This article was first published at The Classical Review on February 24, 2012.
G. Paisiello, Nina, o sia La Pazza per Amore, C. Bartoli, Opernhaus Zürich, Á. Fischer
Arthaus 100 367 | 120' (+46' documentary)
A composer beloved of Napoleon Bonaparte, the novelist Stendhal, and many others in the 19th century, Paisiello has been largely forgotten, although many of the innovative sounds of his earlier operas were absorbed by Mozart (indeed, Paisiello’s Barbiere, performed in Vienna in 1783, was likely an important model for Le nozze di Figaro).
The Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, however, has been performing arias by Paisiello in recital and on recordings, at least since the 1990s. In 2002, she prevailed on the Opernhaus Zürich to mount Paisiello’s Nina, o sia La Pazza per Amore (Nina, or The Love-distressed Maid). A DVD of that production duly followed in 2003 and is re-issued now by Arthaus Musik. If you did not buy it first time around, it is well worth a second thought.
Nina is not much more than a star vehicle for the title character, an opera that is, essentially, one long mad scene with a sentimentally happy ending. Nina’s marriage to her beloved Lindoro was forbidden by her father, a Count. Lindoro flees and Nina, having lost her senses fearing he is dead, is placed in a sanatorium. While visiting her, the Count learns how she lives from day to day under the caring protection of a maidservant, Susanna, and the local villagers. Moved to pity, he is overjoyed to learn of Lindoro’s return, embraces him as his son, and belatedly approves of his daughter’s betrothal. Nina recovers, and the marriage is proclaimed.
Director Cesare Lievi used the second (two-act) version of the opera made by Paisiello for his native Naples in 1790, for a Zurich production that suggested Nina’s insanity was a ploy to change her father’s rejection of Lindoro as her would-be husband. In an accompanying documentary on this DVD, Lievi states quite clearly that “Nina is not crazy, she only pretends to be crazy,” hurting her father by giving away his money to the villagers who visit and sing to her, and, more woundingly, even appearing to no longer recognize him. Which is why Lievi has Jonas Kaufmann’s Lindoro also play the role of the shepherd in Act I, as he is part of the ploy.
The title role was created for a soprano, so the top sits a little uncomfortably in Bartoli’s voice. Neither opera seria nor opera buffa, the score has lots of cantabile melancholy arias and not as much of the crazy coloratura more to Bartoli’s liking. Still, she gives a very moving portrayal and sings with lyrical abandon.
If Bartoli does not chew the scenery (well, a little), she does chew a flower prop and at one point has an unattractive tantrum rolling on the floor. She captures Nina’s contrasting moods -- exaltation, melancholy, mania, depression -- right from her affecting entrance scene, and even interpolates another aria for herself, Mozart’s ‘Ah, lo previdi’ (a replacement aria composed to be inserted into another Paisiello opera, Andromeda) which is also about a love thwarted by a tyrannical father.
Kaufmann shows here why his star rose so quickly at the turn of the century, singing with both bravura strength and finesse, as well as a handsome stage appearance. In the role of the Count, the paternal bass of László Polgár provides a dignified, stentorian presence, while Juliette Galstian is not quite able to handle the highest parts of the role of Susanna.
Character baritone Angelo Veccia has a witty turn as the comic servant Giorgio, both in the funny wheezing aria (when he cannot get out the news that Lindoro has returned, albeit not always exactly in the same time signature as the orchestra) and the drunken aria in Act I, reassuring Nina’s father that she will recover. Conductor Ádám Fischer has a sure hand with the band of the Zurich Opera, using some period instruments (such as the on-stage oboe and bagpipe).
Lievi drains the color palette around Nina to gray and black (except for the bright red flowers she carries in the entrance scena; sets and costumes by Maurizio Balò) setting the action on a single set of Strindbergian stringency with bare walls and a single window.
He adds many pleasing touches to the staging, as when toward the end of Act I, the obbligato oboe player, Bernhard Heinrichs, performs on stage with Bartoli in a lyrical duet, like one of the birds who, she sings at one point, always respond to her laments. The shepherd, here played by Lindoro, is accompanied in his simple song by the rustic zampogna (medieval bagpipe), played here with folk flavor by Michael Reid.
Star vehicle though Nina may be, it was a mistake to film Bartoli in so many close-ups, which are not always flattering. Shots of the star during the Overture show her staring up reverently, like the patron saint of Paisiello. Which may be true, but they still distract from the music.
For Washington-area readers, Opera Lafayette will perform perhaps Paisiello's most famous opera, the immensely popular Il Barbiere di Siviglia (April 14 and 15) in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.
Charlest T. Downey, Opera Lafayette and the Other 'Barber' (Ionarts, April 16, 2012)