Boito’s “Nerone” on DVD at Last


BOITO: Nerone / Rafael Rojas, tenor (Nerone); Lucio Gallo, bass (Simon Mago); Brett Polegato, baritone (Fanuèl); Svetlana Aksenova, soprano (Asteria); Alessandra Volpe, mezzo-soprano (Asteria); Miklós Sebestyén, bass (Tigelino); Taylan Reinhard, tenor (Gobrias); Ilya Kutyukhin, baritone (Dositèo); Katrin Wundsam, contralto (Cerinto/Perside); Hyunduk Kim, tenor (1st Wanderer); Shira Patchornik, bass (A Voice); Prague Philharmonic Choir; Vienna Symphony Orch.; Dirk Kaftan, conductor; Olivier Tambosi, stage director / C Major 761208 (DVD) (live: Bregenz, July 20, 2021)

At La Scala in the 1920s, Arturo Toscanini premiered two operas by Italian composers that grabbed world headlines. The one everyone remembers, because it became a standard repertoire item fairly quickly, was Puccini’s Turandot. The one no one pays any attention to was the superior opera, Boito’s Nerone.

Boito had been working on this opera since 1862, but sporadically. Until the early 1900s, he wasn’t quite sure how he wanted to develop it or in what direction to take the music. Should it be in a semi-parlando style like the operas of Monteverdi, or more lyrical and tuneful like most of the Italian operas of the 19th century, including his own Mefistofele? Eventually, he opted for the former, yet in doing so he applied all his musical skill to creating orchestral and choral textures that were more modern, influenced in part by the then-recent creations of Debussy, Strauss and Zemlinsky.

But there’s no two ways about it; Nerone is an opera in which the listener must come halfway towards Boito and not expect Boito to constantly entertain him or her. This is a drama set to music, not a tune-fest with high notes to please the majority of operagoers.

The plot is not a continuous narrative, but rather a series of scenes during the period in which Nero was Emperor of Rome, showing the tensions that existed between the Imperial religion and the early Christians, who at that time (and, to a certain extent, still today) were part of a cult based on superstition and unbelievable tales. The opera ends with the Great Fire of Rome. In the opening scene, Simon Mago is making preparations for the funeral of Nero’s mother while the Emperor himself is in the throes of anxiety. Asteria, a Roman woman, is deeply moved by the Christian Rubria’s prayer for the soul of the deceased, but later rejects the Christian god in favor of the Emperor himself as her deity. Fanuèl, a Christian apostle, says goodbye to Rubria and leaves Rome; Simon interrupts Rubria as she is trying to confess a sin to Fanuèl while Nero is celebrated by the people.

In Act II, Simon tries to use Asteria, disguised as a Goddess in the Gnostic temple, to seduce Nero (we’re not told exactly why he wants to do this), but the plan fails and they are caught. Simon must prove that he can fly in the circus while Asteria is threatened with the snake pit. Act III is set in a Christian garden where Fanuèl recites the Sermon on the Mont. Asteria, now bleeding, warns Rubria and Fanuèl about Simon Mago. Rubria again tries to confess her sin to Fanuèl but is interrupted again by Simon, who arrests Fanuèl.

In the last act, Asteria sets fire to Rome to prevent the sexcution of Simon Mago and the Christians. Nero wants to have Rubria executed since, when she was disguised as a vestal virgin, she begged him to pardon the Christians. Simon is forced to jump from a tower. Rubria finally gets to confess her sin to Fanuèl in Asteria’s presence: she was both a vestal virgin and a Christian. Fanuèl blesses her and declares her his wife shortly before she dies.

Having heard Toscanini’s live 1948 La Scala performance of scenes from Nerone as well as the complete recordings conducted by Eve Queler and Gianandrea Gavazzeni (of which I prefer the latter), I asked to receive this DVD for review because 1) I wanted to actually see a production of it to see how it works on the stage, and 2) the cover of the DVD suggested, at least, somewhat Roman-era-looking costumes.

The state production isn’t really too bad, although there is a silent character wearing angel wings and pushing a handcart (he later turns out to be Gobrias) across the stage for no apparent reason, and even from the first scene everyone is covered in blood (why?). In the vast spaces of a theater, the offstage chorus, which sounds merely interesting on records, creates a weird effect in live performance. Boito’s music is clearly tonal, not even as far-out as Strauss’ Elektra, and at times has a forward propulsion due to his varying of rhythms; there are even some clearly melodic lines; but of arias and duets in the conventional sense, there are none. As I said, this is a musical drama, not musical entertainment.

While Nerone is singing his first monologue, a female character (Rubria) slowly crawls towards him, also soaked in blood and holding a mallet of some sort. This, too, is superfluous activity. At the end of his monologue, another female character with a veil covering her entire head and body enters; when the veil is removed, we see that she is Rubria, dressed like a Catholic nun and holding a washbasin which she offers to Nerone and the others to wash their hands. Well, now, that’s interesting, since there were no Catholic nuns in Nero’s time and Christian women did not wear a habit and wimple, but the stage director probably didn’t know that.

At the world premiere at La Scala in May 1924, no less than  six famed singers were part of the cast: Rosa Raisa as Asteria, Luisa Bertana as Rubria, Aureliano Pertile as Nerone, Carlo Galeffi as Fanuèl, Marcel Journet as Simon Mago and Ezio Pinza as Tigelino. Alas, several singers in this performance have flutters or wobbles, but in the case of tenor Rafael Rojas in the title role (who, by the way, died in January of this year, before the video was released) he really wasn’t bad, and his large, expressive voice made an excellent impression. Svetlana Aksenova, our Asteria, has both an unsteady voice and a very wiry, acidic one. The best voice clearly belonged to baritone Brett Polegaro as Fanuèl, who was superb in every way. (Incidentally, just as Rubria is dressed as a nun, Fanuèl is dressed like Jesus Christ in Act I, wearing a white robe and a crown of thorns.) But as I say, my main purpose in wanting this DVD was to see the opera performed, and in some cases the stage direction is quite good, particularly the moving pillars in the background. One of the most interesting things about both the libretto and the music is that you never can tell exactly which side Boito is on; he clearly isn’t a fan of the Emperor Nero, but at the same time he shows the early Christians to be not only fanatical but a bit hypocritical and occasionally vacillating in their beliefs.

With all that being said, however, I came to the conclusion that Nerone is an opera best heard and not watched. The music has its share of outbursts but is largely slow, moody and atmospheric; one could just as easily perform it as a concert piece  and get just as good if not better results. This was probably what was worrying Boito the most, how to get Nerone to “move” on the stage. Even when there is stage movement, it almost seems to be in slow motion. Yet, at the same time, I felt that Kaftan let the opera sag in places; his conducting occasionally picked things up, but for the most part seemed to me too slack. The most exciting scene in Act I was clearly the Simon-Fanuèl one, beginning with the former’s famous monologue (recorded by Journet) and going into a duet. This scene struck sparks. An interesting costume touch: when the chorus of women sing that “Apollo is returned, the heavens are lit up in every color,” they’re wearing dress fashions of 1924, including cloche hats and those big, goofy strings of imitation pearls. It’s amusing but rather anachronistic, and many of the female choristers were as hefty of size as I am (which isn’t svelte), thus some of them look like Ernestine Schumann-Heink in a flapper dress singing about Apollo.

Director Tambosi’s solution to creating some interest in staging Act II is to have Gobrias—and Simon Mago—dressed in the black outfit with black angel wings. Two mute figures, also in black angel wings, are playing pool. Yes, pool. On a pool table . With cue sticks. I kid you not. For whatever reason, Simon Mago, while still singing his lines, grabs a cue stick and joins the game. When Nerone re-enters, he is now in a 1920s woman’s dress with the big, goofy string of pearls—but not a cloche hat. (You really do need a psychiatrist to explain what these directors mean by this stuff.) This is one of the liveliest scenes, from a musical standpoint, but all the blood, angel wings, pool games and flapper dresses in the world can’t make Nerone something it isn’t, and that is a viable and interesting stage experience.

Overall, the most complete characterization in this performance was that of Rojas as Nerone. Despite a few vocal flaws here at the end of his career, he, at least, had a riveting stage presence and, in its own way, a riveting voice.

Nonetheless, I’m glad I decided to review this DVD, just to see if there how one could make Nerone work on the stage. You really can’t. The closest you can come to a stage production is to do what John Eliot Gardiner did with Monteverdi’s Ulisses, just have the singers come out to sing, interact and act as much as they can, and allow the music and words to carry the drama. As a dramatic musical piece, Nerone is clearly a work of genius, but as an opera in the conventional sense of the word, it simply doesn’t hold one’s interest.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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