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Staatsoper Unter den Linden: Farmer is looking for a wife

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Even the Bible tells us to stay in bed a little longer sometimes: “It is in vain that you get up early, for the Lord gives it to his own in their sleep”. So it says in Psalm 127, as a warning to the overly ambitious. Many myths and fairy tales tell of the gannet who successfully lies down under a dream beech. One of the most beautiful variants of this topos occurs in the libretto, which is often set to music and which the Venetian lawyer Niccoló Beregan wrote in 1683.

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It is based on the essentially true, albeit whimsically unbelievable, life story of the Eastern Roman Emperor Justin I, who was born in the provinces at the end of the fifth century as the son of poor farmers and later climbed the career ladder as a deserving soldier – not to be confused with his nephew and Successor, Justinianus I, who was called the “Great”.

Many composers have set this story to music

So Il Giustino is a political opera. In lightning-short, effectively stray scenes, she tells of the obstacles to such a career that are still common today, of betrayal and shitstorms, intrigues and alliances. The brave Giustino has to fight hideous monsters, on land and at sea, the lust for power of the ambitious people, against whom he asserts himself, reaches up to putsch and attempted murder.

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Lots of composers, including Le Grenzi, Albinoni, Scarlatti, were drawn in by this buxom action. In 1724 this book also came under Antonio Vivaldi. In his “Giustino” opera, it lasts less than four minutes, including a slightly yawned recitative, when the young man, who is exhaustedly falling asleep in the field, sees the goddess Fortuna. Two treble recorders rock it gently in thirds up and down in Siciliano rhythm, in pure C major. Luck comes with a silvery melody in E, which the audience must have been familiar with at the time of the premiere: Vivaldi skilfully quotes one of his own bestsellers with the opening bars of “Frühling” from the “Quattro Stagioni”.

Fortuna predicts splendor and glory, palme e trionfi. Giustino wakes up. And off we go. In the new production of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, the brilliantly agile mezzo-soprano Olivia Vermeulen sings this short fortuna accompagnato. In terms of her voice, she differs only slightly from Christophe Dumaux, who embodies the hero of the title, with a slightly capped alto voice that is sharply defined; characteristically, however, the two are fundamentally different. Yes, Vermeulen can even, as she later demonstrates in her double role as the villain Amanzio, impressively “stack” an octave lower than the good guys do, to the amusement of the audience. In this piece, which was originally only written for castrati, it makes no difference who is male or female. Everyone is different here.

Vivaldi loved female voices. This is evidenced by many of his other works, including the 21 other surviving operas (out of a proven 49 he composed). “Il Giustino” is a medium work, which he did not write for Venice but rather for Rome, where papal decrees prohibited women from appearing on the stage.

Men sing women, women sing men

René Jacobs, who is conducting a Vivaldi opera for the first time to celebrate his thirtieth anniversary as a guest at the Staatsoper, has wished for a special crew of soloists for this production. Men sing women, women sing men – one of them, Helena Rasker, as the scheming, constantly failing courtier Andronico, even plays a man who senselessly disguises himself as a woman. Almost too funny. But highly virtuosic.

The other singers are also of exquisite quality. The rehearsals must have been gorgeous. The result cannot be beat. Again and again, after the short, fast arias with the sparkling passage work, applause breaks out. But the quiet, lyrical ones are also applauded, such as Emperor Anastasio’s aria “Vedró con mio diletto”, which is inspired by a falling fundamental bass. This emperor only became emperor because his sweetheart, the Empress Arianna, married him. This is how the piece begins. And right in the first scene it turns out: She’s wearing the pants.

Kateryna Kasper creates this as a charming, sparkling coloratura slingshot on the one hand, which on the other hand displays masculine courage together with dramatically resounding volume when fate demands it. Her husband may only be a pretty softy, but he has a good heart through and through, which can also be heard in the wonderful legato slurs that mezzo-counter Raffaele Pe, for example in the aforementioned aria, fills with an intensely shimmering light. Soprano and seconda donna Robin Johannsen plays a half-tragic, half-comic role as a chick of the ruling family and imperial sister in that she is the one who paves the way for Giustino into better society, but cannot protect him from the traps set for him there will.

He saves her from a bear, wielding a Herculean club. She remains faithful to him almost to the point of death. The farmer who sought fame finds the woman for life. So at the end there is a happy ending for everyone as well as a roaring final chaconne supported by the people and choir: “After clouds and storms, it’s finally getting clear again.”

And: Vivaldi has finally arrived in Berlin! It wasn’t just a first night for Jacobs. So far, no Vivaldi opera has made it onto the big stage here. Especially since “Il Giustino” is still overshadowed by Handel’s opera, which was staged here many years ago by Harry Kupfer at the Comic Opera.

A second Vivaldi renaissance has long blossomed, if not elsewhere, then at least on the record market, where the Turin Vivaldi Edition is recording one opera after the other in reference recordings. The fact that “Il Giustino” is not only an amusing, interesting total work of art, but also suitable for the stage and a musically mature masterpiece has now been proven once and for all by Jacobs, together with the fiery playing Academy for Early Music.

A number of directors from other opera houses were spotted at the premiere. Perhaps one can hope for imitation in the near future. Hopefully nobody was deterred by the pale, stuffy staging. The director of the evening, Barbora Hotáková, probably thought a bit too much, as you could read later in the program booklet: a transparent, empty stage set made of cardboard brochures and lengths of fabric, children as doubles, a sea monster made of rubber seaweed, Cupid and Psyché on puffy clouds, thunder and lightning and lots of silly jokes, crinolines, gold and makeup. There was always something going on. Just no life in it. The music alone took care of that.

Further performances on November 22nd and 27th and December 2nd and 6th.

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Source: Tagesspiegel

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