Triumphant Pergolesi

17 Sep

One of the joys about exploring the obscure lanes and twittens of opera is that, just occasionally, you come across an entirely unexpected gem. I found one at the Cadogan Hall on 16th September when I heard Opera Settecento’s concert performance of Pergolesi’s Adriano in Siria.

I don’t know much Pergolesi. I saw La serva padrona twenty years ago and remember nothing about it at all. There’s the Stabat Mater, of course, but that’s about it. I felt less guilty about this when I learned that 90% of music attributed to him probably isn’t by him at all. I wasn’t expecting much and I feel that I’ve seen a masterpiece revealed. The piece is a complete joy.

I quite enjoyed JC Bach’s version of Metastasio’s text when Classical Opera did it in April this year but this seems to me to be an infinitely finer piece. The plot makes more sense on the stage than in writing: the Emperor Hadrian falls in love with the princess Emirena who is in love with prince Farnaspe, with everything complicated by the arrival of Hadrian’s bride, Sabina, and the intrigues of Aquilio who is in love with Sabina and those of Osroa, the deposed king of the Parthians – well, maybe I’ll leave it at that. But there isn’t a weak number and the sheer inventiveness of the music is a delight. The vocal numbers are grateful, glorious melodies, accompanied by inventive, sympathetic, joyous orchestration. It’s hard to know where to start – the superb final number in Act I for Farnaspe with outstanding oboe obbligato struck me instantly as one that should be on the recital list for all mezzos specialising in this area – but Pergolesi manages pathos, sadness, anger and heroism with huge success. The lovely duet at the end for made you wish that he’d written more duets.

Towards the end there may be a couple of routine arias, but the bulk of them made me want to hear them again, more or less immediately. Most of them are long, five minute da capo arias but the last sections are done with real inventiveness that the musical interest is kept up – and the quality of the ideas is so high – you greet the da capos like a friend making a welcome return.

Would it work on the stage? The plot line doesn’t strike me as the strongest of Metastasio’s dramas but I don’t see why it couldn’t work if there were a sympathetic director. There’s nothing here more intrinsically difficult than Handel and audiences need to hear these arias. I found myseIf sitting there smiling at the sheer genius of it.

Opera Settecento did it proud. At performances of this sort, I often, rather ungratefully, suggest that classier singers might do the work more favours. I didn’t feel that here. This was an impeccably prepared performance by singers who gave some impossibly difficult music their all and, succeeded remarkably in putting the work across well. What impressed me was the knowledge and thought that had gone into it. The piece was written for Naples in 1734 with Caffarelli singing the role of Farnaspe and sopranos singing Adriano and the minor role of Aquilio as trouser roles. Without a Caffarelli to hand they sensibly allotted Farnaspe to a mezzo and cast the other men as counter tenors. It sounded fine.

We had Erica Eloff as Farnaspe, who had some of the finest arias in the opera. This struck me as the best thing I’ve heard her do, creating a strong character and singing the music with real flair, keeping the interest going and managing some outstanding coloratura. Michael Taylor is a Canadian counter tenor, new to me. He strikes me as a valuable discovery. He sang the title role with urgency, virility and a striking command of very florid music that, by turns was angry and imperious. Maria Ostroukhova was Emirena. It’s a large voice and a strong personality and she managed her very beautiful arias really well. As Sabina, Augusta Hebbert made a strong case for all of her taxing numbers, particularly the opening one in Act III.

As the only traditional male voice in the piece, Gyula Rab played Osroa really well and his voice grew in strength and fluency as the evening went on. This was hugely promising tenor singing. Cenk Karaferya as Aquilio had less to do but did it pretty well.

What also struck me was how well prepared this performance had been. There was an assurance about the singing and there was the sort of acting that worked in a concert setting – to convince you that they were knew what they were singing about and were reacting to each other. The Orchestra of Opera Settecento is, I assume, a scratch band. You wouldn’t have known. Led by Guy Button, they seemed to be hugely enjoying themselves and there was a lovely oboe obbligato playing from Daniel Lantier. It was hard to believe this was Leo Duarte’s first outing as an opera conductor – he was considerate to his singers, clearly loved the piece and got outstanding playing from the orchestra. This was a performance where you didn’t need to make allowances for singing or resources: you could simply sit back and enjoy the piece.

This is Opera Settecento’s third venture and by far their finest so far. There are odd indications still that this is an amateur outfit, albeit employing very professional artists. The programmes arrived late and weren’t available until the very end of the first interval: it’s a tribute to the performers that the audience, although a bit bewildered, were held by the music and really desperate to get their hands on the programmes to find out what on earth was going on. And maybe their Chair is just a bit too enthusiastic – he doesn’t need to bravo after each good number. But we still owe huge gratitude to them for putting this performance together and revealing some utterly glorious music. Please can someone give us a CD of the opera?  And if Opera Settecento were to have a go at one of Pergolesi’s other opera serie, I’d be first in the queue.

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