There’s a particular thrill to seeing early opera. Really early opera, that is, from before the time that the form became moulded by Baroque conventions and the demand for ever more virtuosic singing. Francesco Sacrati’s La finta pazza (The Feigned Madwoman) dates from 1641, which makes it one of the first few dozen operas ever performed. And it’s a corker. When it was resurrected by Leonardo Alarcón and Cappella Mediterranea at Dijon just before the pandemic, it earned huge acclaim; it has since been to Versailles and now arrived in Amsterdam, with most of the original cast, for a concert performance at the Concertgebouw.

Cappella Mediterranea at the Concertgebouw
© Bachtrack Ltd | David Karlin

The framework will be familiar to fans of Monteverdi: a story from the classics is played out in a very human way on earth, while the gods above debate events and occasionally interfere. In this case, the story is of the young Achilles in Skyros, where he has been hidden away by his mother Thetis in the (doomed) hope of saving him from the prediction that he will be killed at Troy. Ulysses and Diomedes have been dispatched to find their hero and return him to Greece. Achilles’ lover Deidamia must fight to save him from their clutches, and the gambit she employs is to feign having lost her wits (in what is probably opera’s first ever mad scene).

The music is nothing short of joyous. Alarcón captivates from the very first chords and doesn’t let go. The dance rhythms have you skipping and tripping in your seat. The thrum of theorbo and renaissance guitar pulsates with energy, the skirl of recorders adds vibrant colour, a pair of viole da gamba and a double bass add body. The laments are heart-rendingly plaintive. Alarcón is a master of balance. Most of his instruments are continuo and they provide a solid base. The band is consistently vibrant and consistently judged perfectly to support the singers without overpowering them. On occasion, Alarcón can bring a glorious sense of humour to proceedings – one of the numbers turned truly rock’n’roll in its improvised chamber-organ accompaniment.

The title role of La finta pazza was written for a superstar soprano, Anna Renzi, renowned for her acting as well as her voice. Mariana Flores must surely have matched Renzi’s qualities. Her voice is exceptional for beauty of tone, total control over dynamics and rubato and apparently inexhaustible reserves of breath. Armed with this, Flores takes us through every extreme of emotion, her physical acting as persuasive as the way her voice varied from loving to angry to just plain batty.

Countertenor Filippo Mineccia, who sung Achilles in Dijon, was called in at short notice to sing here. He started a little on the quiet side but grew in strength through the performance. His duets with Flores were truly excellent and the musical highlight of the whole opera was the Canzonetta a tre voci that they sing with the Eunuch, countertenor Kacper Szelążek, to entertain the visiting Greeks, three voices which blended into Renaissance-polyphony bliss.

Other than in that trio, the Eunuch is a comic relief role and Szelążek sang it with relish and entertaining posturing. But the real showstoppers were provided by tenor Marcel Beekman in the second comic relief role, Deidamia’s nurse. Kitted out in full pantomime dame gear, large wig and handbag included, Beekman brought the house down on several occasions, not least in a spoken monologue. Not being a Dutch speaker, I was utterly unable to understand the content, but the Concertgebouw audience clearly lapped it up.

At which point I have to confess that following the action was a huge challenge, because the surtitles were in Dutch only and I could barely pick out a word of the Italian. The Concertgebouw is a big hall and all the consonants had been lost by the time they reached my otherwise glorious seat in the front row of the balcony. The various interventions of the gods, with four singers performing twice as many immortals, proved impossible for me to follow.

And yet, even with that handicap, the main story was clear enough (spoiler: in the end, Deidamia gets her man) and the sheer joy of this opera was inescapable. We left the hall buoyed up by the vibrancy of Capella Mediterranea’s playing of Sarcati’s music, the hilarity of Szelążek and Beekman and that extraordinary singing and acting performance from Flores. Perhaps La finta pazza is considered too obscure to be played regularly, but I hope this performance changes people’s ideas about that – for me, opera from this period feels delightfully fresh and unrestrained and this La finta pazza was pure entertainment.

****1