“Revered as a saint and cursed as a demon,” was written about her; but how to narrate an image that for almost fifteen hundred years has looked upon the visitors in the Basilica of San Vitale? Teodora. Climb to the sky in five movements was commissioned by the Ravenna Festival and its premiere opened its 32nd edition on Wednesday, June 2; the event will be available for the streaming until 3 July on ravennafestival.live. The new chamber opera by Mauro Montalbetti, based on a libretto by Barbara Roganti, delves into the Byzantine Empress’s labyrinthine life, where truth and slander are found side by side, where a woman’s body joins the sacred icon. Created for the Basilica where the mosaic of Teodora’s court can be admired, the opera features soprano Roberta Mameli, actress Matilde Vigna, and performer Barbara Martinini, together with the Altrevoci Ensemble, organist Andrea Berardi, and Coro 1685 of the Istituto Superiore di Studi Musicali “Giuseppe Verdi” led by Antonio Greco.

If the dedication to Dante is the central sun around which many events of this year’s programme revolve, the Festival journeys across the city’s layered past and visits not only the Dantesque but also the Byzantine Ravenna. The Festival’s return into the most loved of the Byzantine basilicas is a reflection upon one of the faces more deeply ingrained in the collective memory, one of the gazes no one entering San Vitale can evade. The opening event thus perfectly represents the true nature of the Festival, which draws inspiration from the past to look into the future through new productions and commissions.

A sophisticated headgear covered in gemstones and pearls, a jewelled chalice in her hands, a purple-tinged cape – the Empress who is portrayed in the apse of the Basilica of San Vitale looks so very distant from the young woman of whom late antique scholar Procopius of Caesarea writes in his Secret History, the daughter of a bear trainer in the hippodrome of Constantinople and of an actress and dancer. However, Theodora – introduced to the ambiguous, often obscene, profession of her mother – makes the impossible possible: in 527 she is crowned Augusta of the Eastern Roman Empire at Justinian’s side and, since the very beginning, she concerns herself with political, military, and religious matters. She is still revered as a saint by the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Church, together with Justinian.

“At the beginning, I was a little afraid of facing this contradictory figure – says Barbara Roganti, who wrote the libretto and directs the performance – and I understood that if you try to narrate Teodora, you lose her. We tried to meet her instead, not making this opera into a lesson or an inquiry, and choosing a labyrinthine, mosaic-like narrative over a linear one. The many historic sources left a mark on the creative process, here a word and there a colour; the language is modern but, in its bare simplicity, feels almost archaic. I like to think that, similarly to the portrait that must have been sent to Italy so that the anonymous mosaicists could include the Empress’s features in their work, a small gesture from which so much love for and interest in Theodora spring, our work includes something of a redemption. For instance, in the way it gives Theodora, whom Procopius describes as devoid of any talent in acting and singing, the marvellous voice of Roberta Mameli.”

Teodora is very different from my other works – explains Mauro Montalbetti – and invites the listeners to recreate within themselves the image of Theodora, whom we wanted to observe more as a woman than as a historical figure. Behind this composition, there is a research work starting from the tradition of Monteverdi’s madrigals to build a model relationship between sound and word, with clear references to an antique vocality which is, however, projected into our age. Thus music is born from text, a very musical one, thanks to Barbara Roganti’s poetic skills, guiding us to the most ‘resounding’ words we could find. The suggestive Basilica of San Vitale – a unique, magical place – is mirrored by the attitude of the instruments and the added value of the reverberation and the acoustic of this magnificent space.”

Through five movements that mark the time of the performance and introduce different episodes and sound-scapes, the opera is permeated by the sense of the rite and the theatre, connecting Theodora the actress to Theodora the Empress, the rules on stage to the one regulating the imperial court. Between the two points – the low life in the streets of Constantinople and the rooms of the palace, but also the earthly power and the spiritual one, both comprised by the imperial seat – Theodora’s history is never univocal. The choir alternates rumours and history, adoration and slander, understanding and misunderstanding.