G.F. Handel, Opera “Giustino” @ Uster, 2019-12-03 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Outline


Introduction

About the Event

Venue, Location

Uster (where I live) is a few kilometers from Zurich. I takes just 12 minutes to reach downtown Zurich by train. Yet, for classical music, Uster is rather provincial. It offers very few concerts other than purely local events, such as typically very modest level recitals by the local music school that I would not dare writing about. It’s as if Zurich sucked up the bulk of classical music events. There are a few exceptions, though. Examples: recitals by a few very respectable, even excellent teachers of the music school. Or recitals by visiting artists. For an example see my review from a recital by Sebastian Bohren on 2019-10-13.

Larger scale concerts are an even rarer exception. Tthere are very few such events per year. In fact, there is just one general-purpose event venue, the Stadthofsaal, which suits bigger concerts (the local churches are not suited for all types of concert). The Stadthofsaal has a stage, allowing for theater and concert performances. The concert acoustics aren’t great, but acceptable. In my blog, I have written about two concerts in the Stadthofsaal:

Organizer, Related Information

Mostly, the organizer for bigger concerts in Uster is Top Klassik Zürcher Oberland. That’s an organization that also covers many other locations in the eastern part of the Canton of Zurich. This particular concert was no exception. However, what was exceptional for this even was that it featured a veritable opera performance—albeit not full-scale. A full-scale opera performance is hardly doable in this venue, given the limited size stage and the absence of an orchestra pit. A performance with marionettes is far more adequate for this venue.

Setting, etc.

In front of the strage, a low barrier separated the orchestra space from the audience. It formed a kind of “pit”, with the conductor in the center, facing and surrounded by the string section. The latter took up the biggest part of the space. On the left, right in front of the stage, there were the wind instruments (oboes, recorder, on the far left the horns and trumpets) and the percussionist. The right side of the pit had the continuo (lute, theorbo, bassoon, violone, harpsichord). At either end of the “orchestra pit”, there were two groups of three solo singers each. These together also formed the choir.

Based on experience from earlier events in that venue, my wife and I took seats at the rear-most row, close to the center. This gave me a chance to take photos without disrupting others. With the limited depth of the hall, this presented no disadvantage acoustically. It actually had the advantage, of better being able to keep an eye on singers, orchestra, stage, and the text projection.

All photos below are by the author (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved). I took them free-handedly, without a tripod. In the aftermath, coming without a tripod turned out a mistake. Nevertheless, at the end of the performance I had plenty of usable shots to choose from.

A General Remark

This is quite different from my usual concert reviews. I’m keeping my remarks on the actual performance short. Instead, I created a sort of “picture album” on the performance on the stage. You may also find a large number (larger than usual) of pictures on the singers. My intent was not so much to review the performance. Rather, I wanted to convey my visual impressions from the opera.


Handel: Opera “Giustino”, HWV 37

George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759) has composed over 40 operas between his time in Hamburg (4 operas, all now lost), in Italy (one Italian opera in Florence, 1707, one in Venice, 1709), and from 1711 up to 1740 in London (all in Italian).

Giustino is one of Handel’s last operas. It premiered 1737 at the Covent Garden Theatre in London. I’m giving a sketchy outline of the libretto below. For full detail see Wikipedia (more detail is available in the German Wikipedia page).


The Artist(s)

Orchestra, Conductor

The musical direction was in the hands of Wolfgang Katschner (*1961). The orchestra was Katschner’s principal ensemble, the Lautten Compagney Berlin (see also Wikipedia). That’s one of the foremost German (and European) ensembles for historical performances of early and baroque music, most notably works by Bach and Handel (and there, especially operas). For this performance, the orchestra consisted of 3 + 3 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, violone, recorder, 2 oboes, bassoon, 2 natural horns, natural trumpet, percussion (castanets, tambourine, drum), lute / theorbo, harpsichord. All instruments were historic or replicas of historic instruments, the string instrumentalists of course used baroque bows.

Wolfgang Katschner, Lautten Compagney @ Uster, 2019-12-03 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Wolfgang Katschner, Lautten Compagney @ Uster, 2019-12-03 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Singers

Six vocalists filled both the roles of the choir, as well as the 9 solo roles in the opera. The three singers on the left-hand side were

To the right of the orchestra, there were three more singers:

Stage

The staging was in the hands of Carlo Colla and his Compagnia Marionettistica Carlo Colla & Figli, Milano. See also the Website of the Fondazione Carlo Colla & Figli. That’s a company that understands itself as keeper of an Italian tradition of 300+ years. The actual stage director was Eugenio Monti Colla—one of the members of the Colla family.

Invisibly to the listener, the puppets were handled by 13 (!) members of the Compagnia Marionettistica Carlo Colla & Figli. Only in the final applause the audience got to see the people doing the “acting” by manipulating the puppets:

Compagnia Marionettistica Carlo Colla & Figli @ Uster, 2019-12-03 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Compagnia Marionettistica Carlo Colla & Figli @ Uster, 2019-12-03 (© Rolf Kyburz)


Performance & Review

Plot & Structure, Stage Album

The Opera “Giustino” is in three acts (plot description shortened from Wikipedia):

Act I

Constantinople: widowed Empress Arianna is celebrating her marriage to her new husband Anastasio. They receive news about a rebellion: Vitaliano has raised an army and is demanding that Arianna marry him instead (see the pictures above). Anastasio sends a defiant message and sets off to fight the rebel. Arianna decides to follow her husband.

In a rural setting, the ploughboy Giustino is working his fields when he falls asleep and has a vision of great fortune awaiting him.

He wakes to see a maiden being chased by a wild bear and rescues her. The maiden turns out to be Princess Leocasta, sister of Anastasio:

Leocasta invites Giustino to the palace where he is acclaimed as a hero. Giustino is sent to help Empress Arianna and her new husband against the rebel Vitaliano.

Arianna has been taken prisoner by the rebels. Vitaliano demands that she marry him. She refuses, Vitaliano condemns her to be thrown to the sea monster who has been ravaging the country. Arianna swears she will remain faithful to Anastasio.

Act II

Giustino and Anastasio jointly try to rescue Arianna. The ship carrying them on this mission is wrecked in a storm. They crawl to the shore and take refuge in a nearby hut.

Meanwhile, Vitaliano gives the captive Arianna one last chance to accept his hand and save her life, but she refuses. He therefore chains her to a rock by the sea to be devoured by the sea monster and leaves her to her fate. As the monster rises from the sea, Giustino rushes in and slays it. Arianna and Anastasio are delighted to be reunited and are led to safety. (Vitaliano, now regretting condemning Arianna to such a cruel death, returns but finds only the dead sea monster. He decides to seek Arianna.)

Leocasta, awaiting the others in the palace garden, expresses her love for Giustino. He himself appears, dragging in Vitaliano, whom he has captured. Arianna and Anastasio express their gratitude to Giustino and send him back into battle to defeat the rebels.

(Amanzio, general of their armies, grows jealous of the upstart Giustino and the glory he is winning for himself.) Vitaliano begs Arianna for one kind look before he dies. However, Arianna repulses him and orders him to prison to await his execution.

Act III

Vitaliano manages to escape from prison.

General Amanzio takes a sash covered in jewels that belonged to Vitaliano and gives it to Anastasio. He suggests that Arianna is betraying him with Giustino. Anastasio gives the sash to Arianna, who bestows it on Giustino in gratitude for saving her life. When Anastasio hears of this, both Arianna and Giustino are banished.

In the countryside, Giustino bemoans his betrayal by fortune and falls asleep. Vitaliano finds him and is about to murder him in his sleep when a nearby mountain splits in two. The voice of his dead father tells Vitaliano that Giustino is his long lost brother. Giustino and Vitaliano now swear friendship and form a pact to save the kingdom from wicked General Amanzio.

Back at the palace, Amanzio has defeated Anastasio and placed himself on the throne. Anastasio, Arianna and Princess Leocasta are in chains. However, Giustino rushes in, defeats Amanzio and sends him off to be executed.

Anastasio is restored to the throne with his wife, begging her pardon for having doubted her fidelity. Giustino pleads for the now repentant Vitaliano to be forgiven. Anastasio grants this request and gives Giustino the hand of his sister Leocasta in marriage. All celebrate such a happy turn of events.


Stage Performance

Puppet Performance

Most people have come across puppet performances in the course of their life. At the bottom level, that’s hand puppets. These are simple, not very sophisticated, but certainly adequate to work with children’s phantasy. One level up are simple marionettes. There, a player moves a puppet from above, through a set of 4 – 8 strings. These are typically connected to a rack. This allows creating of reasonably realistic motions with legs, arms, and head. Here, puppets for minor (walk-on) roles may have been of that type.

For the main roles, however, the puppets were far more complex. Each had at least 12 independent strings for hands, wrists, elbows, knees, body, head, and even the chin. These figures would even open and close their mouth, along with the singing. And I suspect that there were at least two people above the stage controlling each of the main figures. This allowed for complex movements, even body language, hand gestures, “singing / talking”. Especially from the rear of the hall, the “acting” on stage was far above what one commonly assumes as marionette theater. It was definitely more than good enough to keep the listener’s/viewer’s attention.
★★★★½

Staging, Props

The puppet dresses were elaborate, colorful, “realistic”, the puppet acting excellent by all means (within the limitations of a string-operated puppet, of course). The stage props were even more colorful. Occasionally I found them maybe too pithy, excessively colorful (compared to typical, “real” opera staging). In comparison to a typical opera house, the Compagnia Marionettistica Carlo Colla & Figli operates with far more modest means and resources. With that, and considering the downscaling, the result, the effect that the staging achieved was fascinating.

This is the point-of-view of someone sitting in the last row. For people sitting close to the orchestra, it probably was far more difficult to have the illusion of “real stage action”. Also, in comparison to “real” opera, the stage props must have looked more coarse, occasionally schematic. The photos above were taken from the rear of the hall. However, with the cropping, their details, their overall appearance must be closer to the impression of a close-up viewer.
★★★½

Scaling

As stated, my personal impressions were from the last row in the audience. And there, it was indeed very easy to ignore the scaling, the actual size of the puppets. One of the most amazing moments was at the end of the performance. When the curtain was open, the puppets took their applause. Then, the singers entered the stage, later followed by the conductor, and finally the people from the Compagnia Marionettistica Carlo Colla & Figli. Only at that moment the actual size of the puppets (60 – 70 cm / 2 ft.) became very obvious:

Staging, Summary

The main issue with the setting in Uster was that the singers were performing at the outer edges of the orchestra pit. They were visually separated from the action on stage. With this, the viewer’s attention was pulled apart between watching the action on stage, in the orchestra, and seeing the singers perform not just with their voices, but also with vivid facial mimics and body language (see below). This was definitely far more severe in the front row than in the rear of the hall.

On top of that, there was no booklet with the full libretto and a translation (for non-Italian speaking visitors). A translation of the texts was projected into the starred dome above the stage. However, getting the full story from this would have implied devoting considerable attention to these “overtitles” (or reading the concert booklet in the darkness). This, too, was mostly just distraction from the action on stage. Overall, I think that a closer spatial arrangement of singers, stage, and subtitles would have been desirable. Sadly, the Uster venue makes this impossible.


Music Performance

Orchestra, Conductor

Wolfgang Katschner commanded a truly excellent baroque orchestra. The Lautten Compagney is an ensemble that left very little, if anything to wish for in terms of sound, light articulation, clarity, careful dynamics and excellent coordination. Expectedly, the gut strings avoided unnecessary acuteness, especially on the high strings.

The baroque wind instruments were so much richer in sound and character than their perfectred modern counterparts! Sure, baroque oboes aren’t always quite as accurate and instantaneous in articulation and intonation. However, that is more than compensated by the vastly richer colors, the ability to modulate the sound. Similarly, modern brass instruments (horns, trumpets) with valves are brighter, louder, faster in the articulation. However, they are also more neutral, less character- and colorful.

Occasionally (e.g., in the third part of the initial sinfonia), castanets and tambourine jingles added an attractive, slightly exotic note to the sound, accentuating the rhythm.

The orchestra was a joy to listen to, throughout the performance. The only thing I regretted is that the dry acoustics of the venue offered very little support for the orchestra in general. Yes, the transparency was excellent, one could hear and locate the individual instrument groups. Still, better, “warmer” acoustics would have helped creating a more inclusive atmosphere.
★★★★½

The Singers

Without exception, the singers were excellent voices. They were obviously experienced in baroque opera, full in sound, dramatic / operatic (with adequate vibrato), and well-fitting. In order to avoid repetitive comments, I’ll abstain from commenting on the individual voices, with few exceptions below.
★★★★

Georg Arssenij Bochow, Countertenor: Giustino

A very nice countertenor voice! Sure, it is maybe not what used to be a castrato voice, but full of character, projecting well. Still, among the six soloists, Georg Bochow’s voice seemed to get the least acoustic support in this venue. I felt that he was the least successful in “filling the audience”, maybe reaching every listener’s heart. However, he compensated this with vivid mimics and gestures. His position at the far left edge may have contributed to making his voice appear slightly “smaller” than the others. Overall, Bochow’s singing was very impressive nevertheless.


Johanna Knauth, Soprano: Arianna


Myrsini Margariti, Soprano: Anastasio, Fortuna


Julia Böhme, Alto: Leocasta

To me, the most powerful, the most impressive of the female voices, with a full timbre and lots of volume.


Andreas Post, Tenor: Vitaliano


Florian Götz, Baritone: Amanzio, Polidarte, Voce


“Choir”

One might expect that six strong, characterful voices can hardly form a choir. Especially because the singers were standing in two groups, far apart. However, the orchestra seemed to act as effective link between the two groups. With the power of the combined voices, the singers achieved an impressive “choir effect”. Sure, when only one or two voices were involved, one heard individual singers—though well-adapted. Also, the few choruses in the opera were essentially homophonic. So, there really was no need for a “real”, bigger choir.


And Handel’s Music?

With all the action on stage, watching orchestra and singers in action, and occasionally reading the projected text, Handel’s music is in danger of not receiving the attention it deserves. Handel certainly is at the top of his mastership as a composer, his invention rich in fantasy. In fact, it would be hard to name any segment that is musically inferior to others.

On the other hand, at least from this one experience, I also did not sense real “hit numbers”. There were no arias or melodies with the overwhelming emotional effect of some of the arias or choruses in other of Handel’s operas (such as Serse) or oratorios. In other words: barely melodies that would instantly stick to one’s mind and memory. However, what counts here is the combined effect of the excellent singers, the orchestra, and the staging. Especially in this performance on period instruments.


Conclusions

Despite the rather inadequate venue and the few adversities in the setting: a very special opera event that was very well worth the visit. Should you come across a similar performance, I can only warmly recommend attending!

Overall Rating: ★★★★



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