Seria business

La Salustia was Giovanni Batista Pergolesi’s first opera, composed at the tender age of 21. In structure and storyline it’s a conventional baroque opera seria. The setting is ancient Rome (where else?), and the Roman emperor Alessandro is the unwitting subject of a bitter power struggle between the two women closest to him — his wife Salustia and his mother-in-law Giulia. Salustia’s father Marziano launches a plot to kill the evil Giulia, but Salustia saves her nemesis’s life, and all is forgiven in the end. There’s a side romance with two characters Albina and Claudio. Sound familiar?  

This opera is notable in that you can hear in Pergolesi’s music a paring down of the highly ornate, florid melodies that we associate with baroque opera seria. In this sense the music more resembles the “late” opera seria works like Idomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito. This is most obvious in Alessandro’s aria “Andro ramingo e solo,” sung in this video by countertenor Florin Cezar Ouatu. The melody is quiet, contemplative, and intimate, with no trumpet in sight, rather unlike what we’d expect in an aria sung by a “Roman leader.” Another departure from the more formalized opera seria A-B-A structure is the finale of Act Two, which is a quartet sung by the four major characters in which each expresses their own private feelings.

La Salustia did not receiveve its modern world premiere in 2008, and this video from the Fondazione Pergolesi Spontini of Jesi makes a boast as the “world premiere recording.” The positives of this video are that it takes place in a tiny, intimate theatre that is appropriate to baroque opera. The production is unintrusive—the characters are dressed in baroque garb, and a backdrop wall of balconied windows vaguely suggests ancient Rome. Otherwise is the stage is almost completely bare, except for an odd large chandelier on the floor. The lighting is fairly dark. The only quirky touch is that the back wall has “SALUSTIA” drawn in black pencil during the prelude. All of this suggests a vague “antiquity.”

The direction has some good moments but overall is rather shapeless and doesn’t give the rather lengthy but unfamiliar opera the kind of strong narrative it needs. Entrances, angry arias, dramatic arm gestures, appearances at the countless windows of the back unit set, and exits. Wash, rinse, repeat. There are some quirks—I have no idea why this is but a running theme in the production is characters disrobing themselves. It happens first to Claudio, then to Salustia, both of whom get their clothes ripped off for no discernible reason. Happens again to Albina in Act Three. But for a “world premiere recording” one would have hoped that the directors would have dramatized the opera’s plot more.

The major misstep is the casting of Serena Malfi in the title role. Salustia is supposed to be the opera’s moral center, a beacon of goodness and forgiveness. Malfi for some reason plays Salustia as a bitchy, sullen brat. Malfi’s voice is inherently unlikable—shrill and with little beauty.

Much more fun is her rival Giulia (Laura Polverelli) who seems to be relishing her turn as one of baroque opera’s best character types—the scheming, manipulative villainess. Her aria “Se tumida l’onda” has all the requisite aria di capo flights into the stratosphere, but more importantly, excellent musical acting. Polverelli seems to understand that this is a real drama, and should be played as such—she alone creates a flesh and blood character.

The other singers do little dramatically, although they all sound fine. Countertenor Vittorio Prato‘s voice has an overly fast vibrato and unrelenting brightness that I don’t really like, but vocally, he’s okay.

This release is more of a curiosity for the hard-core devotees of baroque opera than the general opera lover. Its main interest is listening to the evolution of opera from baroque to classical—Pergolesi’s music sounds like that elusive missing link.