Jommelli rarity

30 Apr

The Classical Opera Company’s exploration of the operatic scene in Mozart’s lifetime continued on 28th April with a concert at the Cadogan Hall of Niccolo Jommelli’s Il Vologeso.  Me neither – well, I’d heard of Jommelli but, if I’m honest would have struggled to date him, let alone identify him as a composer of over 80 operas.   This was the UK premiere. Try stopping me going along.

The story bears remarkable similarities to the elements of most opera seria of the time: a tyrant, Lucio Vero, is in love with Berenice who believes her husband, King Vologeso, to be dead.  Vologeso turns up, is imprisoned, but the tyrant’s fiancée, Lucilla, turns up as well.  This version seems to have some spectacle: Berenice jumps in front of a lion in the arena in order to save (or be killed) with Vologeso and there’s some gothic horror later (she thinks she’s in the same room as his severed head).  Otherwise, the piece seems to be largely about  Vero avoiding Lucilla and trying to persuade Berenice to give up Vologeso.

The structure appears to be pretty standard opera seria: the characters taking it in turns to have their arias.  Interestingly, the first two acts end with a quartet, the second with a trio and, unlike any other finales I can think of, the number of participants reduce towards the end, so they end up as a duet and solo respectively.  The most interesting character is Lucio Vero, while Vologeso doesn’t seem to have much to do this.  This maybe because of the cuts here, which brought the show in at about 2hrs 50, which was long enough: three of the arias were cut and a further three lost their second sections and da capo repeat.  Apparently about 10% of the recit was cut as well.

The arias, on the whole, struck me as the least interesting parts of the opera.  The best ones being for Vero whose arias in the second and third acts required a huge vocal range and real agility.  He’s also the best drawn character.  Otherwise, as Ian Page says in his excellent programme note, the interest is in some very, very fine recitative writing, with orchestral accompaniment and an impressive sense of atmosphere and, generally, some interesting and fine orchestral accompaniments to the arias.  Jommelli seemed to have a good sense of how to draw dilemmas and reflect emotions.

Hand on heart, it’s not a forgotten masterpiece. It’s interesting to see the work of another 18th Century composer and it made for a pleasant evening but not particularly one that interested you in the characters or their dilemmas.  It might have worked better on the stage and I couldn’t help wondering whether it was not a mistake to cut those arias.

The performance was pretty good within the limitations of a cast of very talented young singers in roles written for highly experienced stars.  Stuart Jackson, as Vero, impressed by his alert, beautifully timed and intelligent articulation of the recitative, getting laughs and keeping spirits up.  He did his arias really creditably without disguising the fact that he was stretched to his limits.  He had four out of the 13 remaining arias.

As Berenice, Gemma Summerfield probably had the best of the remaining and impressed with a strong, creamy voice and easy vocalism.  Rachel Kelly, as Vologeso sang her arias capably, intelligently, without making him an interesting character.  Angela Simkin as the Lucilla and Jennifer France as Flavio, her sidekick, were lively and sang  the arias well, without you feeling that they had much opportunity to shine.  Tom Verney as Aniceto sang his single aria really nicely – it’s one of the more curious, individual ones in the opera.

Page conducted with understanding and had the orchestra playing well.  He played the purple passages for all they were worth and you just wished that there were more of them.

I won’t consider it a disaster if I never see another piece by Jommelli but, equally, if another came up, I’d go along. There’s a lot to enjoy in them, even if they’ve had their day as operas.

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