The Martina Franca Festival

By Boas, Robert | Musical Opinion, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

The Martina Franca Festival


Boas, Robert, Musical Opinion


Remote in Italy's heel, Martina Franca offered two interesting revivals last Summer: Tiaetta's lppolito ed Aricia, first staged in Parma in 1759, and Massenet's Roma, which was premiered in Monte Carl in 1912. Both were being given their first stagings in recent times, both operas being played, as usual, out of doors in the Courtyard of the Palazzo Ducale, although the performance of Ippolito I planned to attend on 24 July was cancelled owing to bad weather. Those present at the first staging two days earlier had spoken of an opera of high quality but inordinate length; it lasted four hours and many listeners left at half-time.

The first staging of Roma on 25 July had better luck. One of the composer's last completed operas it is based on Alexandre Parodi's 1876 play Rome vaincue, in which Sarah Bernhardt scored an early success. The story resembles that of Spontini's La Vestale. Rome is threatened by Hannibal and her defeats are attributed to a Vestal Virgin's betrayal of her vows of chastity. The culprit turns out to be Fausta, the Senator Fabius Maximus's niece, who has compromised herself with the warrior Lentulus. For punishment she is condemned to be buried alive and only escapes this protracted fate when her blind grandmother Posthumia stabs her to instant death.

Extravagant claims are often made by refloaters of long neglected works and it would be misleading to compare Roma with the masterpieces of Massenet's prime. His style, unlike that of Puccini, evolved little during his composing career while his flair for a good tune declined in later life, repetitions and sequences tending to replace inspired melodic flowering. Yet Roma remains the work of a born musical dramatist and has an almost Bizet-like delicacy of orchestration. Characterisation is always apt and the concerted pieces are finely wrought. The opera ends with a brilliant coup de theatre when Fausta's grim tragedy is abruptly cut off by an outbreak of rejoicing as the Roman populace celebrates sudden victory over Carthage following the Vestal Virgin's sacrifice. …

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