Una Cosa Rara by Martín y Soler in Regensburg

The Spaniard Vicente Martín y Soler was a contemporary of Mozart and indeed the musical style of the two composers is remarkably similar. Both had a gift for melody and a sense of fun while not excluding darker colours and harmonies when the drama calls for them. Martín y Soler did not possess Mozart’s gift for drawing out of the text the psychological undercurrents and expressing them in musical terms. But, like that master, he did have the not inconsiderable benefit of a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte for his opera Una cosa rara which, on the evidence of a recent performance in Regensburg, is well worth reviving.

The piece is a drama giocoso but with more than a hint of serious things beneath the frolics. As in Cosi fan tutte, the plot centres on fidelity; and, as in Figaro, the subject is explored within the context of tensions between the social classes. Here specifically the contrast is drawn between the mores of the aristocracy in a refined courtly setting and those of simple peasants in a pastoral environment. Attempting to reconcile the two worlds, the Queen of Spain, a figure of maternal wisdom, tries to steer the characters (including notably her own son) towards morality and justice. But her confidence that the virtues of Nature and of an Arcadian existence will inevitably prevail over the vices of “civilised” society proves to be exaggerated. People, princes or paupers, are basically the same everywhere.

The astute, imaginative staging of Una cosa rara in Regensburg provided a vivid commentary on its themes.  Pride of place must go first to the artist Markus Lüpertz and designer Ruth Gross. Their colourful costumes and cut-out mobile pictures of animals and other features of forest life supplied the essential fairy-tale background, but with a contemporary twist to underline the sharpness of the satirical observations of human behaviour. This was complemented by Andreas Baesler’s production which employed movement and incident to portray the efforts of the characters to bridge the two contrasting worlds: for example, the shepherds experimenting with courtly gestures; the prince shedding his elegant costume while attempting, half naked, to get to grips with nature by paint on a canvas. At the end, the decors – a construction which leads the audience in and out of the palace to the pastoral exterior – revolves around the stage, as if to say “we are all one”.

The musical dimension had been prepared by baroque specialist Christof Spering and my performance was ably conducted by Alexander Livenson. The male members of the cast, while not possessing outstanding voices, offered lively, robust performances but they were outshone by the two shepherdesses. Anna Pisareva, as the demure Lilla, trilled delightfully expressing her constancy through beautifully spun out top notes and, as the flighty Ghita, Sara-Maria Saalmann romped around the stage, while vocally cascading up and down the registers. Theodora Varga in the role of the Queen was unwell but, though obviously suffering, she gamely sang to the end to save the show.

A most enjoyable and aesthetically pleasing first encounter with Martín y Soler.