J C Bach: Adriano in Siria
Britten Theatre. 14 April 2015
Johann Christian Bach, JSB’s youngest son, arrived in London in 17 62, aged 26. He stayed for the rest of his life, earning the epitaph of the ‘London Bach’. Two years later, the 8-year old Mozart arrived in London with his family. During his 15-month stay, Mozart wrote his first symphonies and opera arias and absorbed the influence of the many musicians that had flocked to post-Handelian London. JC Bach was a particular influence on the young Mozart. He later wrote of Bach: “I love him with all my heart, and have the highest regard for him.”. This influence is reflected in Classical Opera’s choice of this opera at the start of their 27-year long ‘Mozart 250’ project.
The première of Adriano in Siria was at Handel’s old hunting ground of the Haymarket’s King’s Theatre in January 1765, the day before Mozart’s 9th birthday. Such was the reputation that JC Bach had already achieved, that only around a third of the audience managed to get seats. The libretto was adapted by JC Bach from a popular text by Metastasio, which already had more than 40 settings. It is based on the defeat of the Parthians in 117 AD by Adriano (Hadrian), who was declared Emperor in the captive city of Antioch. Despite his engagement to the Roman aristocrat Sabina, Adriano has fallen for Emirena, a prisoner, and daughter of the defeated and revengeful King Osroa. However, Emirena is already engaged to the Parthian prince, Farnaspe, whilst a Roman tribune, Aquilio, is in love with Sabina. After the usual operatic shenanigans between the six protagonists, the inevitable happy ending reveals the magnanimity of Adriano.
This was an extremely well-presented production by director Tom Guthrie, with designs by Rhys Jarman and excellent lighting by Katharine Williams. Sensibly opting for Roman costumes, a simple staging and with the back story projected during the overture, we were left to concentrate on the music and the plot, without too many directorial twists. With the exception of rather a lot of fluttering paper birds, Guthrie generally left the singers to get on with it without too many distracting stage goings-on. Making scene changes during the middle sections of arias was effective and well-handled.
Bach’s gallant style music shows a clear move away from the conventions of baroque opera, not least in the reduction of the repeats of the A-section of arias, which Bach usually abbreviated. The overture employed simple harmonics, and frequent unisons. And if we were tempted to believe that we had heard elements of Mozart’s music in Bach’s, we had to remember that it was the other way, with Bach influencing Mozart. Musically, JC Bach is not a Handel or a Mozart, but the music was attractive and approachable. It was helped by an excellent cast of singers, notably Erica Eloff (left) in the castrato role of Farnaspe. Her beautiful Cara la dolce fiamma was a highlight. The other castrato role was Rowen Hellier as Adriano, although she had very few arias. Emirena and Sabina were sung by Ellie Laugharne and Filipa van Eck, the former in particular with an excellent Deh lascia, o ciel pietoso and demonstrating some good cadenzas, as did Stuart Jackson as Osroa.
Ian Page conducted with sensitivity, giving the singers time to sing whilst keeping the pace going. The Classical Opera Orchestra was on very good form, with some fine woodwind playing and a stylish contribution from Steven Devine on continuo harpsichord.