Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo

Emilio De' Cavalieri
Theater an der Wien

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Anett Fritsch (Soul) and Daniel Schmutzhard (Body) Credit: Werner Kmetitsch
Giuseppina Bridelli (Luxury) and followers Credit: Werner Kmetitsch
Temptations of earthly life Credit: Werner Kmetitsch
Souls between heaven and hell Credit: Werner Kmetitsch
The people rejoice Credit: Werner Kmetitsch

Before Cavalli, before Monteverdi, in the beginning there was Emilio De' Cavalieri. He was one of a group of Florentine aristocrats seeking to reproduce the combination of words and music that made up Greek theatre, and his La Rappresentatione, staged during the Rome Carnival of 1600, is acknowledged as the first opera, as we understand the term, or at least the first that appeared in printed form.

The drama, running to just over 90 minutes, presents a dialogue between the Soul and the Body, contrasting earthly indulgence with the joys of heaven, culminating in the suffering of the Damned and the ascent of the Chosen Ones. Given the date of its composition and theological context, it might seem like a museum piece, but Robert Carsen's brilliant realisation lifts the work out of the confines of its Counter Reformation creation while retaining its allegorical abstraction.

After an opening in which the players discuss their own role and purpose, the significance of which appears only later, a drunken Time emerges, while the cast form a rotating circle like a clock behind him.

This is the first of many striking images, including fearsome-looking priests in black robes and mitres, and figures representating worldly wealth, opulently attired with their many attendants in cloth of gold.

De' Cavalieri's libretto envisaged them stripped of their gaudy vestments, and in a spectacular judgement scene, sixteen half-naked figures float upwards toward Heaven, then plunge in writhing fits down to Hell, only to rise again to the celestial light.

This religious apotheosis notwithstanding, Carsen's achievement lies in reinterpreting the story so that his main protagonists escape the prescriptive route to salvation.

Soul (soprano Anett Fritsch) and Body (baritone Daniel Schmutzhard) may be two persons or one, Everyman, all searching they know not what for.

Faithfully, they inscribe the words of a priest, "Ascend to heaven", "Flee from hell" as if writing punishment lines in school detention. But eventually, they cast off instruction as the priests cast off their headgear, Body throws down his sacred text and the pair erase the slogans they had chalked up earlier.

Those ordinary citizens from the prologue, now dressed all in white, join the rejoicing, not for promise of heavenly happiness nor for deliverance from the Devil, but in celebration of good as its own reward. The general love-in is not a million miles from the closing scene of Hair!

The lively score is well served by its soloists, the Arnold Schoenberg Choir, and Il Giardino Armonico under conductor Giovanni Antonini, and the recording preserves an intimate feeling in keeping with a vision of personal fulfilment rather than triumphant dogma.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

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