Pergolesi: Adriano in Siria

Pergolesi: Adriano in Siria
Opera Settecento, Leo Duarte
Cadogan Hall, 16 September 2015

progamme_cover_a4Pergolesi is often seen as one-horse-wonder, rather unfairly as he died aged just 26, composing his famous Stabat mater just before his death.  His other works, including several operas, are usually ignored. He was one of the first composers (of around 70) to write an opera based on Metastasio’s take on Adriano in Siria (Hadrian in Syria), two years after the libretto was written, and two years before his death. The plot is based on the story of Hadrian in his days as Governor of Syria in Antioch (where he first became Emperor), and his love for his prisoner (and daughter of the Parthian King Osroa) Emirena who, in turn, is betrothed to Farnaspe, a Parthian prince. As these things inevitably go in opera seria, Adriano is married to Sabina, who, in turn, is loved by Aquilio. Rather bizarrely, Osroa tries to rescue his daughter by setting fire to the palace that she lives in. Of course, it all ends up well – the condemned Osroa is forgiven, Farnaspe marries Emirena, and Adriano stays with his wife Sabina. 

Opera Settecento, a relative newcomer to the opera company scene, gave a concert performance in London’s Cadogan Hall – its UK premiere. It started with a reviewer’s (and audience’s) nightmare of the programmes not turning up. Until they arrived at the first interval, and with no surtitles, it took some imagination to work out who was who and what was going on during the lengthy first act. A curious speech by the Opera Settecento chairman had explained the situation and given a summary of the mind-numbing plot. He told us that the programmes, when they arrived, would be given out free but, he continued to state that, unless we were “mean-spirited”, we were expected to ‘donate’ the £5 cost as we left – an interesting welcome! The same chairman also very pointedly initiated loud applause after every aria and occasional yells of Brava or Bravo – one of the behaviours of a few opera-goers that I find irritating, particularly on this occasion as many of the arias are intended to run straight into recitatives. He could also benefit from learning the plural form of Bravo/a, to avoid picking out one part of a duet for particular acclamation.

The original cast was a curious one with five soprano roles (one originally for castrato, and two for women singing male roles) and one tenor. On this occasion, the outstanding soprano Erica Eloff took on the castrato role of Farnaspe, and two countertenors (Michael Taylor and Cenk Karaferya) sang the male roles.  Emirena was Maria Ostroukhova, Sabina, Augusta Hebbert and Osroa the tenor Gyula Rab. No reason was given for this change, although having men singing male roles and women singing female roles does help gender identity in the complicated world of opera seria. On this evening, it helped that the one trouser role (Erica Eloff as Farnaspe) was very helpfully dressed according in suit and tie with her hair tied back, albeit with the addition of heels. Although remaining pretty static at their music desks, the singers reacted with each other well, according to the text, not least by facial gestures and body postures. This is essential in concert performances of opera, but is not always done.

I have a phrase that I occasionally use when long-neglected works are performed, suggesting that it was “dragged from well-deserved obscurity”. Although the “well-deserved” bit is certainly not the case with Pergolasi’s Adrian in Siria, I am not convinced that this is a great work. The recitatives, despite Pergolasi’s own cuts, are long and harmonically predictable, and several of the arias are rather slight. That said, there are some wonderful moments, most centred on the role of Farnaspe, originally sung by Caffarelli who, as well as being a famed castrato singer, seems to have been a nasty piece of work.

Farnaspe’s first aria, Sol mio cor, showed the extraordinary power and virtuosity of Erica Eloff’s voice, as well as her acting ability – which included a bit of dramatic tie-loosening. Farnaspe has the last solo sing in all three acts, the Act 1 conclusion being the beautiful Lieto cosi talvolta (‘Happily sings the imprisoned nightingale’), when Erica Eloff was joined front-stage by oboist Daniel Lanthier in a sensuous duet between Farnaspe and the oboe’s nightingale. Both singer and oboist brought an exquisite sensuality to Pergolesi’s sinuous melodic lines, both applying appropriate ornaments. Farnaspe’s second act conclusion is Torbido in volto e nero, with Pergolesi’s orchestral accompaniment being a fine representation of the ‘dark sea swelling silent and black’ and the ‘rapid beating of the sailor’s heart’. Yet again, Erica Eloff excelled.

Of the other singers, I was particularly impressed with countertenor Michael Taylor in the title role. He coped well with the wide ranging, and often very high tessitura, and his clear and unaffected voice was a delight. Tenor Gyula Rab was also excellent in his rather complex role as Osroa, one of his finest contributions being the bravura Leon piagate a morte, which also featured some fine horn playing. I didn’t find out until afterwards that countertenor Cenk Karaferya (Aquilio) was suffering from tonsillitis – he was off-stage for a while and one of his arias was cut. Given his condition, he sang very well, although I found his vibrato rather excessive. Another singer with even more excessive vibrato was the Russian mezzo Maria Ostroukhova (listed as a soprano in the programme). I heard several people raving about her, but I find such overly ‘operatic’ singing style to be singularly inappropriate for music of this period. This is an issue for the people responsible for putting the cast together, not for the individual singer, so any criticism is aimed at them, not her. There is little a singer can do to change style, and I am sure that Maria Ostroukhova has a glittering career ahead of her, albeit in a later repertoire. I did like the singing of soprano Augusta Hebbert as Sabina, her ability to hold a clean long-held note with perfect intonation being just one of her achievements.

The members of the period instrument orchestra were drawn from the younger end of the available pool of excellent players, and played with commendable style. The continuo group of Jon Rees, Chad Kelly and Eligio Luis Quintero (cello, harpsichord and theorbo) was particularly fine. This was conductor Leo Duarte’s debut as an opera conductor (he is usually to be found as principal oboe in several period instrument orchestras), and he was very impressive. He has a relaxed and confident conducting style, giving very clear indication of his intentions. He kept the pace going particularly well (despite the fore-mentioned attempts of the company chairman to grind things to a halt) and seemed to have a particularly good rapport with the singers and players. I gather he was originally booked to play oboe, but the indisposition of Opera Settecento’s usual conductor, Thomas Foster, saw him elevated to conductor. He must have been itching to take on the obligato oboe in Lieto cosi talvolta. The programme included some lovely cartoons depicting the plot, but the artist wasn’t acknowledged.

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