Since the 1990s there has been close cooperation between Innsbruck and Berlin in the cultivation of baroque music in historically informed performance practice. Under the artistic direction of René Jacobs, the Tyrolean “Festival for Early Music” and the Staatsoper Unter den Linden cooperated in several projects. Georg Quander, artistic director in Berlin from 1991 to 2002, has already directed five films in Innsbruck. In 2023 he will also show his local production of the opera “Silla”, a dramma per musica by the Berlin court conductor Carl Friedrich Graun, at the Easter Festival he founded in Rheinsberg Castle.
A connection between the former Habsburg residence and Berlin can certainly be historically justified. The first free-standing opera house north of the Alps was built in Innsbruck in the 17th century. One hundred years later, under the Prussian King Frederick II, Berlin became a European center of opera cultivation. For the spring of 1753, the king had not only commissioned an opera from Graun, but also from the Dresden court music director Johann Adolph Hasse. But one can only speak of German baroque opera here to a limited extent: the philosophizing king wrote the libretto in French and then had Giovanni Pietro Tagliazucchi, one of his court poets, translate it for his Italian troupe.
The Roman tyrant Sulla, who cruelly eliminated his opponents and who surprisingly resigned as dictator, repeatedly became an opera hero. Friedrich’s version is strictly committed to the Enlightenment’s image of man, and musically one can sometimes anticipate Mozart’s “La clemenza di Tito”. “Silla” will be played in Innsbruck based on the new edition published in 2020 by Roland Steinfeld. The music was intended to arouse sympathy for the characters and, above all, to explore their ambivalent feelings. Paradoxically, Frederick II even understood the voices of the four castrati, for whom Graun composed the main parts, as gender-neutral and therefore natural.
In Innsbruck it is now a rousing competition between four countertenors in different voice ranges and facets: Hagen Matzeit, even as a worried councilman, effortlessly penetrates into the lower register, while Samuel Marino, as a lover, knows how to effortlessly screw himself into soprano coloratura. Insistently, Valer Sabadus warns against tyranny. The focus, however, is on Silla’s often lyrical reflections: Bejun Mehta sings the title role with a warm-hearted yet very assertive expression. “Fra Speme e timore”, my heart beats between hope and fear, says one of his many arias.
The Innsbruck Festival Orchestra, made up of specialists in early music and conducted by Alessandro de Marchi on the harpsichord, manages to maintain the intensity of Graun’s composition in a coaxing but always energetic manner despite the four and a half hour playing time. In breakneck coloratura, Crüsogono Meret Süngü shines as a tenor alongside the countertenors.
The staging by Georg Quander, the costumes and the stage design by Julia Dietrich are limited to effective poses. The sceneries – an interior with Pompeian wall paintings, then another columned hall or a public square with an antique bust – cannot be fixed in terms of time, appear at the same time antique, baroque, and at times also contemporary. Quader does not explicitly comment on the message of the piece. Frederick II wants to convey that a tyrant must learn not only to defeat others but also himself. In the case of Silla, it is giving up Octavia (Eleonra Belloci), whom he loves so much. Thus the ruler becomes a man, the dictator a servant of the people; Silla takes off his tyrant mantle.
Under the artistic direction of Alessandro de Marchi, Innsbruck has developed further as a trade fair location for early music, where you can always make discoveries, even away from Georg Friedrich Handel and Claudio Monteverdi. Carlo Pallavacini’s Venetian opera “Amazone Corsara” (1686) has its premiere on August 18th, followed on August 25th by Giovanni Bononchini’s “Astarte”, which premiered in 1720 at the Haymarket in London.