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In Review > International

Il Primo Omicidio

PARIS
Opéra National de Paris
1/24/19

In Review Paris Primo Omicidio hdl 219
Kristina Hammarström as Caino and Olivia Vermeulen as Abel in Romeo Castelluci's production of Scarlatti's Il Primo Omicidio at Paris Opéra
© Bernd Uhlig/Opera National de Paris
In Review Paris Primo lg 219
© Bernd Uhlig/Opera National de Paris

COMPOSER ALESSANDRO SCARLATTI (1660–1725) and conductor René Jacobs, now seventy-two, both made late house debuts at the Paris Opéra on January 24, with a new production of Il Primo Omicidio, the composer's 1707 oratorio about the story of Cain and Abel. Romeo Castelluci directed the staging, with the Belgium Baroque band B’Rock in the pit under Jacobs’s baton.

It was easy at first to be seduced by the beauty and precision of the orchestra and the wonderful playing of the violin concerto that opens the score, but sacred torpor quickly set in during the first half. Robert Wilson-style slow motion semaphoring, with beautifully lit and realized images that owed something to the art of Mark Rothko, could not disguise the fact that Il Primo Omicidio is not a work for the theater—it was written for a trattenimento sacro (sacred entertainment) in a private palace in Venice—especially not a theater as vast as the Palais Garnier. Handel oratorios are often as dramatic as his operas, but the same cannot be said of Scarlatti; Il Primo Omicidio surely belongs in an intimate concert hall or a church, especially given the vast choice of unperformed Baroque operas available. 

There is nothing in Scarlatti’s fine score to suggest dramatic action or personal motivation. Il Primo Omicidio instead presents a concentrated spiritual meditation on original sin and Cain’s murder of his brother Abel. The show improved after the interval; after the death of Abel, the entire cast was doubled by children, placed in a rural wasteland setting, while the singers sang from the pit or from balcony boxes. There was inevitably something touching about the innocence of these young performers diligently miming the words and gestures of the characters, and there was a certain operatic relief at the final redemption of mankind granted by God. Castelluci’s division of the evening into two clear parts was intelligent. The human qualities of the second half almost compensated for the static opening, but the audience was not as much moved as reduced to a state of respectful appreciation.  

Jacobs, who recorded the work in 1998 with a superior cast, obviously believes in the work. His regular orchestra played with loving precision. The conductor boosted the orchestration for the opera house by including some modern sounding percussive effects to punctuate what little drama was present and some rather invasive sounding trombones. 

Canadian bass-baritone Robert Gleadow, the Lucifer, was the only member of the cast to fully relish his text: Gleadow’s brief devilish pronouncements reminded the respectful audience of true operatic mischief. Despite fine florid singing, the voices of Swedish mezzo Kristina Hammarström, the Caino, and Dutch mezzo Olivia Vermeulen, the Abel, were too similar in timbre—and neither of the brothers had sufficient projection on the first night. (In general, the cast needed bigger voices for this auditorium.) Despite a few moments of wayward intonation, Norwegian soprano Birgitte Christensen invested Eva’s memorable music with meaning, as did British tenor Thomas Walker with the music for Eva’s husband Adamo. The fine German countertenor Benno Schachtner completed the cast as God. —Stephen J. Mudge 



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