Scottish First Ministers have resigned for less. Achille (man and Greek hero), at the insistence of his mum, Tetis, dodges the draft for the Trojan War and is shipped off to skulk on the island of Sciro, self-identifying as a woman. 

The issue is that mum has received a prophecy advising her that Achille will lie dead on the field of Greek victory. “My wee boy canny go!”

Kitted out unconvincingly as Pirra, big bird in a pink frock and daft red wig, Achille – some iconic hero – enters the female circle of Princess Deidamia; much as double rapist Adam Graham/Isla Brown was about to be admitted to HMP Cornton Vale, Scotland’s all women prison, before public outrage did for that cunning plan – and for First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon

Achille, however, had no previous. So, no stooshy on Sciro. Quite a hit with the troupe, he/she turned out to be. Achille and Deidamia fall in love. In this production there is some amusing ambiguity about exactly when the princess discovered Pirra was not everything she/he seemed.         

I’m surprised the First Minister did not try to pass off her gender selection predicament as “old news”. Sturgeon might have pointed out that this gender choice thing dated back not just to 18th century Spanish opera, but the ’45 rebellion. Did not Bonnie Prince Charlie, a pretender in more senses than one, spend some time on Uist with Flora Macdonald, as “Betty Burke”?

The times, they are not a’changing. In the early days of Venetian opera – Corselli wrote Achille in 1744 – disguise, gender swapping and simple transvestism were essential features of opera plots. 

Remember, this was also the era of star castrati. Well-voiced boys who gave their all for their careers. In line with this tradition – continued into opera seria – the episode of Achille on the island of Sciro inspired more than thirty compositions for voice based on a libretto of Pietro Metastasio in 1737.

Metastasio was the Andrew Lloyd Webber of Italian pre-classical opera. A boy prodigy, he was spotted early on and hoiked around European courts giving recitals. He turned poet, preferring to recite his own work rather than that of others, and moved on to libretti. Metastasio created poetry sympathetic to the application of musical effect. Corselli spotted an opportunity. 

Francesco Corselli is a star name in Spanish 18th century court opera. As Kapellmeister of the Royal Chapel of Madrid for nearly thirty years, he was the principal supplier of opera to the Spanish court. Some of these were under the artistic direction of the famous castrato, Farinelli. Corselli is pretty much unknown today. 

First seen in 1744 at the Real Coliseo del Buen Retiro, essentially a private theatre in Madrid’s royal palace, Achille in Sciro was composed to celebrate the marriage of the Infanta of Spain, Maria Teresa Rafaela to the Dauphin of France. 

This production – first time the opera has seen the light of day in 280 years – from director Mariame Clément brilliantly captures that purpose by introducing the Infanta as an onstage observer, present from start to finish, and assembling the royal wedding party to take a curtain call with the cast in the closing scene.

As the audience gathers, the Infanta is already onstage, in front of the curtain, dressed in Spanish court finery, walking slowly to and fro, sitting, reading a book, haughtily surveying the audience, reflecting.

Curtain rises. The setting is a beautiful grotto, with cleverly sculpted rocks that will serve, with minor adjustments, for all scene changes. The sea is a distant prospect. Steps and bridges connect several levels of the set, allowing transitions as the action unfolds.

Julia Hansen, a German freelance set and costume designer, has been enjoying success at Glyndebourne, Opera de Paris, Malma, Sweden, St Petersburg, Tel Aviv …… The list is long. This Teatro Real production was spectacular. It not only looked beautiful, it’s clever construction allowed the action to flow freely. 

One reason pre-classical opera is considered “boring” is because it is usually presented as static, endless singing in front of a series of – typically – temples, ruins, or over decorated palace chambers.

Hansen’s Achille set gave Clément free reign to craft the onstage action. And, boy, did she make the most of it. There is no record I could find of the “tone” of the original 1744 performance, but I bet it was not as smartly ironical as Clément’s. Achille, as Pirra, smooching up to Deidamia’s handmaidens was hilarious. 

Achille/Pirra was Franco Fagioli, an Argentinian counter tenor, who sung his wig off. He played along with the sex duplicity thing, especially when Teagene, the prince Deidamia is meant to marry, takes a shine to the red-headed, fierce “maiden” at the end of Act I. 

Fagioli’s mood swings through frustrated hero, lover of Deidamia and, finally, brother in arms with Ulysses were delivered with gusto, well reflecting his not inconsiderable dilemma, as Sir John Major might have opined. “Oh, no”. 

The action proper starts with Achille and Deidamia performing rituals in Bacchus’ honour. Ulisse’s ship arrives to take draft-dodging Achille to Troy. Ulisse immediately smells a red-wigged rat.

Deidamia argues with her father, King Lycomedes, over her unwelcome betrothal to Teagene. Meantime, Ulisse appears and claims to spot a resemblance between Pirra and Achille’s father. Pirra covers her face with her long, red wig.

Lycomedes introduces the two betrothed to each other. Much ducking and diving from Deidamia. Achille/Pirra is on hand and the king jokingly says Pirra is Teagone’s real rival. The “gals” get on so well together. Pure Hell at St Trinian’s.

In Act II statues appear depicting the Labours of Hercules. Ulisse goads Achille with tales of heroism. Ulisse is on Sciro on business. He asks Lycomedes for an arms shipment. The swords and shields are all very well, but a fleet of those state of the art triremes would sort out the Trojans once and for all.

Lycomedes does a Sunak. All the triremes are deployed and the Royal Sciron Navy’s state of the art flagship has developed a bent rudder and is stuck in somewhere called Portsmouth. But, the door is not closed. 

And when a whacking great ship appears back of stage, cutting into the rocky scenery in Act III to take Ulisse – and perhaps Achille – back to war, it’s clear Lycomedes has pushed the Sciro defence budget north of 2% of GDP. 

In Act II, Part II there is a great celebration at which cunning Ulisse gives away presents, jewellery, clothes, trinkets, and weapons, including shining armour. The whole thing is a plot to encourage the Achille in Pirra to take up weapons.

Of course, he does, gazing at his own warrior reflection in the shining shield. Deidamia is distraught. 

ACT III

Palace façade, send-off time for the newly arrived ship. What’s this? Lycomedes wants to prevent their departure because he is overwhelmed by his daughter’s grief al losing Achille. 

Achille asks, before the court, for Deidamia’s hand. Teagene realises that, faced with the hero Achille, his chances are zero. He renounces his suit. Achille marries Deidamia, then departs for the Trojan War.

No-one is rude enough to say, “Psst, what about the death on the battlefield prophecy thingy?” Perhaps this was a setup for Corselli’s sequel opera, Doh! Achille Forgot About That. To date, undiscovered.

This is an astonishing adventure upon which Teatro Real has embarked. Almost as crackpot as Ulisse’s. That it worked was largely down to Ivor Bolton, the British conductor, who concludes his term as Music Director at Teatro Real at the end of the 2024/25 season. He has revived baroque opera at the opera house, making Teatro Real a leading exponent of little known works.

Later this season, June 10th, there is a one and only performance in Madrid of Coronis, written by Sebastian Duron (1660 – 1716). A Zarzuela in two acts, it is being premiered in Madrid, and later co-produced with Théâtre de Caen, Opéra Comique de Paris, Opera de Lille, Opera Rouen and Opéra de Limoges. 

Bolton is becoming something of a hero for Baroque buffs. His interpretation is lively. The music shimmers and he manages to create excitement, where contemporaries deliver only historical formality. He sees life in this music. As Handel says in one of his Messiah arias – “And the dead shall rise up”. Well, the long silent score certainly rose up in Madrid. 

The remainder of the cast delivered the resurrected score perfectly. Micro Palazzi, an Italian bass, sang Licomede. The cunning Ulisse was Tim Meade, an English countertenor. Teagene, the hapless suitor, was confusingly sung by Sabina Puértolas, a Spanish light soprano. Deidamia, whose tolerance of the ridiculous Achille seemed to know no bounds, was Francesca Aspromonte, an Italian soprano. They all threw themselves into the comedia, acting it up, where required. Great voices. All coped with the sometimes demonic action. Not much more to be said.

It is obvious when revivals are “one-offs”. Curiosity alone does not entitle a work of even reasonable competence to a permanent slot in the repertoire. Achille in Sciro deserves a better fate than occasional curiosity. The whole Teatro Real team has polished something of a jewel that sheds fascinating light on Spanish court opera of the 18th century.

Then, it must have been experienced by only dozens of courtiers. Now, a wider audience can join the privileged. 

And Another Thing!

Christopher Nupen, the founder of Allegro Films has died. He single-handedly changed the world of music. 

The influence of the genius inventor of the filmed musical documentary, who had to leave the BBC to gain the artistic freedom he craved, on the world of music cannot be overstated.

For me, still forming my tastes in music, his 1980 film Jacqueline Dupré, A Celebration was a revelation. Rich with humanity, triumph, tragedy, humour and her outstanding talent, the Dupré memoir intertwined musical performance with personal documentary commentary in a way that had never before been attempted, let alone achieved. I remember being spellbound. 

Artists, like Dupré, her husband Daniel Barenboim, Evgeny Kissin and Vladimir Ashkenazy all trusted Nupen. We, the audience, benefit. We are given a true, insider’s view. 

Then there was Alice Sommer Herz, a concentration camp survivor who featured in Nupen’s monumental work, We Want the Light, about freedom, survival and the extraordinary place of music in the Nazi concentration camps. I defy anyone to watch the film dry-eyed.

Nupen was fortunate indeed to leave the world such an enduring legacy. And we are indeed fortunate to be able to enrich our lives through it.

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