One might well be excused for thinking that Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques new Ambroisie recording of Antonio Salieri's opera La Grotta di Trofonio for being an album by the Smashing Pumpkins; with its wild and unconventional cover design it certainly looks more like something from Billy Corgan and company rather than a Viennese opera dating from 1785.
La Grotta di Trofonio comes with a lavishly illustrated 116-page booklet, and you're going to need it, as this convoluted opera has more twists and turns in its Arcadian storyline then there are in the River Styx. Twin daughters plan to marry different men, but this is foiled when the men visit the cave of the sorcerer Trofonio, who changes their personalities. After breaking their wedding plans, the men, Artemidoro and Plistene, go back to the cave and get "fixed," but in the meantime the girls have also wandered into Trofonio's cave, and it's pretty easy to figure out where La Grotta di Trofonio might go from there.
The singing is good overall, without being spectacular; for once we have an opera here where the title character is a bass and he actually gets to sing for awhile, although in this case perhaps too long a while. Salieri's orchestration, however, is truly brilliant and innovative, and Les Talens Lyriques present a late eighteenth century period orchestra where the sound of the band really makes a difference, down to the very intonation and blend employed between instruments. There are plenty of moments where some detail in the orchestra picks up ones ears, although this usually comes at the expense of the singers. To some extent this is rectified by the bonus DVD, which contains colorful and amusing excerpts from director Olivier Simonnet's stage production of the work.
This is a very worthy project -- this particular Salieri opera was a major success in its time and merits revival. The package truly is novel, although this reviewer could have done without the hairy-pit Odalisque on one of the inner panels -- those French! The music and opera are good, too, but do not plan on passivity when you pop in the disc. Instead, figure out a time where you can listen to La Grotta di Trofonio with the booklet in hand; that way, you will reap what rewards there are in this rather expensive and highly unusual production.