Yet more J C Bach

18 Apr

Two JC Bach operas in three weeks isn’t bad going. The latest, Adriano in Siria, was done by the Classical Opera Company at the Brtitten Theatre. I saw the performance on 14th April, apparently it’s first performance in over 250 years.  They’re doing as part of their exploration of what was going on at the same time as Mozart.  The opera was being performed at the time the nine year old Mozart was in London and it’s not inconceivable that he might have attended one of the performances.

It;s a setting of a libretto by Metastasio which was set over 40 times in as many years. It’s fairly classic Metastasio stuff – a couple of love triangles and a benign emperor. There are palpable similiarities with La clemenza di Tito. There are one or two amusing moments – as when Adriano’s betrothed arrives just as he;s about to propose to somebody else and there’s a rather clumsy attempt at a misunderstanding between hero and heroine. Dramatically, it’s as interesting as any other Metastasio libretto and, as Ian Page pointed out in his really outstanding programme notes, the interest is in how they are set by the composer.

The first act struck me as pleasant but ordinary: a series of efficiently pleasant entrance arias and quite a good duet. It did strike me, after that Page’s claims of wonderful psychological insight were a bit overdone – none as penetrating as Mozart or Gluck or Handel – just generic 1760s type arias.

Things perked up considerably in Act II when both hero (Farnaspe) and heroine (Emirena) have a couple of heartstoppingly beautiful arias. These struck me as worthy to be ranked with Mozart and Handel both in terms of the sheer aural pleasure of the music but also in the way in which they mirrored the emotions.  There was also that extreme rarity in this sort of opera, a trio – and rather a good one. This continued into the third act when the final aria for Farnaspe was really moving.  Other things that struck was the relative swiftness of the opera.  Page had made a few minor cuts and the three acts moved quickly and we were out in under two and three quarter hours. Hand on heart, I’m not sure that this will ever be a repertory opera but it made a very rewarding evening and I’d like to hear a number of the arias again.

The music was pretty safe in the hands of Ian Page. His conducting was vigorous and kept things moving.  This was the first night and I felt that, early on, there was some nervousness among the singers.  The music was sung efficiently but I felt that it needed more variation, more attention to the words and more individuality if it was to succeed.  As I’ve suggested, this was largely remedied as the evening went on.  However, I couldn’t help wondering what a group of more experienced, virtuosic singers might have made of the piece.

This stricture didn’t apply to Stuart Jackson as Osroa – the Parthian King trying to defeat Adriano.  He radiated anger, gave real attention to the words and sang with an assured style and understanding of the character that promises really well for the future.  He’ll be an outstanding Mozartian.  Erica Eloff grew in stature as Farnaspe and did her final aria very beautifully indeed. Ellie Laugharne as Emirena matched her and, again, got steadily better as the evening went on.  Filipa van Eck was a flashy, glamorous Sabina (Adriano’s betrothed) and sang her arias impressively.  Rowan Hellier struck me as rather an anonymous Adriano – and looked very feminine.  Nick Pritchard, as Aquilio, the notional villain, displayed a nice, clear tenor and sang his single aria well.

The production was by Thomas Guthrie and did the piece few favours.  The set was attractive with some nice silhouettes, but it looked very like those pictures of old Handel Opera Society productions or even stretched student ones.  More seriously, I didn’t feel that he’d really engaged with the singers to help them project and get across the long arias and, particularly, the long orchestral introductions.  At times, I wasn’t sure what we would have lost if this had simply been a concert performance – I think that there’s a lot more you could have done with the piece and a contemporary setting might have helped.  Worst of all was his habit of changing scenes or having people come on with bird puppets during the arias, distracting from the singers and making you feel that he just wasn’t interested in the arias.

This was more than just an interesting piece of archaeology.  There is music of real stature and beauty and it was great to have the opportunity to hear it and see how it worked as a staged piece.  However, I can’t help wondering about the business model of this company: a few weeks ago I received a begging letter from them telling me that even full houses over the four performances would only cover 25% of the costs of staging it.  That’s pretty staggering and raises some questions.  I do hope that they found enough sponsors to cover it.

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