30 May 2013

Tales from Ovid: Classical Opera

Since receiving some fairly mixed reviews of their production of Mozart’s Zaide at the 2010 Buxton Festival, Ian Page’s Classical Opera seem to have focused their attention on recordings and themed concert performances of 18th-century riches and rarities,

performing in several central London venues — the Wigmore Hall, King’s Place and the Barbican — and continuing their admirable work in developing opportunities for young singers and instrumentalists, and extending audiences’ awareness of this lesser-known repertoire.

I have attended several such well-assembled and assuredly delivered performances at the Wigmore Hall, the latest of which presented a selection of instrumental and vocal works united under the umbrella, Tales from Ovid.

We began with a substantial orchestral opener — Dittersdorf’s Symphony in F major, ‘The Rescue of Andromeda by Perseus’, one of six of surviving symphonies by the composer which were inspired by specific tales from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The performance was noteworthy for the beautifully cantabile oboe solos of James Eastaway, particularly in the Larghetto third movement where the phrases and cadences were exquisitely shaped, and the appoggiaturas were milked for all they were worth! Indeed, the decorative gestures throughout this movement were movingly executed, and the gentle glow of muted strings and horns was tenderly demonstrative. Page shaped the lively second movement effectively, building gradually to the vigorous entry of the bright, vibrant horns. The ensemble was excellent throughout.

The operatic contribution in the first half of the concert was an excerpt from Act Three of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice: the sequence of numbers leading to the renowned ‘Che farò’. Anna Devin, confidently singing ‘off-the-score’, was an engaging Euridice. She convincingly located a range of emotions from indignation to defiance, from doubt to hope; ‘Che fiero momento!’ (‘What cruel moment’) was characterised by emotional impact, the woodwind shaping an affecting dialogue with the voice, the strings producing a focused timbre. The phrase “Vacillo, tremo” (“I sway, I tremble”) was fittingly unsettling and impassioned, full of driving energy. As Orfeo, countertenor Christopher Ainslie was less secure: the register seemed a little too high for comfort, and as Ainslie worked hard in the accompanied recitative to convey the nuances of the text, the tone became rather shrill and strained. He found a sweeter lightness, however, in the culminating aria and the gracefully shaped lines conveyed Orfeo’s vulnerability and bewilderment.

The overture and a scene from Haydn’s Philemon und Baucis followed after the interval, Devin (singing the roles of Baucis and Narcissa) now partnered by tenor Benjamin Hulett (Aret). Written in 1773 for the marionette theatre at the Esterházy palace, Philemon und Baucis did not survive in complete form — possibly the victim of nineteenth-century taste or of a theatre fire — and has been reconstructed from an extant singspiel version. It takes the form of arias and duets, sung by six marionette characters, framed by spoken dialogue; the libretto is undistinguished but the music charming.

And, there was quite a lot of music before we got to the singing. The brisk fiddle playing and punchy horn outbursts in the overture (somewhat dubiously attributed to Haydn) depicted the thunderstorm which kills Aret — the son of the peasant couple, Philemon and Baucis — and his fiancée, Narcissa, on their wedding day. Despite their grief, the old couple offer hospitality to Jupiter and Mercury who have come to earth disguised as pilgrims (cue another instrumental interlude) and in return the gods transform the funeral urns into an arbour of roses — the bucolic reliquary musically depicted in a suitably pastoral idiom.

Inside the floral dell, the lost couple are restored to life. Aret’s aria of reawakening established a quiet mood of musical enchantment, the unusual timbre — solo oboe, muted triplets and pizzicato from the two groups of violins above a firm bass — enhancing the sense of uniqueness and preciousness. Hulett’s pronunciation of the text was clear but never mannered, the gentle lyricism revealing his sense of wonderment and tentative but blossoming joy at the miracle which has occurred. Then, together, Aret and Narcissa celebrate their reunion and pledge eternal devotion; in this joyous, invigorating duet, ‘Entflohn ist nun der Schlummer’ (‘The slumber has now departed’), the crystal clear soprano of Devin blended beautifully with Hulett’s mellifluous tenor in shared ardency and joy.

Part Three of Mozart’s first opera, Apollo and Hyacinthus, concluded the programme. Hyacinthus, mortally wounded by Apollo’s discus which has been deliberately blown off course by Zephyrus, has just identified his killer to his father, Oebalus (Hulett) before expiring. Oebalus and his daughter Melia (Devin) sing of their grief, their outpouring so moving Apollo (Ainslie) that he turns the dead boy’s body into a flower, the hyacinth, (with its distinctive marking, ‘Ai’, an exclamation of anguish in the ancient world). Apollo then reaffirms his love for Melia and the three sing a hymn of praise that their forthcoming marriage may bring restoration and good blessings.

Hulett was excellent in his rage aria, expressing his fury at the murder of his son with forceful projection and accurate, supple coloratura, matched by incisive violin playing. He joined once again with Devin in their duet of mourning; their melancholy was eloquently expressed, the lines intricately crafted, the sighing appoggiaturas and chromatic inflections perfectly judged. The gentle undulations and pizzicato of the accompaniment was a perfect bed for the opulently entwining voices, and for the affecting violin solo which opened and closed the duet. Ainslie now found a more delicate tone, fitting for the young Apollo; the final Trio was exuberant and elevating.

Musically and technically, Classical Opera offered much to admire; and, judging from the near-capacity audience’s generous ovation the company certainly has a band of loyal and idolatrous fans. But, one is tempted to ask, if Page truly believes in this repertory — not only in its musical worth but also its theatrical credibility — then should such conviction not be demonstrated on the operatic stage rather in the concert hall or in the recording studio?

In some respects, Michael Maloney’s overly thespian declamation between the movements of the Dittersdorf symphony and before the opera scenes were the most explicitly dramatic aspect of the evening — and they were, in fact, redundant, since the programme outlined the mythical context and narrative in some detail and provided the text of the sung numbers. The audience is sufficiently well-informed and competent to assimilate such written information with their aural experience of the music.

Snippets and bite-sized chunks might offer melodic charm, instrumental colours might appeal and seduce, but ultimately such works need to be ‘tested’ in the theatre; only complete staged performances will ensure their incorporation into the ‘operatic canon’ and their longevity. Otherwise, the company might as well rename itself the ‘Classical Themed-Concert-Performance Company’. That said, musical standards were typically high, and we can only hope that Page gives us the opportunity to enjoy more theatrical presentations of this lovely repertoire soon.

Claire Seymour

Production and cast information:

Dittersdorf: Symphony in F, ‘The Rescue of Andromeda by Perseus’; Gluck: ‘Scene from Act Three of Orfeo ed Euridice; Hadyn: Overture and Scene from Philemon und Baucis; Mozart: Part Three of Apollo and Hyacinthus]. Anna Devin: soprano; Christopher Ainslie: countertenor; Benjamin Hulett: tenor; Michael Maloney: reader; The Orchestra of Classical Opera (leader Matthew Truscott); Ian Page: conductor. Wigmore Hall, London, Monday 20th May 2013.