(Photo: Marco Borelli)
At the top right of the apse, Empress Teodora and her suite contemplate the altar of the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. The image is a golden mosaic infused with greens and purples. Teodora’s royal gaze dominates the picture, her knowing gaze falls on the waves of visitors who come to see her every day. As fresh today as it was when it was completed in AD 547, it is a truly stunning piece of work and must rank among the greatest Byzantine works of art in the world. How fitting then that the Ravenna Festival chose the Basilica to create Mauro Montalbetti’s new chamber opera on the Empress.
Teodora’s life story is certainly a ready-made for the stage. Despite being of low birth – her father trained bears for the racetrack – she overcame many setbacks to marry Emperor Justinian and eventually became a saint of the Orthodox Church. Hard facts about his life, however, are hard to come by. Often they are fragmentary, contradictory, and obscured by wild rumors, exaggerations and speculations, as she is both worshiped as a saint and cursed as a demon.
It is claimed that she was a great beauty, a seductress, even a prostitute, ruthless in her accumulation of power and responsible for the murder of up to 30,000 rebels during the riots in Nika. Yet it is also said that she saved street prostitutes, improved women’s rights, protected the Miaphysite religious sect from persecution and was responsible, along with her husband, for the reconstruction of Constantinople, including the magnificent Saint. -Sophie.
Barbara Roganti, responsible for the booklet, took a non-linear approach. Rather than trying to disentangle the contrasting and competing versions of Teodora, she created a text that magnifies them. Her verses are a colorful mosaic of isolated fragments of different voices which, when brought together, recreate the essence of Teodora as we know it today. Aspects of his character, often contradictory, are developed, but any meaning of a final portrait is left hidden, enveloped in the mists of time. It is a cleverly designed, learned and very engaging text; multilayered, rich in detail, using complex metaphors and oblique references, in which contradictory perspectives are often juxtaposed, sometimes on alternate lines.
Of course, using such a difficult and opaque text, which also relies on a fairly fine knowledge of Teodora’s life, is going to be difficult to follow, and risks losing the audience along the way, and to some extent, it arrived.
The work is in five movements, each relating to a different episode in her life, in which the focus is always on Teodora the woman, rather than Teodora the historical figure, to which Montalbetti responded with an evocative and interesting soundscape. . It uses a four-piece ensemble, consisting of a violin, cello, double bass and accordion as well as a church organ. A soprano is chosen in the role of Teodora, with a mezzo-soprano in the minor role of the spokesperson. There is also an important role for the chorus and an important speaking part for a woman in the role of the actress. The interplay of these forces created a religious and often ancient musical sound world, which incorporated the distinctive acoustics of the basilica; the sound of instruments and voices often echoed in the alcoves, reappearing behind huge pillars or disappearing into the dome above, creating quite positive and intriguing harmonic effects.
Montalbetti’s use of the quartet to support the drama by closely marrying music to text was effective, and he rarely allowed it to become mere passive accompaniment. The inclusion of an accordion was particularly inspired, allowing for an unusual array of textures, with its occasional outbursts of anger drawing attention. The violin solo of the first movement also captured attention with its dramatic and virtuoso intervention. The quartet, Ensemble Altrevoci, produced an intense and dramatically strong performance.
The musical structure of each movement was centered on madrigals or tunes written for Teodora or the choir. As Montalbetti reports in his program notes, “there is research work starting from the tradition of Monteverdi’s madrigals to build a model relationship between sound and speech, with clear references to an ancient vocality, which is projected in our era “. These are beautifully composed pieces, which highlight Montalbetti’s ease of writing for voice.
In many ways, it was the basilica that determined the style and nature of the production, not only through its unique design and golden mosaics, which demanded traditional visual representation, but also due to the presence of Teodora, that weighs heavily on any imaginative visitor. who looks at his image. Any idea of modern presentation would be lost: the basilica is the setting, and the director must work in harmony with it. This is exactly what Roganti, also a director, did. There were no added sets and props were kept to a bare minimum, like a throne for Teodora. The costumes, designed by Manuela Monti, were also as you would expect of the time, and were pleasing to the eye.
Roganti’s talents as a director, however, were clearly evident in the way she used the basilica space. The main auditorium was placed in the center of the basilica with chairs on either side. However, she went beyond and used the sides behind the audience, the altar, the area beyond the altar, and the area on a higher level. The effect was to transform what is a fairly static libretto into a vivid theatrical experience in which the audience was forced to decide which areas to focus on. Are they focusing their attention on the choir heading towards the main entrance, or the orchestra, playing in front of the altar, or perhaps the dancer coming down to the side, half hidden by the pillars, or on Teodora, motionless behind the altar, her extended shadow projected on the walls, or do they allow themselves to be diverted from the drama, captivated by the mosaics? The spectators thus became partly responsible for their own experience; it is unlikely that two people engaged in the performance in exactly the same way. On the negative side, such a production demands a person’s full attention, gets lost too far, too long, and you run the risk of missing something important.
Roganti encouraged the performers to give elegant, emotionally restrained performances that were not physically demonstrative, letting the voice and the musicians convey the intensity of the feelings. The addition of a dancer was used as another form of expression. The overall effect was to allow Teodora to remain dignified, controlled and aloof.
Soprano Roberta Mameli was instrumental in the role of Teodora. She was so sure and convincing that it was as if the part had been written for her. Her appearance and character was exactly as one would expect of an Empress: royal, aloof, and at ease with power. Vocally, she was equally impressive. Her voice had a crystalline purity that she used to spin long, subtly ornamented lines of true beauty. She could hold a note without deterioration for what seemed like an eternity. Still, in an instant, she was able to rock, so that the voice got richer, with darker undertones to reflect her changing mood.
It was also a beautiful experience to hear Mameli’s voice slowly strengthening, to the point of filling the basilica, in which the acoustics of the building allowed the voice to combine with itself and create wonderful harmonic combinations. .
Mezzo-soprano Anna Bessi played the small role of spokesperson, producing a polished and well-sung performance.
The Choir of the Instituto Superiore di Studi Musicali “Giuseppe Verdi” had a large role to play with substantial roles in four of the five movements. Led by Antonio Greco, they sang with great skill and created a medieval religious sound, further enhancing the atmosphere inside the basilica.
The dancer who was active most of the time was played by the lively and very expressive Barbara Martinini. Matilda Vigne as the actress spoke with great clarity throughout the production of a controlled and understated performance, which complemented Teodora de Mameli well.
Although this is a work dominated by the single figure of Teodora, it is the playing of the soprano voice with the disparate musical and non-musical forces that gave it the balance and depth to make such a success. Of course, Roganti’s libretto goes both ways, but if one is prepared to read it before the performance, it works very well and complements Montalbetti’s music very effectively. Only time will tell if the opera will be relaunched or not, but it certainly deserves to be. What is unlikely, however, is that it will be as successful in another venue unless it is staged in a different way, as no theater, or even a church, will be able to compete with it. the Basilica of San Vitale and its marvelous mosaics, with the Empress herself watching over the performance.