Caldara’s Lucio Papirio at the Buxton Festival

The operatic works of Antonio Caldara, dating from the early 18th century, rarely get an outing and so the performance of Lucio Papirio Dittatore at the Buxton Festival was most welcome. Set in ancient Rome, it explores the values associated with the Republic: duties of loyalty to the Roman citizens, but also to the family; obedience to the political leader, but also respect for military honour and valour; and how all of these  might conflict with freedom. Zeno’s libretto, while moving towards a resolution of the inevitable conflict between the values, adds some love interest to spice up the proceedings and to enable Caldara to include a few lovely lyrical duets. These contrast with, on the one hand, the stirring, brilliant writing for strings and trumpets, as military glory or self-sacrificial death is sought, and, on the other, with the restrained melodic ideas associated with pathos as those jeopardised by the rigours of Roman rule plead for release. The instrumentalists of La Serenissima, led by Giulia Noti from the harpsichord and Adrian Chandler as the principal violinist – he must have been exhausted at the end given this task as well as the execution of a considerable amount of solo bravura passages – gave a masterly account of the score.

A strong team of young singers had been assembled. Robert Murray offered a convincing portrayal of the dictator whose will is thwarted thus requiring the rigorous enforcement of discipline but who, torn by compassion as well as respect for the defaulter’s bravery, eventually pardons him. Vocally, his tenor fully met the demands of the role. As the disobedient subordinate, counter tenor Owen Willetts combined a sonorous middle register with a brilliant scaling of the ornamental heights. Rowan Pierce, in the role of his wife, contributed what was perhaps the most completely satisfying singing of the evening, with the purity of her soprano, the precision of her coloratura vocalisation and the modulation of colour and volume to achieve pathos. There were fine supporting performances from William Towers, Eleanor Dennis, Elizabeth Karani and Gareth Brynmor John and, as usual, the excellent Buxton Festival Chorus, with their committed, powerful singing, were lively participants.

Stage director Mark Burns and designer Kitty Callister opted most successfully for a largely abstract setting within which, with restrained movements, the protagonists communicated their emotions. Particularly aesthetically pleasing was the blocking; for example, having the aria singer caught centrally upstage under a flood of light, with an adversary silhouetted back stage against a blue sky beneath a Roman arch. Facial expressions and body language reflected what must have been meticulous preparation on characterisation.

The performance could have been shortened by (say) half an hour, for the love episodes in the first act, while containing some glorious music, hindered development of the main themes. And although the honouring at the end of Charles, the Holy Roman Emperor at the time of the work’s premiere, was helpful in placing the opera in its historical context, it was superfluous. Admittedly it was nicely played with irony, Rowan Pierce singing the political tribute from a mighty tome, but, as an alternative, some suggestion of lingering doubts in the staging of the otherwise all-too-happy ending might have done the trick just as well.