Opera Settecento, Leo Duarte
Cadogan Hall, 21 September 2016
Johann Adolph Hasse (1699-1783) is one of those historically unfortunate composers who achieved great fame during their lifetimes but have since been more-or-less forgotten. A prolific composer of opera, he was hailed by Charles Burney as being superior to all other lyric composers. Married to the famed soprano Faustina Bordoni, the couple became the Posh and Becks of their day. Usually based in Dresden in the Court of the Saxon Elector Frederick III, Hasse had special dispensation that avoided the need to travel annually to the Polish Court, where Frederick was also the elected King. He also maintained a post in Venice at the Ospedale degli Incurabili. He lived long enough to have performed in front of Bach and the young Mozart.
This was the modern première of the opera Demetrio, presented by the musically adventurous Opera Settecento. Although the publicity suggested that we would hear the original 1732 Venice version, it was the later 1740 Dresden version that was performed. This included several new arias, but retained most of the extensive recitative of the earlier version, which was apparently written in something of a rush alongside four other new operas. The original had the unusual vocal casting of five mezzo-sopranos and a tenor, the Dresden version replacing three of the mezzos with a soprano and two high castrati.
The story, based on a libretto by Pietro Metastasio, is relatively straightforward, but nonetheless daft. As is so often the case, a simple shepherd (Alceste) somehow manages to become absorbed into the courtly world of a monarch, in this case by being adopted by the noble Fenicio, who soon holds him in higher regard than his own son, Olinto. Alceste ends up as military commander of the King (Alexander Balus), winning the heart of Alexander’s daughter, Cleonice who, after an insurrection and the death of her father, becomes Queen. As the opera starts, she is under pressure to marry, but despite her feelings, cannot morally bring herself to marry a former shepherd, despite his later achievements. Olinto is another of the contenders for the Queen’s hand, but is a complete prat; hot-headed, self important, excitable and belittling of his foster brother who he assumes was not nobly born.
And so the plot twists and turns until the inevitable final denouncement, announced in a rapid-fire recitative, that Alceste is in fact Demetrius, son of the King Demetrius that Alexander Balus had earlier deposed. He is the rightful heir to the kingdom, now ruled by Queen Cleonice who is happy to marry him as King. In the nature of such things, and for reasons that are beyond me, the unpleasant little Olinto is forgiven. In the opera, an important secondary role is that of Cleonice’s confidante, Barsene who, for reasons that are also beyond me, is secretly in love with the bumptious Olinto.
The performance lasted just over three hours, including one interval, so presumably included some cuts. But we still had 21 arias, a duet and final chorus. Practically all the arias were frothy and hectic affairs, very few with memorable tunes and with very few moments of repose. The recitatives were lengthy, and tended to describe events that went on off-stage, rather usefully considering that this was a concert performance sung from music stands. The Dresden score, edited for this performance by the conductor Leo Duarte, includes performance indications, seemingly added during rehearsal. Musically, the compositional style was difficult to place. Not in true baroque style, or in the forthcoming classical style, or in any of the intervening musical genres developed by the generation of Bach’s sons, it has an individual voice, presumably geared towards the likes of the Dresden court.
The orchestration was rich, with woodwind including in most of the orchestral ritornellos. There were very few instrumental solos, apart from an important oboe solo (beautifully played by Joel Raymond from front stage) in Olinto’s Più non sembra ardito e fiero, a pair of pretty flutes, in Cleonice’s Manca sollecita più dell’usato, and a couple of important contributions from a pair of horns. The 24 instrumentalists clearly relished Hasse’s invigorating musical score, with conductor Leo Duarte bringing an impressive energy to the proceedings. I would imagine that, in the usual scheme of such things, rehearsal time was necessarily limited, although there were very few moments when that became apparent. One curiosity, presumably made clear in the score, was that the continuo group of two harpsichords and a theorbo did not include a cello bass. The two harpsichord players made rather heavy weather of their realisations, often producing a rather disturbingly dominant flurry of notes.
The vocal cast was headed by the outstanding soprano Erica Eloff as Cleonice. One of Opera Settecento’s favourite singers, she explored the Queen’s powerful moral dilemmas expertly, adding her delicately nuanced acting ability. I was also very impressed with mezzo Ciara Hendrick as Barsene (pictured – a lighter voice, but exquisitely used), and the fine high tenor voice of Rupert Charlesworth as Fenicio. Augusta Hebbert made an impressive job of presenting the trouser-role part of Mithranes. I was less impressed with the two countertenors. Michael Taylor (Alcestes) had a rather awkward and mannered stage presence, with some curious facial and bodily expressions, while Ray Chenez (Olinto) had one of those prominent and persistently fast vibratos that wreaks havoc with intonation and note accuracy, the semiquaver pulse of the vibrato adding an disturbingly percussive element to melodic lines. Both had problems with breaks in register, singing parts clearly intended for the extended range of castrati singers. Some of the most dramatic and virtuosic music went to the troubled Olinto, with Cleonice and Barsene both having some attractive arias in all three Acts. Fenico’s Disperato in mar turbato at the conclusion of Act 2 was one of the finest musical moments.
Although Hasse’s Demetrio certainly deserves to be given a modern performance, I fear that it will not seriously challenge the currently better known opera composers of the 18th century. The performance was recorded, but to what end was not clear. A recording would certainly be an asset to the opera world. Not withstanding its possible future, Opera Settecento deserves to be congratulated on bringing music like this to public attention.