Felicitious Beginning to Barga’s Fabulous Festival 2016

Festival Opera Barga this year may be like being at a banquet without the main course but yesterday evening the hors’ d’oevre, the contorno and, especially the dessert, were absolutely delicious at the inauguration of this doyen of the city’s events which this year celebrates its half-century.

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Opera Barga was founded in 1967 by Peter Hunt and Gillian Armitage with Peter Gellhorn as the musical director. For many of us it has been the prime magnet for staying and appreciating the area and, indeed, in 2005, my first night out in Barga was to attend Vivaldi’s Motezuma (in a pasticcio version –  see my posts at   https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/08/12/fishy-evenings-at-barga/ and https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/06/05/barga-opera-nights/ for more on that intrigue worthy of the most devious of operatic plots.)

Nicholas Hunt, the founder’s son, with Giancarlo Morganti, and Massimo Fino’s musical direction, have carried on the fine work of bringing little-known baroque opera (especially Vivaldi) to the stage so it was truly a disappointment when this year financial constraints prevented an opera from being staged.

No matter: the festival got off to a really good start in the courtyard of the ex-convent of Santa Elisabetta.

This was the programme.

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Unlike the official announcement of a performance of two Mozart violin concerti, and unlike the actual programme itself, the items were in fact performed in this order.

First, the Mendelssohn string quintet no 1, composed when the composer was sixteen and at the height of his prodigal powers with his miraculous octet created just the previous year. Truly, Mendelssohn’s chamber music is among the best stuff he ever committed to manuscript paper.

Second, was the encore, the delicious first movement of Brahms’ sextet no 1.

The encore was eccentrically placed (‘nuova regolazione’ uttered Nick Hunt in jest), before the final piece, which was Mozart’s third violin concerto with three of the string group imitating the horn, flute and oboe parts with highly satisfactory results. Simone Bernardini showed himself to be fully sensitive to the varying moods of this attractive concerto which range from the jocose to the intensely cantabile to the French contredans embedded in its last rondo (although Bernardini’s playing of Mozart wasn’t completely able to subdue the complaints about the heat from one of the elderly inhabitants on the floor above the cloister – Sant’Elisabetta is both a conservatoire and a home ‘per gli anziani’).

‘Le Musiche’ is a group of young musicians, several meeting for the first time but who perform almost as if they had been together for some time. The empathy of communication between them was both sensed and seen and I felt that that start of the Barga (opera) festival could not have started more promisingly with such exquisite chamber music played by so talented group as ‘Le Musiche.’

After a well-needed rinfresco (it was humid and hot) in the garden of the Barga cathedral bell-ringers association we ascended into the cathedral where further musical delights awaited us.

If not a Vivaldi opera why not a Vivaldi religious work? What the red priest wrote for the church has all the vigour of his operatic works plus the added bonus of some really fine choruses.

The Magnificat was the original of three further versions Vivaldi wrote based on it.  The fine ensemble consisting of the Coro Ricercare and the Orchestra Academia degli Invaghiti (= infatuated, with music of course, although, no doubt, there may have been infatuations of a more personal nature between some of the performers…) did us proud while Barga’s photographer and reporter, who brings the world to this most exquisite place, took up a position on the elaborate pulpit.

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The centrepiece of this magnificent ‘Magnificat’ is undoubtedly the “et misericordia ejus” but all the movements have something special to offer, particuaròy the ‘Deposuit potentes’ where the cellos and the double bass were growling menacingly as if to express sentiments that are even more relevant today when the cultivated middle class is suffering ever more under crass potentates.

I remember playing violin in Vivaldi’s Gloria RV 589 in my school orchestra for a Christmas concert. Until that time Vivaldi meant little more than the Four Seasons and I loved the new insight this work (only rediscovered in 1939 by Casella) gave to the composer’s output.

The opening chorus accompaniment was played at a cracking pace. Too fast, I thought at first, but when the chorus came in I knew that Sardelli (yes he’d come back to Barga, the scene of many of his Vivaldi opera triumphs) had got it just right.  His vigorous conducting continued through the following movements: from the elegiac ‘Et in terra pax’ (how much we need that now!) to the sprightly ‘Laudamus te, all the way to the final ‘Cum Sancti Spirito’ conventionally cast as a giant fugue, largely readapted from his predecessor’s Giovanni Maria Ruggeri’s own ‘Gloria’.  Homage rather than plagiarism, I feel in this case.

What a great start to the Barga festival! We almost forgot about the non-opera since so much of the music was indeed operatically dramatic and so gloriously sung. Of soloists I particularly enjoyed contralto Anna Bessi’s singing, although all soloists (drawn from the choir) sang their parts wonderfully, defeating the often cavernous acoustics of Barga’s Romanesque cathedral.

There’s lots more great music to follow at the festival.

Here’s the programme:

How about meeting up tonight, for example, for Haydn’s poignant setting of the Seven Last Words of Christ composed for Cadiz’ Holy Cave Oratory with Barga Festival director Nicholas Hunt reciting those last words.

Whatever may be there will be no last words to describe Barga’s superb festival. I’m quite sure that Opera will return with a vengeance to it next year!

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