Opera News/Februar 2004

Paisiello: Nina (Zurich, 2002)
Cast: Cecilia Bartoli (Nina), Jonas Kaufmann (Lindoro, Un pastore), László Polgár (Il Conte), Juliette Galstian (Susanna), Angelo Veccia (Giorgio), Chorus and Orchestra of the Opernhaus Zürich, Adam Fischer (conductor), Cesare Lievi (stage director), Thomas Grimm (television director)
Issued on DVD by Arthaus in 2003
The wide-eyed and disheveled soprano, trilling and warbling in her dementia, is such a Romantic-era theatrical cliché that one might not be aware of her origins in Giovanni Paisiello’s 1789 opera Nina, o sia la Pazza per Amore (Nina, or The Girl Driven Mad by Love). This immensely popular work — a “comédie larmoyante,” neither opera seria nor buffa — was a singer vehicle long before Bellini and Donizetti made insanity a diva’s best friend. And in a 2002 production from the Zurich Opera House, conducted by Adam Fischer and directed by Cesare Lievi, it proves an ideal vehicle for Cecilia Bartoli to display bewilderment, anger and tenderness as the pathetic, delusional Nina, who loses her mind after witnessing her lover’s apparent death in a duel.

Late-eighteenth-century music fits Bartoli’s voice and musical sensibilities to perfection. (Salieri, one of her latest conquests, was Paisiello’s contemporary.) She can invest a lyrical phrase or a line of recitative with a world of expression; here she seizes the opportunity to combine melancholy, longing, infantile joy and suppressed rage in a tour-de-force characterization, vocally and dramatically complete.

In the spirit of historical accuracy that she has been exploring, Bartoli interpolates into Act I Mozart’s great 1777 concert aria “Ah, lo previdi,” set to a text from Paisiello’s 1774 opera Andromeda. The piece works effectively here as psychological underpinning and is sumptuously sung. (Both the DVD booklet and director Lievi, in an accompanying interview, erroneously refer to this aria as “Ah, perfido,” which is a concert aria by Beethoven.)

The rest of the top-notch cast includes the heroic, attractive tenor of Jonas Kaufmann, who brings a nice swagger to the lover, Lindoro, and the noble, affecting Count of László Polgár. Juliette Galstian uses her pleasant, clear voice along with alert acting to portray Susanna’s officiousness and affection for Nina, while Angelo Veccia stutters, wheezes and enlivens the role of the major-domo, Giorgio.

The staging is refreshingly straightforward and naturalistic. Lievi, in a bonus DVD interview, explains his theory that Nina is merely faking her madness, as a subconscious feminist rebellion against her father’s strictures; at the happy ending, realizing that she has traded the patriarchal system for matrimonial tyranny, she faints. But from the performance, one would guess that Bartoli doesn’t buy it: Nina seems genuinely crazy. At the opera’s very moving climax, Nina is gradually drawn out of her mental isolation by the steady, loving patience of Lindoro, who turns out to be alive after all.

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