Libretto by Antonio Abati, music by unknown composer
Wilton's Music Hall
This is a 350-year-old opera with a very contemporary resonance, which is particularly apparent in this modern dress production.
Back in the seventeenth century, the Italian poet and satirist Antonio Abadi (died 1667) wrote a libretto set in a hospital, which then and there meant a place where ill people could be cared for but might also house the very poor and those with mental illness, a sort of cross between workhouse, sick ward and asylum.
In 2003, musicologist Naomi Matsumoto was researching in the Marciana Library in Venice when she came across a manuscript score in what looked like a seventeenth-century hand. There was no indication of either composer or librettist but there was a note attached saying it corresponded to that poem by Abati.
That is this opera developed through workshops from Dr Masumoto’s edition of the score. It is sung in the original Italian but Abati’s puns can have multiple meanings. How to interpret them in performance and develop an English text shown as surtitles has added to the company’s challenges but the result is delightful and includes a couple of Gesualdo’s madrigals added to the music of the unknown composer (though Dr Masumoto finds stylistic similarities with the work of Giovanni Felice Sances which could imply a connection).
The score is very attractive and often complex. It is lacking in any great showpieces, and it is beautifully sung by this cast whose performances add an extra layer of dramatic interpretation to the charming baroque polyphony.
It is performed on the floor of Wilton’s with the audience on three sides and the musicians up on the stage among row upon row of orange plastic clinical waste bags. In the centre is a curtained-in treatment space. This is opera in close-up.
Director James Hurley’s production begins with light through a doorway as a man is pushed in and stumbles. There is just time to see that his nose is bleeding before it goes dark again. The lights then come up to reveal that he fell by a trolley stacked with urine samples, that there is another man on the floor beside a tipped over wheelchair, already in a hospital gown, and two patients, while above among the orange bags is an ancillary worker.
All this is before Abati’s prologue which is given by a character calling himself Sanitas (Health personified) that here becomes a voice-over Minister of Health making a speech in the House. He speaks of improvements to an overstressed state hospital service, of increasing dependence on overpaid doctors and proposing to visit hospitals under cover.
While the patients wait for their doctor to arrive, the hospital worker warns them against doctors and their venality. “They’ll stick needles in you and when giving prescriptions they are thinking about their own commissions… We are the medicine for their wallets.” The seventeenth-century attack is aimed mainly at incompetence and venality, not exactly matching contemporary issues. There is a critique here of responsibility and failures in public service.
When the doctor arrives, tall and imposingly formal Jonathan Sells, he gives patients only cursory attention and, finding they don’t have the cash to make keeping them profitable, starts discharging them. Innamorato, played by Rebecca Moon (perhaps sung by a castrati originally?), now becomes female: a lesbian heart—and mind-broken by her love for another woman. She’s told to take a break and go travelling.
Cortigiano (Thomas Herford), busy writing a cheque to gain attention, is a city man who can’t take the pressure (a courtier fed up with intrigue originally). He’s simply told to change his career.
Povero (Nicholas Merryweather) is simply broke. His wife cleared him out and he is penniless. The doctor declares that there is no cure for poverty so can get out. Then there is Matto (Michal Czerniawski) who really is mad and attacks the doctor when he seeks to discharge him and cut off his identity bracelet. But he discovers he is a madman with artistic talent and all great artists are madmen so cure isn’t needed, mad artists can make money. But that doesn’t stop things ending in chaos—so what is the Minister’s reaction?
Its an hour-long opera that’s not much more than a revue sketch but an enjoyable one and particularly so with these performances and this intimate setting. As well as the singers, Solomon’s Knot baroque collective includes an excellent band featuring harpsichord, lutes, guitars, violone and viola da gamba so though the presentation may have a modern interpretation the music is beautifully baroque.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton