Sarti strikes back

The Rubin Academy of Music is breathing new life into the forgotten works of Italian opera composer Giuseppe Sarti.

Rubin Academy of Music  (photo credit: YONATAN DROR)
Rubin Academy of Music
(photo credit: YONATAN DROR)
How many opera lovers know much about Giuseppe Sarti? The Italian composer had plenty of smash hits during his time but, as the centuries progressed, his work and his name took a back seat to the likes of later leading composers, such as Mozart and Rossini.
Bella Brover-Lubovsky is keen for the world to sit up and take notice of Sarti’s creations. To that end, the Russian-born lecturer at the Rubin Academy of Music, of the Hebrew University, has gone all out to give the man his due. Starting today running through tomorrow, the academy will host an international conference entitled: Giuseppe Sarti and Late Eighteenth Century Italian Opera – From Text to Performance.
The two-dayer features an impressive lineup of prominent academics. Musicologist and music critic Marco Beghelli of the University of Bologna, Italy, will give an address that looks at some musical semantic aspects of Sarti’s time, while Albina Boyarkina, a musicologist and translator from Saint Petersburg State University, will take something of a subtext line when she enlightens her audience about how Sarti fares in Mozart’s letters to him.
Another of Sarti’s compatriots, Andrea Chegai of the University of Rome, will examine the intriguing element of the relationship between dramatic time and real time in late 18th-century Italian opera, and one of two local speakers, Ethan Haimo, professor of music at Bar-Ilan University, offers some fascinating insight into how two composers approach the same libretto.
The writers in question are Joseph Haydn and his Italian contemporary Domenico Cimarosa, who composed the music for La fedelta premiata and L’infedelta fedele respectively, both based on words by Giambattista Lorenzi.
Meanwhile, in addition to organizing the whole shebang, Brover-Lubovsky herself will take a look at Sarti the person, as he was perceived by his contemporaries. While presumably none would doubt his artistic talent it seems he was something of a controversial character. Of course, music is the focus of the conference and the patrons will be treated to a performance of Sarti’s opera Giulio Sabino. And other Sarti works will be given their due with, for example, an address by Mirian Meltzer, from the Rubin Academy, who will examine mines that have to be sidestepped when aiming to proffer a contemporary reading of Sarti’s 1780 opera La sconfitta de’ Cananei.
Marina Ritzarev, from the Israel Musicological Society, will chair a session devoted to various productions of Giulio Sabino in the late eighteenth century, with Christin Heitmann and Christine Siegert from the Universitat der Kunste, Berlin, talking about how singers occasionally impacted on the vocal registers of opera arrangements.
Considering Sarti composed over 70 operas in the second half of the 18th century, and that works such as Giulio Sabino were huge international successes, Sarti’s disappearance from the public eye is highly puzzling. The concert during the conference will, for example, be only the second production of the opera in the past 200 years, the previous one taking place in Verona in 1999.
Brover-Lubovsky, who devotes much of her working hours to reviving Sarti works, is also at a loss to explain the Italian’s fall from grace.
“Sarti wrote the opera for Teatro San Benedetto in Venice in 1781, and it was an amazing success after that all over Europe,” she notes. “It was performed 24 times during 25 years, which is unprecedented.”
There’s more: “In 1784, the sheet music of the opera was published in Vienna. That is really exceptional because opera scores were simply never published. That was never a commercially viable thing to do, because no one thought that people would spend money on a score.”
The logistics of Giulio Sabino also offered marketing advantages.
“It was written for a small ensemble, just six soloists,” continues Brover-Lubovsky, quickly adding that while the orchestration may have made the work more amenable to distributors, Sarti did not make life easy for the players.
“It is a long and challenging opera, and very virtuosic in terms of the style, but it is only for six solo roles.”
So, what makes Giulio Sabino so special? “It is the first opera which is set in a location north of the Alps,” notes Brover- Lubovsky. The storyline is also pretty complex. For starters, the eponymous character claims to be a natural successor to Julius Caesar and, as such, to have the right to the throne of the Roman Empire. He duly sets out on an ill-fated military quest to seize power and, when that comes to a sticky end, is forced to beat a hasty retreat, taking refuge in a subterranean chamber right below his own palatial residence. The man was clearly a wily character as no one thought of searching for him so close to his home patch.
The ensuing plot would not be out of place in an Agatha Christie thriller, as suspicion follows betrayal while, all along, Giulio Sabino’s wife remains staunchly faithful to her husband, and even manages to give birth to a couple of children without anyone wondering why she has put on weight.
According to Brover-Lubovsky, the fact that much of the action takes place below ground also has a bearing on the musical delivery.
“That impacts on the new musical style, which is very emotional and which emphasizes spontaneity. That raises the expectations of the listener to the possibility that something out of the ordinary, even shocking, might be about to take place. For the first time, we have an opera that is very interesting, juicy and very ethics-related. And the entire family [of Giulio Sabino] is shown on stage. That never happens in opera.”
There is another important added value to Giulio Sabino. In this age of tabloid-oriented media and reality shows, when 99 percent of news reports seem to cover negative stories, Brover-Lubovsky feels there is a heartwarming positive message to be gleaned from Sarti’s opera.
“Here we see something really special – a husband and wife who really love each other. And in this opera the woman has a positive role,” she says, adding there will be some festive spirit in the offing, too.
“It is not by chance that we are putting on this opera [directed by Shirit Lee-Weiss and with musical preparation courtesy of Omri Arieli] the day before Purim. Here is a woman who manages to soften the heart of the cruel and aggressive ruler, like Esther. That is something really special in opera.”
Brover-Lubovsky also hopes opera world adopts a more positive attitude to Giuseppe Sarti and that, just maybe, this week’s conference may set those wheels in motion.
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