Hasse’s Demetrio after 270 years

24 Sep

One more for the collection – and a new composer too.  Opera Settecento continued its exploration of the lesser known works of the 1720s-1740s with Hasse’s Demetrio. Naturally I went along to the concert at the Cadogan Hall on 21 September.  Apparently, this was the opera’s first performance since 1744.

At least it educated me about Hasse – an important composer of his time who for much of his career commuted between Dresden and Italy to write operas.  He became Metastasio’s composer of choice to give the first opportunity to set a new libretto.  His wife was the prima donna, Faustina Bordoni.  He was rated by Mozart and the other composers of his day.  He wrote in an era, as the programme informed us, where the public went to see spectacle and singers and the opera itself was pretty disposable.  Composers wrote and recycled arias and probably didn’t give a lot of thought to the plot of the emotions.  It’s obviously interesting to experience one of his operas.

I don’t know whether Demetrio is the ideal one to begin with and I’m not sure whether anyone else does.  What I saw struck me as a fairly typical plot of the time: long lost prince brought up as shepherd, queen falls in love with him to disgust of higher ranking suitors and a sub-plot involving frustrated love.  It’s not very interesting.  It feels as though there’s a lot of recitative and, even with surtitles, there’s not a lot to engage the attention.

The arias are almost all da capo and are quite long.  They struck me as being written for display rather than to show emotions.  They have that typical rather busy 18th century feel about them – lots of hectic strings and hyperactive harpsichord, with the occasional horn to add a bit of excitement.  There was one particular aria for Cleonice, the heroine, which had rather lovely fluttering flutes which was attractive if only for the change in texture.  But there none which made the heart stop or you feel that, suddenly, you had discovered a neglected masterpiece – so different from the Pergolesi last year.  Overall, if Gluck was seeking to reform this sort of opera, this performance showed why it was a jolly good idea to do so.

There is another problem with these operas.  They relied on outstanding singers.  Bordoni was the most highly paid singer of her time (earning four times as much per performance than her husband got for writing the opera) and, presumably, justified it.  The ensemble at Dresden attracted singers of her calibre.  Opera Settecento can’t afford them and, presumably, doesn’t have all the time it would like to prepare those who are singing.

This was a major problem here.  It is deeply dispiriting in a cast of six, where nobody has fewer than three arias, to find that at least three of the singers either aren’t qualified to sing their roles or are simply not in best voice.  After three rather long badly undersung arias in succession, I found myself losing the will to live.  Fortunately, Ray Chenez as Olinte injected some life into the proceedings by seizing a particularly florid aria by the scruff of the neck and throwing everything at it.  He has a really impressive, fluid counter-tenor and considerable agility and a great sense of bravura.  That aria in the second act suddenly made you sit up and begin to enjoy the proceedings.

The other real success was Rupert Charlesworth as Fenicio who again seized his arias and seemed unfazed by the runs and the coloratura and actually appeared alert and interested in what was going on.  Both of those feel like people to watch.

Erica Eloff sang Cleonice.  She’s a favourite with Opera Settecento (who gave her a long Hello magazine-type profile in the programme).  She sang efficiently enough but I found her cool, disengaged and, again, with the spark or bravura to make you remotely interested in what she was singing.

Leo Duarte conducted his own edition of the piece.  I had the feeling that he was hugely enjoying the orchestral textures and the vigour of the piece at the expense of really engaging with what was going on with the characters.  It may well be that there isn’t much in the piece that enabled him to do that.  The orchestra, some clumsy horns apart, played very well indeed.

Of course it’s interesting to see the piece and it feels ungrateful to be unenthusiastic about the enterprise that gives us the opportunity to see them.  But shouldn’t Opera Settecento be exercising a bit more quality control over the operas that it chooses and, also, perhaps being realistic about the capabilities of the singers that it can cast?  I suspect that this performance will have put quite a lot of people in the audience off Hasse for the rest of their lives and that they may well not return to the company’s performances.  I doubt in any case that the Cadogan was near half full.  What it does is too valuable to risk on some dodgy performances.


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