This April, Teatro Regio di Torino honoured Alfredo Casella, born in Turin in 1883, with a a staging of his opera La donna serpente, 1928/9, first staged in Rome in 1932, conducted by the composer himself. Casella was cosmopolitan; in his capacity as pianist and concert performer he travelled extensively. He was very much a modernist, well aware of the creative ferment in his times like Futurism, and modern art in general. With Malipiero and D'Annunzio, Casella founded the Corporazione delle Nuove Musiche
La donna serpente thus emerged from the heady background of the 1920's: think Ravel and Stravinsky rather than Puccini. Indeed La donna serpente sends Puccini up. The plot is ludicrous, even Dada, though it is based on an 18th century play by Carlo Gozzi Miranda. A fairy princess falls in love with Altidor, the King of Teflis. The catch is that, should she ever upset her husband, she'll be destroyed. Wagner adapted the same original for Die Feen (read more here), setting it relatively literally as an early Romantic fantasy. For Casella, however, fantasy provides cover for riotous adventure. Things go wrong in the kingdom of Teflis, large crowds march, sometimes cheering, sometimes rebellious, Altidor believes his wife has killed their kids, activating the curse that turns her into a snake lady. Nothing verismo about La donna serpente! There are lovely set piece arias and duets, and parodies of commedia dell'arte, fake oriental potentates, and gloriously lush choruses, but this is most definitely a "modern" opera. Given that it was written while Mussolini controlled Italy, its anarchic energy is also subversive, hiding its kick beneath exuberant good humour. The orchestral passages are vividly dramatic: in many ways they "tell" the story more pointedly than the vocal hijinks. The overture to the third act, for example, describes Miranda as serpent, slithering like a snake. Her legs have been taken away with her identity. After the many beautiful passages suggesting "fairy" lights and sumptuous luxury, the music is sinister, but we feel sympathy for Miranda, destroyed through no fault of her own. In the end, Miranda is restored, and the crowds sing "Liberta!" but it's a near thing. Fairy tales, indeed.
The staging in Turin was simple, with strong angular outlines suggesting Cubist and Futurist influences, illuminated with intense, jewel-like colours. A light show, in many ways. Gianandrea Noseda conducted. He's billed as a Casella champion, because he's recorded the orchestral interludes to the opera, and the symphonies, but if you want a much livelier, punchier performance all round, track down the recording from 1959 in Milan, conducted by Fernando Previtali.