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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.


Elpidia at the LHF

1 Apr

Another Handel pasticcio courtesy of Opera Settecento and the London Handel Festival. This time it’s his first, Elpidia, from 1725. I saw the concert performance at St George’s Hanover Square on 31st March.

A fortnight before, at the same venue I saw a performance by La Nuova Musica of Berenice.  I’m sorry I didn’t get round to blogging about their Berenice but, for the record, I thought it was an excellent performance, had some great music, some less great and surely his most confusing plot: I completely lost track of who was in love with whom and avenging what.

Elpidia’s plot by contrast is quite simple and if I tell you that it’s subtitle is “The Generous Rivals”, you’ll probably get the picture.  Elpidia has three suitors two of whom are noble and one of them (by far the most interesting) abducts her.  It all gets sorted out.  The libretto, by Zeno was heavily cut by either by Handel or by one of his associates to the extent that the piece veered towards the comic.  I’m not sure that worried Handel.

The purpose really was to let London hear arias by the great contemporary Italian composers who hadn’t been heard there.  On the basis that one aria about tempests, or breezes, or guinea fowl is as good as another and can be fitted more or less where you like, they selected some numbers by those composers to slot in at appropriate places.  It struck me that this performance had a similar purpose.  How many of us have heard anything by Vinci, Orlandini, Lotti or Sarri?  This was an opportunity to hear some fine music.

And there were some lovely arias among them.  If none matched Handel at his finest, none had that anonymous quality that some of his lesser arias hold.  Most of the Vinci arias are seriously lovely pieces and I was particularly impressed by the tenor aria Al mio tesoro from his Rosmira, while Orlandini provided a gorgeous alto farewell aria from his own Berenice.  If I have a complaint it was that I would (a) have welcomed a bit of contrast among the arias – there was much less bravura opportunity than you get in the Handel arias of the time and no lighter numbers.  You also don’t get a feel for any of the composers’ personalities.  The evening felt like what it was – a selection of rather good arias sewn together.

All praise to Leo Duarte who did the reconstruction of the piece and who conducted. The reconstruction must have been fascinating with some difficult choices about arias.  His conducting struck me as outstanding – considerate of his singers, bringing out the best in the music.  He got refined, well articulated, secure, confident playing from the very excellent band.  This was marvellously assured baroque playing and conducting.

The singers were strong, all on the threshold, I would say, of pretty strong careers.  Erica Eloff is obviously a favourite with the Opera Settecento management.  She sang Elpidia’s varied arias confidently and with considerable beauty.  Rupert Enticknapp as Olindo, the rival that Elpidia loves, has the more heartfelt arias of the two counter tenor roles and sang them really well.  Joe Bolger, as Ormonte, who has to make do with the seconda donna (who conveniently falls in love with him at first sight) needed a tad more power but I liked his soft-grained but very attractive voice.  Rupert Charlesworth as Vitige, the villain, insofar as there is one, seemed to me to have the finest numbers of all and sang them really convincingly and with great beauty.  Chris Jacklin as Belisario and Maria Oustroukhova as Rosmilda didn’t let the side down either but did not have the same opportunities as their colleagues.  Being hyper-critical, these arias were written for stars and what I missed was the charisma and that last ounce of bravura that, say, a Sutherland or Baker could bring.  I’m not sure that it mattered.

I can’t think of any reason to stage the piece but this was an interesting, rewarding evening.  It made me feel that I’d like to hear a full piece by Vinci and some of the others.  Are there extant versions of his Ifigenia or Rosmira? The latter, in particular, seems to have some gems of numbers in it.  Any chance of Opera Settecento having a go?  We owe a lot to that organisation and I’d strongly recommend booking for their performance of Hasse’s Demetrio at Cadogan Hall in September.






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.