“Per pieta” is one of those arias that doesn’t have an immediately recognizable melody like, say, “Dove sono” or “Martern aller Arten”. There are large stretches of it where the effectiveness really depends on how it’s phrased (and on the singer having very good intonation). With the eternal caveat that I know jack shit about singing, I have the impression that a performer is a little more exposed singing this than she would be with some other things.
Here are two versions of it. This is Malin Hartelius and this is Miah Persson from that Salzburg/Guth Cosi. In terms of quality of sound, I prefer Persson’s voice to Hartelius’s. It’s slightly more rounded and golden. (These are terrible descriptors, but it’s the best I can do.)
What struck me in watching these two performances in succession is that Hartelius’s performance was an organic part of the production it was performed in, while Persson’s took me out of it. In a good way. This is an aria about being afraid of having betrayed someone, and it was composed at a time when the . . . oh, how to put this. At a time when the artistic depiction of the subtleties of female emotion was done in different terms than are often used now. If you have ever read Richardson’s Clarissa, or Goethe’s Werther you’ll probably notice that the flavor, as it were, of things like love and regret and betrayal is distinctly different from that in a modern novel — or even that in a nineteenth-century novel like Middlemarch or Jane Eyre. What gets communicated via this piece of music is a series of emotional moves that is recognizable and completely understandable, but at the same time not quite modern. If I listen to rather than watch Persson singing this, it could easily be from a production that referenced the eighteenth century much more. As I said, we’re out of Guth’s world for a few minutes with this.
Of course, we’re back in it again by 7.52, when Fiordiligi takes off her dress and we’re even further in it a little later when she smashes a wine glass (I know what a smashed glass means in early modern genre paintings, but I’m not sure that translates well to a twenty-first century setting — although I half suspect that it’s the intended meaning) but even when she’s standing there with the glass in her hand we’re still not back to the modern world yet.
Finally. This seems to be an aria where people lurk in the background. Hartelius’s Fiordiligi is being watched by Ferrando; Persson’s is being . . . overseen I guess is a better word, by Don Alfonso. Given that Guth’s is a ‘let me SHOW you how contrived this is via my persistent insertion of Don Alfonso into places you would not normally expect him’ kind of operation and the Zurich one is a little more focused on the audience identifying with the four lovers, this actually makes perfect sense.