Lucio Papirio Dittatore by J A Hasse
LONDON HANDEL FESTIVAL, London, April 6
Lucio Papirio dittatore is the fourth Hasse piece to be performed in London by Ensemble Serse. The 28th of his 60 or so operas, it was first heard in Dresden in 1742, the sixth setting of an Apostolo Zeno libretto originally written for Antonio Caldara (Vienna, 1719). After Hasse, at least 11 further composers were drawn to it, including Paisiello, Anfossi and, in 1780, the 20-year-old Cherubini for his first opera. Hasse’s handling of Zeno’s libretto was free: according to the programme, 16 of the arias had new texts. (Copyright apart, can we today imagine 17 different composers thinking, say, Peter Grimes a successful libretto and then resetting it, with their modifications, to their own music?) Hasse wrote a seven-singer opera: for his wife, Faustina Bordoni, as Papiria, Lucius’s daughter; for Annibale in the title role; for Ventura Rocchetti (the castrato set to displace Annibali as Dresden’s primo uomo) as Quintus Fabius, her husband; and for a soprano, two further castratos and a baritone. Ensemble Serse kept a similar distribution—four countertenors, two female voices, one baritone—but assigned one of the male roles, Cominio, to a woman, and Quintus’s sister, Rutilia (whom Cominio loves), to a countertenor. Imagination had to work during their exchanges.
The opera was performed uncut. With two short intervals, it lasted—and held our attention securely—for nearly five hours. (We’d been advised to bring refreshments and cushions to the church.) Burney called Hasse ‘the most natural, elegant, and judicious composer of vocal music’. There were also many surprises: bold, unusual rhythmic, harmonic and structural devices: startling chromaticisms; subtle interweavings of recitative, arioso and aria; some striking orchestration.
The drama itself is a stiff affair. Lucius Papirius, elected Dictator of Rome in 325 and again in 309 bc, is an odd choice of operatic hero. Livy tells disapprovingly of his lustful cruelty to a beautiful boy, which caused an outcry. In Zeno’s libretto, he condemns his captain, the popular, victorious Quintus Fabius, to death for disobeying an order; to the distress of Papiria, torn between filial respect and love for her husband; of Quintus’s father, Marcus Fabius; and of Rutilia. On the last page of the libretto Lucius relents, and tells Quintus to be less impetuous in future. The company sings a brief, almost perfunctory chorus: ‘Gloomy horror no longer clouds the joy of victory’.
The singers were all pleasingly fluent, running through difficult divisions with aplomb. Elisabeth Fleming was a tender, moving Papiria, with shapely phrasing. Benjamin Williams was a dignified, noble Lucio, though some low notes were disconcertingly unrelated in timbre to those above. Calvin Wells was a dashing Quinto, if over-ready to produce some rather horrid screams as a climax to his cadenzas. Everyone, in fact, even Fleming, had moments of stridency unnecessary in the excellent acoustics of the Grosvenor Chapel. Meili Lin was a charming Marco Fabio, hardly suggesting a venerable patrician, but good to hear. He had the liveliest stage presence, listening, looking, reacting; the others, expressively though they sang, tended to address scores on music- stands rather than their listeners. Roderick Morris as Rutilia, Catherine Pope as Cominio and Christopher Jacklin as Servilio, rival for Rutilia’s hand, completed the cast.
Extended, elaborate cadenzas abounded. There were no measured, accurate trills: a perfect ‘shake’ seems to be one necessary accomplishment that even the specialist singers of our day fail to acquire. At the harpsichord, Thomas Foster, alert to the many fine details of the score, directed a period band of 12. A bilingual libretto in large, clear type was provided.
Gluck’s Orfeo was 20 years in the future. Nearly 20 years after that, Mozart refashioned what he called a ‘real opera’ from the Clemenza di Tito that Metastasio had written for Caldara in 1734. Tito was the first Mozart opera heard in London. It’s no rarity now, but in 1946 Dent could still declare that ‘for the stage of today it can only be considered as a museum piece’. Inevitable thoughts about changing fashions, reforms, rediscoveries flitted across simple surrender to this enthusiastic, committed, lovingly studied Hasse revival, a copious, thoroughly enjoyable musical extravaganza, even when shorn of scenic pomp.
There are in my opinion two compelling reasons to choose an Ensemble Serse performance in preference to your 259th production of Traviata or Carmen. The first is that the South African male soprano Calvin Wells is secretly a musicologist, producing performing editions of operas by the unjustly neglected German composer Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783.) A while ago, some of us thought Handel only wrote oratorios; but now his finest operas are firmly ensconced in the canon. Vivaldi too is being rediscovered as a composer of operas. But the consummate composer of Italianate opera seria throughout the 18th century is in fact Hasse. He composed for opera houses in Naples and Venice before his appointment as Kapellmeister at the court of the Elector of Saxony in Dresden. He married the most famous operatic soprano of the day, known as ‘Faustina’ and was a great friend of Pietro Metastasio, the greatest librettist of the century.
About a decade before his death, Hasse, finding one of his operas programmed in conjunction with that of a very young Mozart, uttered the immortal words, “This boy will cause us all to be forgotten.” Yet in his heyday, Hasse was the most celebrated operatic composer of the 18th century. Charles Burney (1726-1814) wrote, “[Hasse] may without injury to his brethren, be allowed to be as superior to all other lyric composers, as Metastasio is to all other lyric poets.” Not only did Hasse write superb da capo arias for Annibali and Faustina (his principals in Dresden,) but it is Hasse’s orchestration and harmony which is a revelation. How exciting to discover a composer of such high quality whose name had slipped into obscurity for 300 years. Today you can purchase arias by Hasse on CD sung by Vivica Genaux and even sample a fair emulation of a castrato from Barna-Sabadus, who looks set for future greatness. But if you want to immerse yourself in the complete Hasse experience, look no further than an Ensemble Serse uncut performance of an opera not heard since it thrilled Frederick the Great when he popped over to Dresden to sign the Treaty of Silesia.
The other reason to choose Ensemble Serse is the fact that Calvin Wells possesses a unique voice. There may be a dozen world class counter-tenors who sing in the alto tessitura, managing to sound like men rather than girls, whereas true male sopranos are a real rarity. If we want some semblance of authenticity and are going to stop short of chemical castration, we need more singers like Wells who is pushing the envelope of how high a man can sing without resorting to falsetto. Occasionally a major house will cast a male soprano, for example Jacek Laszczkowski in Niobe or you can hear the small but perfectly formed Radu Marian in recital, (provided you remember to take your ear trumpet.) What the American phenomenon Michael Maniaci and Wells both possess is the ability to sing in a true soprano tessitwith sufficient vocal power to reach the back of a cavernous opera house.
It may not be the most beautiful sound you have ever heard and when Wells puts himself under extreme pressure the tone can sound rather forced at the very top. But what draws me to every performance by this singer is the sheer exhilaration he generates. He is a ‘have-a-go’ merchant and at least 90% of the time he succeeds in what he is trying to do and carries his devoted audience along with him. I‘m looking forward to hearing his first recording which will be made later this year. I hope the Serse Trust finds sufficient funds to ensure complete Hasse operas are recorded for posterity.
The performance of Lucio Papirio Dittatore at the London Handel Festival started at 4pm and was comfortably over in advance of 9pm. Just as we are used to an early start time for Wagner, this was perfect timing for uncut opera seria. The librettist of Lucio Papirio was not Metastasio, but Apostolo Zeno (1669-1750,) a Venetian of Greek ancestry. Zeno was one of the architects of the shift from the exuberance of opera seria towards a more classical, purist model. However it appears that Hasse cherry-picked from Zeno’s libretto and for his arias chose to set poetry of a more romantic, even more intense hue. It is no secret that I feel Vivaldi couldn’t orchestrate and the recent revival by Classical Opera of a polyglot opera by Telemann left me wishing the latter had stuck to writing trio sonatas. By contrast Hasse’s writing is consistently engaging and inventive. He freely employs syncopation, unexpected but perfectly executed modulations, long stretches of highly dramatic recitativo secco and B sections to da capo arias which reminded me of the Scherzo-Trio-Scherzo form of early classical symphonies where the Trio has a totally different tone colour and tempo.
In the quest for authenticity, Wells refers us to a contemporary caricature of the castrato Bernacchi, enveloping the Venice campanile with an escalating torrent of notes. The coloratura displays in the cadenzas of this performance were hugely indulgent, very ably illustrating that the celebrity singers of the day rode roughshod over the music in order to thrill their audiences with excessive displays of bravura. One reviewer of the recently released Cencic/Fasolis reconstruction of Farnace writes “(they) miss no opportunity to insert baroque ornamentation, much of which reaches the limits of what could be considered good taste.” Clearly this reviewer has never heard an Ensemble Serse performance, or he would realise that Diego Fasolis and his singers are paragons of good taste compared with the documented self-indulgence of an Annibali, a Farinelli or even the great Mrs Hasse herself.
I was reminded of Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner, becoming the first man to break the sound barrier in death-defying freefall jump, on hearing Calvin Wells sing “Dall’armi cinto che il Sannio han vinto” He was playing the trigger-happy Quintus Fabius who disobeyed his dictator’s command to hold fire, routed the Samites and returned to Rome in victorious triumph, only to face a death sentence for his disobedience. Even if he didn’t hit all of the five top Ds cleanly on this occasion, we all cheered him for trying. By the time he sang the plaintive “Non tema, non viltà mia fine oscurerà” in Act III and a prolonged duet with his wife Papiria, Wells illustrated he can also sing with control and sensitivity in the right context.
Papiria was sung by the mezzo Elisabeth Fleming. She not only took on the mantle of the stricken hero’s loving wife, embodying the conflict between romantic love and duty to her father, Papirio, but also that of Mrs Faustina Hasse. She did this with considerable style and panache, winning the hearts of most of the men in the audience as well as displaying a coquettish smile throughout her thrilling coloratura.
The real revelation of the evening for me was Christopher Jacklin (baritone) as Servilio. What an absolutely glorious voice, full of depth and tone colour. He is apparently a product of ENO Works and has sung quite a wide variety of roles for smaller opera companies. I can’t understand why we haven’t yet heard him in a major role on a main stage. He had a wonderful aria in Act III: “In tua man sta vita e morte” which well illustrated his range and power. For me he was the only singer who not only relished the cadenzas, but also managed to make them sound an integral part of the music of the aria – no mean feat.
Almost as exciting was the discovery of another fine counter-tenor of whom I was not previously aware. This was Roderick Morris, who for his sins was playing the female love interest, Rutilia, over whom Servilio and Cominio compete. This is a true contralto role and since we had a young woman singing the soprano castrato role of Cominio, it just about worked in an opera seria/transgender kind of way. Cominio wore trousers, but so did Morris, who seemed a little disappointed not to be allowed to sing in drag. Morris did rather a nice turn as an arrogant, snobbish daughter of an aristocrat who refuses to consider the suit of a mere plebeian, but it was the quality of his voice which I really liked. It has a compelling dark richness to it as well as an attractive vibrancy.
Catherine Pope did a sterling job as Cominio, offering a very welcome bell-like brightness in contrast with the three altos and mezzo who surrounded her. She had the facility to make her equally florid ornamentation sound almost too easy. Meili Li, of particular interest because he is one of the first baroque counter-tenors to emerge from China, took on the role of Marco Fabio, father of the disgraced hero. I felt there was just a touch of sharpness in his intonation, but put that down to nerves in the first act and he did settle into his role.
Last but not least was Ben Williamson, counter-tenor, as the eponymous dictator. Lucio Papirio is for the most part a crazed dictator who spends much of the opera fulminating like Jove. Williams’ signature poised, elegant singing wasn’t quite enough. I would have liked to hear what Roderick Morris would do with the role. But Morris, the alto with the more manly voice, was playing a woman, parrying the advances of a woman playing a man. That’s opera seria for you.
The excellent Ensemble Serse were as usual unconducted, but maintained perfect ensemble throughout, thanks to the superb playing of leader, Oliver Webber and the consistent support of Thomas Foster on harpsichord.
Had you been travelling, in the mid 18th century, around the crowned courts of middle Europe, there would have been little debate as to who was the most celebrated opera composer and ensemble: Johann Adolph Hasse and his company at the Saxon court of Dresden. Tastes changed, of course, and baroque opera seria died out, and Hasse has not formed part of its recent revival, focused as it is on the works of Handel and Rameau. So it was with considerable interest that I went along to the Grosvenor Chapel in London’s Mayfair to hear Ensemble Serse’s perform Hasse’s 1742 Lucio Papirio Dittatore, a work that won him boundless admiration from that most musically talented of monarchs, Frederick the Great.
Opera seria alternates “dry” recitative with da capo arias. The conventional wisdom, as expressed by Christian Curnyn in ENO’s programme notes for Handel’s Julius Caesar, is that modern audiences can’t cope with a full length performance and that the recitative must be cut in order to preserve the arias. Ensemble Serse weren’t interested in such a compromise: they reconstructed the score and libretto from records at the Dresden court and performed it in full - around four and a quarter hours of music in total.
Contrary to Curnyn’s view, I hugely enjoyed the recitatives. Set in pre-empire Rome, Lucio Papirio describes the conflict between the dictator Lucio and his disobedient but heroic son-in-law Quinto Fabio. As the opera starts, Lucio, concerned by unfavourable auspices, has returned to Rome from a battlefield to seek advice from the temple, leaving Fabio in charge with strict orders not to engage with the enemy. News soon arrives that Fabio has not only engaged with the enemy Samnites but has utterly destroyed them; when he returns to Rome in triumph, Lucio is furious, and things get worse from there. Apostolo Zeno’s taut libretto is focused on the psychology surrounding a dictator who is forced to deal with a complicated mix of his own emotions: personal pride, civic duty, family love, envy and plain old anger. It makes a noticeable contrast to the love-obsessed libretti of the better known Pietro Metastasio, many of which were also set by Hasse. This being a fully lit concert performance, Ensemble Serse made available full libretti, so I was able to follow the full text in Italian and English (as did most of the audience). The twists in the ending get a little convoluted, but for the most part, I found the narrative compelling and the singers well in tune with their characters. The instrumentalists were superb throughout, playing with vigour and maintaining the pulse and impetus of the music throughout a long performance.
I was less convinced by many of the arias. The singer of a da capo aria must combine musical talents with an ability to project the emotions of the character they are singing. For a perfect performance, they must then show contrasting emotions in the middle section, wow us with their virtuosity in the cadenza (if there is one) then come back with reinvigorated power in the repeat - an A/B/A+ structure rather than just A/B/A. It’s a big ask, and in his day, Hasse had access to the top singers in the world. Last night’s soloists had plenty of musical talent - there was little to fault technically - but to my ears, no-one really brought together all the required elements into a complete package. For most of the arias, I enjoyed the opening section and maintained interest in the B section, but my attention then wandered in the repeats, which seemed to add little. The cadenzas also did little for me: the programme notes explained that Ensemble Serse were reproducing history in that singers of the day would frequently veer off and sing whatever they wanted in order to show off their virtuosity, to the delight of audiences and the discomfiture of composers. With every aria being given a cadenza, however well executed, my sympathies lay with the composers.
These criticisms notwithstanding, there was plenty of fine singing. Christopher Jacklin did the best job of rendering his character: the low-born tribune Servilio who eventually displays more nobility than any of the patricians that he has to deal with (for a court opera, Lucio Papirio has a libretto which is surprisingly democratically-inclined). Roderick Morris excelled in his portrayal of Fabio’s sister Rutilia, although I was never comfortable with the casting: Morris’s voice may be high but it’s distinctly masculine, which I found off-putting in his love scenes with the warrior Cominio, sung by Catherine Pope in a quite beautiful but very feminine soprano. Calvin Wells had tons of authority as Fabio, but a nasty sharp edge to his voice when forcing high notes. The female lead role, Papiria, was sung by Elisabeth Fleming, who was fantastic musically - sweet-toned, flexible, elegant - but displayed insufficient variation in emotion: I didn’t hear enough difference in voice between extremely different emotions (“My sweet husband is victorious, yet my heart does not rest,” “You are my dearest love,” or “Take then the name of tyrant”). I felt much the same about Benjamin Williams in the title role: this was a very attractive voice which performed amazing feats of dexterity, but which didn't really follow the dictator's severe mood swings - in the arias, that is, the recitatives having been excellent from all.
In summary, then, this was a performance which was thoroughly fascinating from a history-of-opera point of view, and with many good elements from a musical one. Lucio Papirio is labelled a dramma per musica; to my surprise, I was considerably more taken by the drama than the music - but then early opera is full of surprises.
Cajo Fabricio by J A Hasse
LONDON HANDEL FESTIVAL, London, 20th April
A feast for opera-goers: the first modern revival of Hasse’s Cajo Fabricio (nearly five hours of it), sung by an attractive cast who combined stylishness, verve and cultivated vocal techniques, and vividly played by a trim period band led from the first desk by Oliver Webber. Cajo Fabricio (1732) was Hasse’s only Roman opera. The following year, Handel adapted it for the Haymarket (with Carestini, deemed by Hasse the greatest singer of the day, as Pyrrhus). Soon it was widely performed. The Rome cast, seven strong, was all-male: six castratos and a tenor. Ensemble Serse used three countertenors; the two female roles, Sestia and Bircenna, were taken by two female singers, and a third donned breeches as the knight Volusius.
Apostolo Zeno’s libretto, set originally by Caldara (Vienna, 1729), was later used by at least six other composers. What’s historical about it can be read in a chapter of Plutarch: the Tarentines’ engagement of King Pyrrhus of Epirus to lead them against the Romans; the victory he achieves with the help of elephants (not represented on stage); and his statesmanlike colloquies with the upright Roman envoy Cajus Fabritius. (Like Dryden in his Plutrach translation, I use English spelling of the names.) However, Zeno observes in his argomento, ‘a drama without love-tangles is not acceptable today’, and so he adds Cajus’s daughter Sestia, with whom Pyrrhus, although already affianced to Princess Bircenna of Illyria, falls violently and demandingly in love. Bircenna (in history, his second wife) arrives in Tarentum and makes trouble, while Sestia mourns her betrothed Volusius, reported fallen in battle, though later he turns up safely. It’s a right old muddle to begin with, but Zeno resolves it in a very effective third act wherein the conflicting claims of honour and inclination, public duty and personal passion, are handled in a way that foreshadows Metastasio’s Clemenza di Tito for Caldara five years later.
There’s a striking overture. There are scads of lively recitative (Ensemble Serse produced a careful bilingual libretto), which was keenly delivered, and accompanied not with plonks but with fascinating chordal playing from the cellist Joseph Crouch; some remarkable accompanied-recitative monologues; two brief, perfunctory choruses, starting Act 2 and closing the evening; and 28 intricate, well-varied arias (five apiece for Cajus, Pyrrhus and Sestia; four for Volusius; three apiece for Bircenna, Cineas and Turius). They cover the full affective range from the tender to the furious. When, now and again, Hasse seems to be proceeding in too conventional a way, he pulls sudden surprises of declamation, of phrase lengths, of instrumental interplay—fascinating string writing, two high-spirited horns, two oboes alternating with dulcet recorders—that revive interest and delight. The nearly five hours passed quickly—despite the discomforts of hard, narrow wooden pews, and only two lavatories, drawing long queues during two 15-minute intervals.
The three countertenors were contrasted. To the title role, Daniel Wellings brought nobility of timbre and manner, and long smooth phrasing; the long-sustained notes in his final aria, high pedals supporting instrument tracery, were especially pleasing. Turius, the governor of Tarentum, may be the villain in the plot, but Joseph Bolger presented him with lyrical charm and grace. As Pyrrhus (the star role in which the great Caffarelli, its creator, triumphed), Calvin Wells was, as ever, astonishing, for his power, his bravura agility, his messa di voce. It was a shade over the top. Burney described Carestini’s embellishments as ‘judicious’. Wells’s ornaments, however, were based on Caffarelli’s, and seemed by contrast to verge on extravagance, with some loud high notes that were injudicious shrieks. Edmund Hastings, was an admirable Cineas, the tenor. All three women were good: Elisabeth Fleming as Sestia, making much of the big, dramatic accompanied recitative and beautiful aria that closes the first act; Catherine Pope as the indignant Bircenna; Catharine Rogers as Volusius, perhaps the most intricate character, making much of the final aria. The only Cajo Fabricio excerpt I find on YouTube, Sestia’s "Padre ingiusto" (not in the 1732 score, so presumably one of the changes Hasse made when adjusting the piece for the Naples, Dresden or Berlin casts), is marred by Vivica Genaux’s aspirated articulation of divisions. The Ensemble Serse singers, one and all, were pleasingly, beautifully smooth, not only in slow cantabile phrases but also in rapid virtuoso runs. They lacked, however—and one missed—distinct, measured trills.
The concert performance was well laid out on a small acting space before Ninian Comper’s altar screen. The singers took a little time to warm into their characters, but once they’d done so they brought the drama to life with eyes and mien as well as voice. One small quibble. Show-off may be a legitimate, even necessary component of opera seria adventure, but here every aria came to a stop at least twice, sometimes thrice, for the now-for-my-cadenza interpolations. The cadenzas were long, varied, ingenious. They showed off vocal prowess. They usually included obtrusive high notes cried excessively loud. Sometimes instruments added contributions. They were not ‘judicious’. I’m no purist, but there was so much of it that one felt touches of vulgarity were flecking the otherwise graceful and enthralling performance. I look forward eagerly to next year’s presentation: Porpora’s Germanico in Germania, the other big Rome hit in 1732.
Battling your way through torrential rain on a Friday night to endure no less than five hours on one of the most uncomfortable church pews in London with no refreshments provided and inadequate provision of lavatories may not sound like your idea of fun, but Ensemble Serse’s first performance of Hasse’s Cajo Fabricio since 1733 was one of the best events in this year’s London Handel Festival.
It is time the operatic world collectively began to appreciate the extraordinary contribution the South African male soprano, Calvin Wells is making to the restoration of neglected operas from the height of Italian opera seria. Not only has Wells spent more than a year (in collaboration with the leader of Ensemble Serse, Oliver Webber, a respected baroque violinist,) recreating performance materials from the manuscript of Johan Adolf Hasse’s Cajo Fabricio; he also offers London audiences a rare and exhilarating insight into what a soprano castrato may actually have sounded like.
Castrati ruled the operatic world in the 18th century. Today the alto tessitura counter-tenors are developing exponentially but, just as fine tenors are a rarer breed than baritones, male soprano voices of real quality and power and, dare I say it, masculinity are almost an anomaly. Gaetano Majorano, known as ‘Caffarelli’ was an extraordinary character, who allegedly elected at age 8 to be castrated – obviously not an option for those who wish to recreate the male soprano voice today! Caffarelli did not have great success in London as he followed too closely on the heels of Farinelli. However Handel did create the role of Xerxes for him; the role of Pirro was written for him by Hasse. Caffarelli had a range of two octaves from middle C up to top C. Coincidentally this matches the tessitura which Michael Maniaci lays claim to and he is probably my male soprano of choice today. Other contenders are Jaroussky, Laszkowski, Ryabets and Marian, but only Calvin Wells and Maniaci come close to my idea of what a soprano castrato might have sounded like.
Calvin Wells’ voice and technique may not be to everyone’s taste. He does have quite a fast and dominant vibrato, but in this performance he also revealed excellent, controlled mezza voce in what are known as the ‘pathetic arias.’ On the other hand, what Mr Wells’ core audience now comes to hear (and it was a very good house on Friday) is the thrilling experience of hearing this extraordinary performer in full flight. He hit all his unfeasibly high notes in the da capo arias bang on in Friday’s performance. Marian, of whose singing my partner memorably said was like listening to a voice through the wrong end of a telescope, disappointed. By contrast, Mr Wells on form, as he was in Cajo, offers an exhilarating recreation of what I believe a high-voiced castrato might have sounded like. There has to be something sexy, masculine and thrilling about a man portraying a passionate, powerful tyrant. Just once or twice Mr Wells tended to be slightly sharp in his enthusiasm, but in my opinion he has improved significantly since last year; finally he has found sufficient self-belief to make the seemingly impossible possible. His performance of "Non ha più pace l’amor gelos" in particular raised well-deserved cheers from the audience.
Mr Wells and his colleagues in Ensemble Serse deserve just as hearty an accolade for the extraordinary amount of work which they have invested in making a performance of this unjustly neglected work possible. Hasse wrote the opera for the Capranica theatre in Rome, a prestigious venue which also hosted the premieres of operas by Vivaldi, Porpora, Vinci, Galuppi, Caldara and Leo. Unbelievably Hasse cast no less than six castrati in Cajo. (I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall backstage.) The librettist of this otherwise archetypal opera seria on the themes of conflict, sexual rivalry and a tyrant’s abuse of his power was surprisingly not Metastasio, but Apostolo Zeno (1669-1750,) a Venetian nobleman of Greek descent who was Metastasio’s predecessor as court poet in Vienna. This is a good pairing as both composer and poet are renowned for bringing classical principles to the genre.
The music in this opera is of consistently high quality. There is a lot of recitative, mostly accompanied by continuo. According to scholarly research, Handel, the composer who brought Italian opera seria to London, began latterly to cut recitative for his English audience who would struggle to understand large swathes of Italian text. Besides, they probably only came to hear the vocal fireworks generated by the duelling castrati or battling soprani. In this case of course this opera was premiered in Rome before Italians; the overall effect of the sparkling da capo arias with their vocal histrionics would surely have been amplified by the fact that they tend to end a scene after a building of tension in the passages of recitative. Apart from the occasional use of the string section to accompany a particularly solemn or poignant recitative, another variation from the standard form which I noted was the addition of a vocal cadenza, usually at the end of the ‘A’ section. This was either sung a cappella or was sometimes in the form of an elaborate counterpoint with a solo violin. Twice the warrior, Volusio is accompanied by a pair of bravura horns, vying with him in his posturing. Without wishing to make a pun, this is truly a classic of the classical opera genre and deserves to be staged again. In its day it was heard in Mantua, Urbino, Dresden, Venice, Salzburg, Bologna, Naples; in fact pretty much throughout the civilized world.
So, how did Mr Wells solve the problem of six castrati? The role of Cajo, was accorded to Daniel Wellings. Cajo is the Roman consul, sent to Pirro, King of Epirus, who has supported the Tarentini of southern Italy in a successful insurrection against the Romans. He is the father of Sestia, with whom Pirro unfortunately falls in love, despite the fact that he is pledged to Bircenna, Princess of Ilyria and Sestia herself is betrothed to the Roman warrior, Volusio. Mr Wellings is not a familiar counter-tenor in the early music world, despite having been a Cambridge choral scholar and having sung in his youth with the likes of Emma Kirkby and Michael George. Apparently he has taken a break from professional singer while building a career in the city and the role of Cajo marked his return to the stage. He has a well-focused and balanced voice which is strong enough to be heard in duet with the more operatic voices of the male and female soprani. I thought his singing of recitative and use of the Italian words was excellent, but his rendition of arias was a little disappointing and lacking in the consistent vocal technique. Still it was a pretty good showing for someone who is performance-rusty.
Turio, Governor of Taranto and the other role written for alto castrato was sung by Joseph Bolger. I felt Mr Bolger’s voice and performance was about as different from Mr Wellings as you could get. Mr Bolger is currently studying at the WCMD on the postgraduate opera course. His voice is flexible, his pitch excellent, his arias quite stylish, but sadly in comparison with the phalanx of soprani, he is significantly underpowered. His recitative in particular was difficult to hear clearly further back than the third row.
Edmund Hastings as Cinea, Pirro’s confidant, must have felt outnumbered at times as the only ‘full-blooded’ male in the cast. This is another Oxbridge choral scholar made good. He is on the RAM postgraduate course but making headway already with minor opera groups and in oratorio. I don’t know if he has applied for the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House, but I preferred the quality of his voice to those of the tenors I have heard on that scheme recently. Again his recitative was spotless and he made the most of the Italian text. I’d like to hear him singing the arias with just a little more confidence and bravura, which I think he has the technique to do.
Catherine Pope undertook the role of Bircenna, the wronged fiancée of Pirro. Ms Pope is a quietly confident and experienced singer of baroque and classical music. I liked her vocal quality very much and felt she played Bircenna with great pathos, despite apparently suffering from either a cold or hayfever. The lyric mezzo Sylvie Bedouelle played Sestia’s lover, Volusio with all the aplomb of a principal boy. She has it all: a stage presence, acting ability, a lovely flexible voice and a wide range of repertoire from Monteverdi to pop music. This is a soprano who is going places.
Last and by no means least was Elisabeth Fleming as Sestia. This talented mezzo is a real polymath in that she runs English Voices, was official language coach at the Salzburg Festival and sings early music as far afield as Beijing. Later this year she will be making her debut at the Berlin Staatsoper in Cavalieri. While Ms Rogers is versatile, Ms Fleming is very much an early music specialist who has found her niche in the world of Gluck, Handel, Bach and Monteverdi. Like Pirro, her character loses the plot at one point in the opera when her passion causes temporary insanity. For many I suspect Ms Fleming’s portrayal of Sestia was the standout performance of the evening. In the gladiatorial competition between the soprano castrati, my scoreboard reads 1 game all to Mr Wells and Ms Fleming.
Siroe by J A Hasse
LONDON HANDEL FESTIVAL, LONDON, 15th April
Handel's place in the modern repertory is secure. There are other good composers of his day whose operas are well worth occasional modern revival. Garsington champions Vivaldi. Ensemble Serse champions Hasse: Siroe was its second Hasse presentation after the exhilarating Artaserse two year ago [sic Siroe was revived in a complete performance lasting 5 hours in 2008; the complete Artaserse followed in 2009. For the 2012 LHF we decided to present an abridged version]. Metastasio's libretto was first set by Leonardo Vinci, for Venice in 1726, and a slew of other settings followed: among them Vivaldi's in 1727, Handel's in 1728, Hasse's in 1733. (Times do change: hard to imagine 50 or more contemporary composers eagerly seizing upon, say Myfanwy Piper's Turn of the Screw libretto as the ideal text to reset for their own latest hit.) Hasse's version reached London in 1736; Burney calls the libretto by that time "something almost everyone knows by heart". (Today's audience was provided with a bilingual text.) Walsh published the "Favourite Songs" from Hasse's opera, and Burney concluded that 'there is not, indeed, the bold and vigorous invention, which abound in the operas of Handel; but with respect to clearness, grace, elegance, there is infinite merits in these songs'.
Handel and Hasse both had starry casts. Handel had Senesino in the title role, Faustina (Hasse's wife) and Cuzzoni as his leading ladies. Hasse's Siroe both at the 1733 premiere and in London was Farinelli. The Ensemble Serse's singers were also pretty stunning. In the title role, Diana Haller had the kind of voice one loves to hear: firm, exact, beautiful in timbre, fluent in divisions, regulated throughout a phrase, sounding the accents of anger without forcing and those of bliss in melting, lovely, never soggy tones. All she lacked was easy command of an accurately defined, sustained trill. Trilling seems to be a needed vocal accomplishment today's singers don't bother to master. (And not only today's" long ago Wagner, who wrote important trills - for Brunnhilde, among others - lamented that trilling had become a lost art.) Otherwise the Serse singers showed the virtues we have come to expect of them: smooth, shapely phrasing, tone never pushed into roughness or impurity facility in rapid divisions; clear words meaningfully used. In what may have been a puzzling presentation of the opera, the primo uomo, sung by a woman, ended by taking in her arms the counter-tenor who sang the prima donna role, Emira (who spends much of her time in male disguise). Joe Bolger was a fine prima donna, delivering the big bravura air with accuracy and brilliance. As the other woman, Laodice, Valda Wilson was bold full-toned, often beautiful, not as unfailingly even as the others but sometimes unnecessarily loud when the line rose. Calvin Wells sang Medarse, Siroe's ambitious brother, the other big castrato role, with his wonted bravura; some clarion high notes were more astonishing than pleasing, but they were never hooty. As Cosroe, their tenor father, John McMunn lacked regal presence but sang fluently and stylishly, making much of his bravura air. And as Arasse, Cosroe's (alto) general, Cathy Bell, made much of the beautiful air sounding notes of reason and wisdom among the general high emotions around.
Siroe is an interesting, unusual drama, and a feast of attractive airs in varied, contrasting manners. Wells had prepared the edition. Unlike Serse's account of Vinci's Medo last year, it did not last 5 hours; there were fairly large cuts (honestly disclosed in the libretto). There was much exuberant decoration (including instrumental cadenzas), and an overemphasis, I thought, on added high notes. (Farinelli's Siroe embellishments reproduced by Burney reveal trills and divisions, not stratospheric accents.) From the harpsichord Erik Dippenaar led an alert band of five strings and two horns; Lionel Walker (sic Oliver Webber) was an eloquent and inventive first fiddler. It was a concert performance - the arias sung from a central music stand - but the soloists were not score bound; they projected the drama and connected with the audience, while the libretto evoked the scenes. A remarkable evening, combining tenderness, gentleness, exuberant vocal display, and belief in the innate power of Metastasio's poetry and Hasse’s music.
Medo by L Vinci
London, 18th September
18th century Italians, Charles de Brosses told us, didn’t want to attend an opera that they’d heard before…. Unless it were "some excellent piece by Leonardo Vinci". The name is familiar: Burney praised him, Handel borrowed freely. He lives on in the histories as a pioneer of opera seria with basses harmonic rather than contrapuntal and, in Burney’s phrase, "calling the attention of the audience chiefly to the voice part". During a short life he was prolific: 31 operas from 1719 – 1730. He worked with Metastasio from Didone (1726) – Artaserse (1730), producing the first settings of five famous librettos. That dozens of other composers then took up. Yet Medo, his ducal wedding opera composed for Parma 1728, seems to have waited until today for a modern revival.
The libretto, a ‘sequel’ to Medea, is by Carlo Frugoni, remembered as the compiler of Gluck’s Feste d’Apollo (Parma, 1769), which incorporated Orfeo as its last act. The scene is again Colchis, to which Medea (contralto) has returned disguised as Enotea, priestess of Diana. Jason (male soprano), pretending to be the Pontic admiral Climacus, has been shipwrecked there. Medus (male alto), Medea’s son by Aegeus of Athens, masquerading as Prince Antinous of Corinth, is there too, wooing the captive Princess Asteria (soprano), whose throne, also that of Colchis, has been usurped by Medea’s wicked uncle, Perses (tenor). He too seeks Asteria’s hand. Artaces (contralto en travesti), Perses’ general, completes a cast of six. Jason, who has apparently forgotten Creusa, is torn between his old love for his lost Medea and new love for Enotea. Late in the show, identities are revealed. By means of a poisoned bracelet Medea encompasses Uncle Percy’s death, and all can end happily: Medea and Jason reconciled, Asteria and Medus mounting the throne. It’s a shambles of a plot, but it does encompass a series of situations to prompt arias in every vein, and Vinci rises to them with ready, fluent invention. His scoring, with solo instruments as ‘singers’ taking part, is often striking.
Ensemble Serse’s enthusiastic preparation of an important revival was thorough, scholarly, and sensitive. First, the ‘trimmings’: a 40-page programme-book was rich with information about the composer, the work, the context, and the original cast (a constellation led by Bernacchi, Farinelli, and La Tesi). A bilingual libretto held reproductions of Righini’s seven stage designs for the Parma staging. The Grosvenor Chapel, a 1730 building with dramatic 1912 additions by Comper, was an apt setting. More important, the singing. Six schooled, fluent voices, unforced, without edge or impurity, focused and true, were a delight to listen to. Natalia Brzezinska as Medea/Tesi had unfailing smooth, beautiful sound and a commanding presence. Catrine Kirkman as Asteria/Posterla (Handel’s soprano in Giove in Argo, 1739) had moving timbre in poignant airs and admirably distinct divisions in bravura. Daniel Keating-Roberts as Medus/Bernacchi (Handel’s leading man in the second Academy) was a modest stage presence but an impressive singer, with a firm, noble ring in his tone. Calvin Wells, artistic director of Ensemble Serse, sang Jason/Farinelli with his wonted yet ever-startling bravura brilliance. Julian Forbes as Perses/Giovanni Paita (the Bajazet of Gasparini’s Tamerlano) made much of the remarkable ‘mad scene’: almost a foreshadowing of Peter Grimes’s, with broken utterances, horn interjections, strange harmonies, wild instrumental figures. Although his registers are not yet fully integrated, he had agile command of music written for a virtuoso. Katherine Cooper as Artaces/Dorotea Lolli was a confident general, voice of sanity with an aria in each act amid the heated passions around him.
Cadenzas were copious and exuberant, recalling the famous caricature of Bernacchi pouring out a torrent of notes to cap the Venice campanile. (‘I taught you to sing’, Bernacchi’s master, the great Pistocchi, once ruefully remarked, ‘and now you perform like an instrumentalist.’) Several extravagant cadenzas included exchanges with an instrumentalist (two violins in one of Jason’s) that made Melba’s mad-scene dialogue with flute in Lucia positively chaste. It is easy to welcome and forgive exuberance. Vocal display is an element of ‘opera’. But a few ugly high notes ambitiously snatched at or screamed flecked the flow of the otherwise accomplished performance. There were no convincing trills.
Was it Shaw who said that a critic satisfied is a critic lost? Here, amid the praise for Ensemble Serse’s important revival, are some ‘buts’. It was strictly concert performance, without small touches that can turn concert opera into a dramatic adventure. Characters who should have been present, addressed by an aria and then responding to it, quitted the stage while the soloist advanced to a central music stand. Two arias in which opposed couplets are flung first at one then to another personage lost immediacy when the stand was the sole recipient. Only Perses and Jason had their roles by heart. Perses endeavoured to enact as well as sing his great mad scene, but the stand got in the way. The words were not relished; consonants were often flabby (scarcely an audible r in "orrido grembo") and vowels did not have beautiful distinctness. The lengthy recitatives are lengthy. Without recourse to the libretto we would have been puzzled about what the singers were saying to us. ‘Put the words across’ is the maxim enjoined by almost every great singer. Rui Pinheiro was an able conductor, but more visually obtrusive than Christopher Suckling in Hasse’s Artaserse last year (January 2010, p.84). Soloists in the period band deserve mention: Leo Duarte, oboe; Oliver Webber as Giovanni Piantinida, celebrated fiddler – husband of the original Asteria and invited by Vinci to duet with her.
Medo was a long show, lasting nearly six hours, with only two 15-minute intervals. An added licenza, assembled from Graun, Handel, (ed. Hasse) and Porpora, brought a third accomplished counter-tenor, Rupert Enticknap, as Apollo. By that time, after such enjoyable and rewarding profusion, one began to understand why Gluck had found it necessary to reform opera seria.
Aminta e Fillide by G F Handel
LONDON HANDEL FESTIVAL, October 2010
Aminta e Fillide (otherwise identified by its opening words, "Arresta il passo") is one of the two-voice Roman cantatas that Anthony Lewis singled out for special praise (the other being Apollo e Dafne). Amyntas loves Phyllis; during an exchange of four well-contrasted arias apiece, he warms her initial disdain into hesitancy and then, in a rapturous final duet, acceptance. It's a delightful piece, and it was vividly performed by Calvin Wells, a bravura male soprano with firm, ringing high B flats, and Charlotte Stephenson, a mezzo able to spin long, even runs of difficult triplets. They knew their roles by heart, declaimed and 'enacted' them freely in a simple concert staging. Fleetness, accuracy, purity of timbre, distinctness of declamation and shapeliness of phrase were remarkable. All that we missed, at times, was a readier recourse to tender, gentle, melting notes (plus fait douceur...) such as, we are told, made Cuzzoni's and Farinelli's singing so memorable. Under Ensemble Serse's music director Christopher Suckling, a couple of fiddlers, a harpsichordist and a cellist provided expert support.
The prestigious 2010 London Handel Festival continued with a quite extraordinary performance of Handel’s infrequently performed cantata Aminta e Fillide (also known as Arresta il passo), a delightfully graceful work for two soprano soloists on the subject of a shepherd who eventually wins the love of a reluctant nymph. First performed in Rome in 1707 and later expanded by Handel to include two extra arias in 1708, the score contains many genuine musical gems in its perfect evocation of a pastoral idyll. In fact, several of the musical numbers were so good that Handel decided to ‘recycle’ them in his later operas and ironically, it is these later versions which are now more widely known. The stately opening section of the Sinfonia was later destined to begin the overture to Rinaldo and Aminta’s seductive aria “Se vago rio” with its hauntingly alluring melody and delicate string accompaniment also ended up in Rinaldo, transformed into the song for the two sirens “Il vostro maggio de’bei verdi anni”. The nymph Fillide’s first aria “Fiamma bella” was re-used for Agrippina, becoming “Ogni vento ch'al porto la spinga” (one of four self-borrowings used for Agrippina). Of the two extra arias composed for the 1708 revised version, Fillide’s lively “Non si può dar un cor” is instantly familiar for its close resemblance to Cleopatra’s “Tu la mia stella sei” from Giulio Cesare. Further examples of self-borrowings can be found in Rodelinda, Silla, Partenope and Berenice. And in turn Keiser’s "Die römische Unruhe, oder Die edelmüthige" Octavia provided Handel with an opportunity to plunder someone else’s work for the benefit of Aminta.
This performance by members of the specialist baroque group Ensemble Serse on period instruments used Handel’s original 1707 version of the score, without the two additional arias from the 1708 revision. In past years, Ensemble Serse has impressed audiences with first class performances of rare baroque compositions, according to their highly laudable philosophy “to present neglected dramatic works from the 18th century in historically informed productions.” The group’s passion, commitment and meticulous attention to details of period authenticity cannot be doubted for a moment and it was pleasing to note that they performed this cantata at the lower Roman pitch that would have been used by Handel at that time (A=392 hz) as opposed to baroque pitch.
Ensemble Serse’s bold performance was astonishingly good on every level and those who attended this concert at the picturesque Grosvenor Chapel in Mayfair were in for a very special evening. Most audience members were probably expecting a conservative and visually static affair with two singers merely reading their scores from behind music stands, but instead we were treated to a semi-staged interpretation; properly acted and choreographed in a simple yet effective manner to really bring the story to life. Instead of a shepherd pursuing a nymph, the ‘drama’ was updated to become a 21st century office romance, with both protagonists attired in business suits – a concept that actually worked surprisingly well.
Aminta e Fillide is only about 45 minutes long, so the main event was preceded by the charming Trio Sonata Opus 3 no.5 in D minor by Corelli, played with superlative flair and precision by the five piece period band; consisting of harpsichord, three violins and a cello continuo (played by the group’s talented music director Christopher Suckling). This was a well conceived opener when one considers that Corelli’s first set of Church sonatas were dedicated to Queen Christina of Sweden, whose death in 1689 inspired the founding of the Pontificia Accademia degli Arcadi in the following year. Ultimately the Accademia were responsible for commissioning Aminta e Fillide via the patronage of Handel’s most significant patron in Rome, Prince Ruspoli. Op.3 was itself dedicated to Francesco II of Modena, a leading member of the Accademia, making the selection even more pertinent. I have nothing therefore but the highest praise for their spirited and colourful playing throughout this opener and the entire concert.
The Sinfonia of Aminta e Fillide is highly unusual in that it builds up into a tremendous frenzy of rapid string playing (representing the flight of the nymph Fillide from her admirer) but is suddenly interrupted in a totally unexpected manner by the shepherd Aminta calling on his beloved to stop – “Arresta il passo”. Rushing on into the centre of the chapel, male soprano Calvin Wells left the audience (and I confess, this critic) momentarily stunned by the sheer power and intensity of his vocal delivery. And indeed, we had every reason to look surprised, because Wells’s voice is truly unique and I have never heard anything quite like it in twenty years of opera going. Gloriously vibrant, virile and full-bodied, Wells’s instrument is rich in vibrato and possesses the ability to hit the highest notes both with seemingly effortless ease and with the baroque equivalent of Wagnerian heft! Those who are used to only hearing Handel sung by delicate, “white”-timbred voices with almost no vibrato would perhaps be in for a bit of a shock, but the end result is passionate and utterly thrilling. And despite the size of the voice, Wells possesses impressive agility and a very solid technique which made light work of Handel’s demanding coloratura.
Wells sung Aminta’s first aria “Fermati, non fuggir!” with an ardent intensity, while his second piece “Forse ch’un giorno” was stylishly dispatched with confidence and panache. By contrast, “Se vago rio” displayed the softer side of Wells’s voice in a beautiful aria full of yearning; a mesmerising performance that made one wonder why it took Fillide so long to succumb to his charms. The best vocal fireworks were saved for his final aria “Al dispetto di sorte crudele” where Wells really shone with some wonderfully even runs, challenging da capo ornamentation and a thrilling top B flat that almost took the roof off. A couple of the high notes had a slightly steely edge and Wells did not always come off them as cleanly as one would wish, but there is no doubt that this exciting young artist has tremendous potential for the future and the frisson his singing caused among the audience was quite remarkable.
The role of Fillide was taken by another very impressive young singer, the British mezzo-soprano Charlotte Stephenson, who possesses a beautifully luscious voice with a warm, velvet-like timbre that is perfectly even across the registers. Her charming opening aria “Fiamma bella” was wonderfully elegant and rich, followed by a spirited “Fu scherzo, fu gioco”. Boasting a flawlessly sung legato line, “Sento ch’il Dio bambin” was one of the highlights for me and “E un foco quel d’amore” was delightfully graceful. Stephenson was excellent throughout and displayed sensitive artistry and a wide range of colours from her vocal palette. The final duet “Per abbatter il rigore” was vibrant and genuinely joyful, although both voices are so different and individual in tone quality that it was inevitable they would never blend totally seamlessly. Suffice to say the audience clearly loved it and responded with warmly enthusiastic applause for these exceptional musicians at the end.
Ensemble Serse are to be congratulated on a truly stunning and original performance of Aminta e Fillide. Lovers of baroque opera should definitely watch out for future performances from this exciting group – their next project is the Vinci rarity Il Medo, which will be performed on 18th September in the Grosvenor Chapel, Mayfair.
Artaserse by J A Hasse
London, 7th November
Metastasio's Artaserse, set by Leonardo Vinci, was first performed in Rome in 1730, Carestini the Arbace. Later that year it appeared in Venice set by Hasse, with Farinelli as Arbace and Cuzzoni as Mandane. Both works reached London in 1734 with their original protagonists: Vinci's in Handel's pasticcio Arbace, with Carestini; and Hasse's in Porpora's pasticcio given by the rival company with Farinelli, Cuzzoni and Senesino. During the Covent Garden run of Arne's Artaxerxes, Ensemble Serse presented a concert performance of Hasse's 1730 Artaserse, offering nearly five hours of musical delight. The Ensemble was founded by male soprano Calvin Wells in the belief that Handel is not the only composer of his day who deserves revival; Scarlatti's Marco Attilio Regolo and Hasse's Siroe (see Cicely Goulder's review, OPERA, December 2008, p. 1487-8) were its previous shows. Wells and Suckling have gathered around them an ensemble of accomplished, fluent, committed players and singers. They made no concessions to modern whimsy. It helped that this Artaserse was a concert performance. The libretto (and light to read it by) set Metastasio's scenes and actions untweaked by a modern director's fancy ideas.
The band of 13 (eight strings, oboes doubling with flutes, horns, harpsichord was expert). Suckling led them unprominently but surely, seated (playing cello bass, sometimes a bit too loud, for recitatives), with alert rhythms, never the plod that had dulled some of the Arne performance, and exciting observance of Hasse's dramatic dynamics. Wells was the Arbace. As the first-act finale, he sang the spectacular "Son qual nave" that Farinelli's brother, Riccardo Broschi, composed for his brother's London debut. Wells' flamboyant account of it brought the house down. He was pretty sensational throughout the wide-ranging virtuoso role; but there were some moments when he shrieked, forgetting Farinelli's "judiciousness in proportioning the force of his voice". (There were other adjustments of Hasse's score. His original Artabano, 73-year-old Nicolini, was given little to sing, though he is an interesting character who impels the plot; Ensemble Serse's excellent young performer, Oliver Forbes, regained three of the Metastasio arias, drawn from Graun's Artaserse and later Hasse. And there were bits of scene-setting music from Handel and Porpora.) Sarah Moule was a vivid and moving Mandane, Julian Forbes a cultivated tenor Artaserse. Katherine Cooper (Semira), Forbes and Melanie Sanders (Megabise) all sang well. All of them did tend to go a bit over the top when Suckling paused on 6/4 and invited them to embark on wondrously elaborate cadenzas. They gave striking displays, apart from the occasional ambitious high note screamed, snatched at, or not quite truly struck. Elaborate extra cadenzas were then often added to the instrumental closes by the first violin, Oliver Webber. It was an evening of exuberant, accomplished display; and vivid, carefully prepared, remarkable account of a remarkable opera.
Metastasio’s Artaserse appears to be rather popular in London at the moment, with Thomas Arne’s Artaxerxes playing at The Royal Opera, whilst Hasse’s 1730 version of his Artaserse received its first public performance, courtesy of Ensemble Serse, in 269 years. Whilst the former has much to recommend it, there is no doubt as to which is the superior work. Hasse’s gift for melody, dramatic writing and incisive recitative is every bit the equal of Handel’s. Performed entirely uncut (at the 18th century St Giles in the Fields church in London) with a truly spectacular example of an aria di baule (suitcase aria), five hours of a scintillating and tremendously enjoyably performance flew by. It has taken Calvin Wells, the Artistic Director of Ensemble Serse, almost two years to put together a performing edition of the score. One does hope after hearing so much to recommend it, that we will get to hear this opera again in the near future without such a lengthy wait.
Johann Adolf Hasse is sometimes dismissed by some as little more than an also-ran of Handel. The reality is that he was an enormously successful composer of opera seria, perhaps more so than Handel himself. He composed at least 69 operas (some were revisions), including Cleofide, Alessandro nell’ Indie and Demofoonte. Metastasio provided many of the texts for his operas, prompting Burney to describe their relationship thus:
“This poet and musician are the two halves of what, like Plato’s Androgyne, once constituted a whole; for as they are equally possessed of the same characteristic marks of true genius, taste, and judgment; so propriety, consistency, clearness, and precision, are alike the inseparable companions of both…”
Unfortunately for Hasse and every other baroque composer of note, Gluck’s “reformation” which rejected much of the artificial style of performance associated with both opera seria and opera buffa, consigned many of the great 18th century operas to gather dust on their metaphorical shelves. Today however, we are starting to realise that the man who composed for many of the greatest singers of the period, and who in turn was the toast of musical Europe, must have written some truly exceptional music. Following on from their performance of Hasse’s Il Siroe last year, Ensemble Serse’s “re-discovery” of Artaserse has revealed to us a true baroque gem.
Although this was a concert performance, the vast majority of the singers clearly engaged with their characters, bringing to life Metastasio’s tale of statecraft, love, murder and redemption. The plot revolves around the villainous Artabano’s Machiavellian attempts to seize power for his son Arbace, who is wholly innocent of any involvement. In the meantime King Serse is murdered by Artabano, but Arbace is ultimately accused of regicide. The plot resolves itself when Artabano orders his general Megabise, to poison the coronation chalice, which Artaserse (son of Serse) is to drink from. Arbace however is asked by Artaserse (ignorant of the poison) to drink from the chalice to prove his loyalty to the throne. Before he does this, Artabano reveals the truth and attempts to murder Artaserse. Arbace rushes to his friend’s aid and informs his father that should he succeed in murdering Artaserse, he in turn would kill himself. Artabano consequently surrenders and is banished from the kingdom by Artaserse. Following this Artaserse then marries Semira (daughter of Artabano) and Arbace marries Mandane (sister of Artaserse), bringing the tale to a happy and moral conclusion. I’m sure worse things have happened at Tory Party conferences, but the plot is pretty intelligible when you realise that ambition is at the heart of this story.
The title role of Artaserse, composed for the tenor Filippo Giorgio, is certainly the least virtuosic of all the parts in this opera, but it reflects admirably his wholly innocent character, controlled as it were by that most feared of situations for anyone who exercises power, events. Julian Forbes as Artaserse possesses a beautiful and bright tenor, which simply oozes charisma. He has a very compelling stage presence, which combined with his excellent diction, should make him an asset to many opera houses who are looking for a first class baroque tenor. Mezzo-soprano Katherine Cooper has a rich, distinguished and plummy voice, with overtones of a smoky contralto-like timbre, which is all the more pertinent when the original Semira, Maria Maddalena Pieri (also known as La Polpetta), was indeed a contralto. In her Act II aria “Se del fiume”, the furious strings coupled with Cooper’s jagged excursions into her upper register made for a thrilling performance. The voice is strong and even throughout its range, but has a real air of sensuality about it. The role of Megabise, sung here by mezzo-soprano Melanie Sanders, is one of three castrato parts in this opera, composed in this case for Castore Antonio Castori. In “Sogna il guerrier” she appeared at one point to momentarily lose her way, but this is understandable when the coloratura demands are so unforgivably precise. The voice itself is attractive and full with a bright and penetrating top. It is a shame that she didn’t have more to sing, but what she did sing proved to be exceptional.
The dramatically pivotal role of Artabano, composed for the great alto castrato Nicolini, was taken here by an exciting young countertenor, who possesses the raw talent to become a leading name in the baroque repertoire. Oliver Gerrish, who is somewhere in his mid-20s, was making his operatic debut in this performance. His lack of temperament clearly betrayed his inexperience, as there was no discernable character development within his role. However, his voice is extremely beautiful, in the best Anglican-Oxbridge tradition. It is reminiscent of James Bowman, but without that ghastly hoot. There are also overtones of Scholl as the voice is penetrating, clear and ethereal. However, where it differs from both, is in its size. It has far more body and resonance than most countertenors, but loses nothing in quality when singing at full volume. Artabano’s great scene, which closes Act II, “Eccomi alfine…..Pallido il sole” is beloved of all countertenors who delight in both the dramatic recitative and the lyrical beauty of the aria. Until now I have prized Kowalski’s rendition above all, but this has decisively changed in favour of Gerrish. It is fervently hoped that Gerrish will apply himself to the dramatic aspects of singing in order to compliment what is already an exceptional voice. I am absolutely positive we will hear a lot more from this young man in the future.
The final two roles are (musically speaking) the most impressive of all, containing a glut of staggering showpiece arias, designed in the most outlandish style imaginable to portray the considerable gifts of their creators. Mandane, sister of Artaserse and lover of Arbace, was composed for one of the greatest sopranos of the 18th century, Francesca Cuzzoni. Beloved of Handel and any other composer who could secure her famous talents, Cuzzoni was given by Hasse some exceptionally difficult music to sing. Sarah Moule, a young artist with Lorin Maazel’s Chateauville Foundation in the USA, rose to the demands with outrageous ease. The audience were astonished at her volley of coloratura pyrotechnics which underscored her furious aria di parlante “Va tra le selve”. With staccato high Ds and Es flying all over the place, it was a scintillating and blistering rendition. As with everything she sung, she portrayed Mandane’s emotions overtly so that you were left in no doubt as to how she was feeling. The voice itself is pure and vibrant, reminiscent of Patrizia Ciofi, but without that artist’s shell-like timbre. A remarkable talent indeed that should, if talent counts for anything today, see her through to the top.
Finally, we have the most demanding role of all, written for the most celebrated singer in history. Arbace, as in Arne’s opera of the same name, is just as improbably daft and innocent, but when composed for a singer of Farinelli’s prodigious talents the music becomes gloriously over-the-top. Unlike most male sopranos who possess either a strident brassy voice or the power of an eleven year old treble, Calvin Wells’s voice is both powerful and full of vibrato. Visited by the ghost of a thousand dead spinto sopranos past, he gave the most thrilling performance of the evening. The phrase “thundering out his divisions”, seems about as appropriate description as possible. No coloratura, however Herculean was beyond him; in fact it was fleshed out by some staggering cadenzas which could have all but taken the roof off. The voice is not angelically beautiful in the sense that Michael Maniaci’s could be described, but instead is vibrant, full-bodied and red-blooded. I am absolutely convinced that no castrato could possibly have sounded anything like Jaroussky, Scholl, Chance, Bowman or any other singer in the period “authentic” movement. It is Italian opera, scored for virile Italian singers, sung with passion and a sense of theatricality.
Of all the great arias scored or inserted for the role of Arbace, two stand out for their hair-raising coloratura. First there is the aria di baule “Son qual nave”, especially composed by Farinelli’s brother Riccardo Broschi for his London debut in Hasse’s Artaserse. On paper it looks improbable, just a ridiculous number of notes all defying you not to breathe. Wells delivered the coloratura with military precision, touching top C on numerous occasions, and then throwing in a sustained top C in a da capo cadenza. The audience were rightly impressed, and I somehow doubt if Ms Bartoli in her upcoming Sacrificium concert at the Barbican will field anywhere near as much tone, let alone such virility. Just as impressive was his “Parto qual pastorello” from Act III, where we were treated to, amongst other feats, seven cadenzas, a stentorian top D and a trill on a top A, which then descended down to a D above middle C. All of which was bound up with amazingly intricate passages of coloratura, leaving you open-mouthed at the madness of it all. By the end of the evening Farinelli showed us that he was indeed deserving of his legendary reputation, whilst Wells proved decisively that his voice was both rare and exciting.
Christopher Suckling, the Music Director of Ensemble Serse, led an exciting and passionate account of the score. His direction was fascinating to watch, as clearly he maintained superb control with both singers and musicians, as they all took noticeable direction from him throughout the evening. The result was an exciting performance from the band; even the dreaded period horns played as accurately as I have yet heard. The music really came alive in the hands of Suckling, as passion and a sense of brio underscored everything the band did. The Leader Oliver Webber, also played some exceptional cadenzas of his own devising. This made for an exciting development, as often or not period ensembles play a somewhat passive/supportive role in performances of baroque opera. The decision to introduce their own cadenzas was a meritorious compliment to the singing, enabling the band to display their own talented gifts. Erik Dippenaar on the harpsichord gave as usual, a superb and polished accompaniment throughout. How different this all proved to be from the usual autopsy that we are invariably treated to, where some poor old unjustly neglected masterpiece is briefly exhumed, only to then be butchered in supposed “expert” hands.
With Vinci’s Catone in Utica planned for next year, I would urge any lover of great baroque music to attend this performance, as I am quite sure it will prove to be a significant highlight in any opera-goer's calendar. This performance of Artaserse was a truly memorable occasion, proving decisively that the past has much still to reveal.
AMADEUS, December 2009
During the Settecento Metastasio’s Artaserse was musicked over a hundred times. It was Gluck’s first opera (1741), and John Christian Bach’s first (1760). The earliest setting was Leonardo Vinci’s, at the Teatro delle Dame in Rome, 1730, and the next, later the same month, was Johann Adolf Hasse’s, at the Teatro Grimani in Venice. Both operas both reached London in 1734, Vinci’s in Handel’s pasticcio Arbace, and Hasse’s played by the rival company. The former had Carestini and the latter had Farinelli and Cuzzoni in their original roles. In London this November there were once again rival Artasersi to be heard: Hasse’s in a concert performance by Ensemble Serse; and at Covent Garden, in its Linbury Theatre, nine performances of Thomas Arne’s Artaxerxes, a 1762 Covent Garden opera that held the boards for nearly a century. (Haydn admired it in 1791.) ...
Ensemble Semele was founded a few years ago by the male soprano Calvin Wells seeking to revive operas of Handel's day other than Handel's. Scarlatti’s Marco Attilio Regolo and Hasse’s Siroe were their first presentations. Their exuberant, vocally and instrumentally accomplished account of Hasse’s 1730 Artaserse—uncut, indeed amplified—provided five hours of rewarding music. Additions were later Hasse and Graun arias for Artabano, important to the plot but omitted in 1730 because Hasse’s singer, Nicolini, was 73 years old. The young Artabano, counter-tenor Oliver Forbes, made much of them. Sarah Moule was a vivid Mandane. As Arbace/Farinelli, Wells was pretty sensational. He closed the first act with “Son qual nave”, the spectacular aria that Riccardo Broschi composed for his brother’s London debut. (Cecilia Bartoli and Verónica Cangemi include it in their latest records.) From Wells and from everyone else, it was a stunning display.
Suckling, a seated conductor playing continuo bass for the recitatives on his cello, led a well-paced, musically dramatic performance, with verve, style, and grace. Artaserse was concert-presented in a Palladian London church (St Giles in the Fields)—no added nonsense from a modern producer!—with vocal and instrumental bravura that animated forgotten pages of music history well worth recovery.
Il Siroe by J A Hasse
In perhaps the only quiet corner of the West End on a Saturday night, Hasse’s 1733 opera Il Siroe was performed at St-Giles-in-the-Fields; the church, which, sits directly opposite London’s most formidable goth-rock bar, offered an oasis amid the usual late-night revellers.
Ensemble Serse is a group largely comprised of young professionals, willing to take risks. Anyone familiar with Hasse would have been expecting a long night—five hours, to be exact—and this performance of a work by a less than first-rank composer, with next to no cuts, unstaged, on authentically tuned instruments, is testament not only to the tenacity of the group itself but also to the dedication of its audience.
In his day, Hasse was in an internationally renowned composer revered by both Bach and the young Mozart. His success in Italy, and his entourage, can be fairly described as stellar: singers included his wife Faustina Bordoni and the castrato Farinelli. His collaborations with the librettist Metastasio were fundamental to the history of opera seria. Among their works was Il Siroe. Its style typifies the lavish pretensions of opera seria, and the plot also has the usual unnecessary entanglements. Based around filial fidelity and sibling rivalry, the themes are not unlike those in King Lear—although here we lack the clarity of purpose of goodness born of suffering, and everyone forgives each other and we end up where we started.
The opera demands true virtuosity from every member of the cast. The two leading male roles, originally sung by castratos, were assigned to a male soprano (Calvin Wells, as Medarse) and a female mezzo (Katherine Marriott, Siroe): these singers were contrasting and complementary in tone and colour, even though, without costumes, the role distinctions were not initially clear. Wells, in particular, brought real character and charm to Hasse’s extravagant vocal lines.
Early operas such as this sometimes are criticized for being dramatically clunky, and for the unnaturalness of their virtuosity. Ensemble Serse was right, however, to serve Il Siroe up in a take-it-or-leave-it manner, staying as true to the work as possible. As they settled into this performance under the musical direction of Christopher Suckling, the vocal pyrotechnics gave way to moments of real beauty—especially from the soprano Catrine Kirkman as Laodice, whose Act 2 aria was a highlight of the evening.
THE CLASSICAL SOURCE
Why is the name and music of Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783) so little known today? Immensely prolific, Hasse’s widely acclaimed operas were performed at most major theatres and courts in Italy and Dresden, and admired by no less than J. S. Bach and Mozart. The answer is probably that Hasse falls between two stylistic stools: a child of the baroque, the influences of Vivaldi, Pergolesi and his own teacher Alessandro Scarlatti were soon being enhanced with a Telemann-like embracing of the gallant that shone a light to Gluck and, eventually, Mozart. Hasse’s unusually long life-span and extensive career emphasise this: his earliest operas for the Neopolitan court date from the mid-1720s; his last composition was a grand Mass in G minor written in 1783, the same year as Mozart’s great (unfinished) Mass in C minor. Ensemble Serse, under the enterprising drive of male soprano Calvin Wells, has resurrected Il Siroe (1733), preparing an edition to present the first complete modern performance.
On the evidence of this concert, there are more compelling reasons to rediscover Hasse than mere historical curiosity: the drama and musical invention of the operatic writing rivals Vivaldi and Handel, and Hasse’s forward-looking idiosyncrasies prove distinctive. The period-instrument Ensemble Serse, lead with conviction by Oliver Webber, belied its small numbers (4 violins and single viola, cello and double bass, periodically augmented by a pair of oboes/recorders, horns, and a bassoon) with impressively assured playing and generally tight-knit ensemble under the dynamic direction of Christopher Suckling, who demonstrated great affinity for the idiom. Stylish harpsichord continuo was provided by Erik Dippenaar, joined in the recitatives by Suckling himself on the cello. The often extensive recit scenes were generally alert and well-paced, though there might have been fewer rough edges if the harpsichordist had not been positioned with his back to the director. The remarkably talented young singers all gave committed performances, bringing this unfamiliar music to life with engaging aplomb. With few precedents to work from, particular praise goes to their creative attempts at ornamentation and cadenzas (with varying degrees of stylistic integrity and successful realisation).
There were a couple of stand-out voices which we are likely to hear a lot more of: creamy soprano Catrine Kirkman displayed stunning fluency and sparkle in her rapid-fire coloratura; Julian Forbes proved himself a tenor of rare depth and richness of tone. Starting at 7 p.m. and not ending until 11.40 (with only two 15-minute intervals), this was a long evening. Despite great beauty and relative variety in the music, it was impossible for even the most devoted listener to fully assimilate it all (in Hasse’s day audiences weren’t expected to maintain full attention throughout). The quality of the performance was strong enough to captivate, however – and almost overcome the discomfort of hard, narrow pews. This was a highly commendable endeavour, making up for occasional lack of polish with vibrancy and absolute commitment. It certainly whets the appetite for the wealth of Hasse still waiting to be discovered; hopefully others will follow Ensemble Serse’s pioneering example.
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