25 Jan 2014

Francesco Bartolomeo Conti: L’Issipile

Francesco Bartolomeo Conti (1681-1732) isn’t a name that trips off opera-goers’ tongues; similarly neglected is Conti’s last opera L’Issipile, despite the fact that composer (who was also a theorbo player at the Viennese Imperial Court) was the first of several opera composers to set Metastasio’s libretto.

The dramma per musica was premiered at the Imperial Court Theatre in Vienna during the Carnival of 1732, but was not a great success, and was granted only three performances; perhaps, if the cast of Baroque specialists and instrumentalists presenting the opera at the Wigmore Hall on Wednesday evening had been on duty on 7th February 1732, the story might have been different … for this outstanding and utterly absorbing performance by La Nuova Musica and a stellar set of soloists made for a thrilling musical evening.

Metastasio’s opera seria combines two Classical myths: that of Jason and the Argonauts and the tale of the rebellion by the women of Lemnos. Perhaps the violent nature of the subject — the vengeful slaughter of the men of Lemnos — was off-putting for early-eighteenth-century audiences and the Viennese court.

The action unfolds on the island of Lemnos, in the Aegean Sea. The soldiers of Lemnos have won their battle on the neighbouring island, Thrace, but attracted by the wealth and beauty of their enemy’s women, they have delayed their return home. Eventually their King, Thoas, eager to attend the wedding of his daughter, Issipile, to Giasone (Jason), convinces them to wend their way homeward; but, their irate, vengeful wives have hatched a terrible plot to kill their husbands upon their arrival, using the distractions of the festival of Bacchus to mask their vicious intent. Issipile tries to warn her father; she hides him and tells the other women that he has already been killed. This action, however, causes her to be rejected twice: first, by Jason who condemns this act of patricide, and then by the Lemnos women, when they discover the truth.

Eurynome, the leader of the women, is especially angered, as her son, Learchus, has previously been spurned by Issipile and forced to flee from Lemnos following a failed attempt to abduct her; it is rumoured that in desperation he has killed himself in exile. In fact, he has become a pirate and, hearing of Jason’s return, Learchus travels to Lemnos and hides in the palace, planning a second kidnap attempt. However, Issipile’s goodness wins through in the end: the virtuous are saved, the evil punished, the lovers married and Lemnos restored to peace.

An inconsequential tale, but one which inspired Conti to compose substantial arias of great power and passion, interspersed within lengthy, varied recitatives, many of which are accompagnato. High voices dominate and the six roles form effective pairs, the female roles being particularly strongly characterised.

Soprano Lucy Crowe infused Issipile’s virtuosic arias with both intensity and delicacy — often, paradoxically, simultaneously — capturing both the tenderness of her filial devotion and the ache of marital passion. The long aria which closes the first act exemplified the way that Crowe employed both penetration and sweetness — top Cs floated effortlessly, the vocal acrobatics were effortlessly agile — to portray the self-doubt which tinges the heroine’s virtue; the vocal delights were enhanced by striking variations of tempo, stirring harmonies and inventive motifs from the violins.

Crowe was perfectly complemented by the sentimental warmth of tone of soprano Rebecca Bottone, as Rodope. The lyricism and clarity of Bottone’s recitatives was deeply communicative. The Act 1 aria, in which Issipile’s confidante gives the villainous Learchus a lesson in moral philosophy, combined seriousness of intent with a persuasively seductive, luxurious tone. The sequential interplay between voice and strings, and the beautiful, rich earnestness of the soprano’s lower register in the da capo repeat, was profoundly moving; surely such musical reflections and exhortations would deflect a jealous blackguard from his evil ways…

Learchus is an anti-hero of Iago-like proportions. His intrigues and machinations were superbly rendered by countertenor Flavio Ferri-Benedetti; his relentless evil — conveyed by stunning vocal leaps from crystalline heights to resonant depths — was riveting, while his conceited pouting and strutting, embellished with tightly pulsating trills, entertained. The final scene in which Learchus, mid-way through his assassination-abduction mission, recognises his own erroneousness and imprudence and stabs himself in self-chastising remorse, was gripping. (Ferri-Benedetti is clearly the man to go to if you want to learn about Conti: currently completing a doctoral thesis on Metastasian heroines, the countertenor both prepared the edition of the score and provided the English translation of the libretto which was projected onto the wall of the Wigmore Hall cupola.)

And, what a treat for the audience to have two countertenors of such star quality to beguile them. The devil may have all the best tunes, but Lawrence Zazzo, as Giasone, equalled Ferri-Benedetti in the posing and strutting department. Zazzo’s recitatives were particularly fluent and flexible, and he used elegance and graceful evenness of phrase to convey Giasone’s essential honesty and righteousness.

John Mark Ainsley’s unfailingly beautiful, well-centred tone embodied the dignity and fair-mindedness of Thoas, as well as the sincerity and depth of his love for his daughter. His life may have been in danger, but Thoas never wavered, exuding calm composure and confident nobility throughout. Mark Ainsley encompassed the extraordinarily wide range with ease; the melodic arcs were wonderful spun, underpinned in Thoas’s second aria by dense but delicate contrapuntal lines of the strings, the minor tonality adding to the poignancy.

Diana Montague’s resentful Eurynome equalled Thoas in dramatic stature and musical characterisation; her arias were characterised by excellent diction and vocal refinement combined with rhetorical impact. The fury of her Act 1 aria, emphasised by the agitated accompaniment, gave way to more tragic sensibilities at the start of Act 2, guiding the audience to recognise Eurynome’s misfortune as well as her bitterness.

The fourteen instrumentalists of La Nuova Musica, led from the harpsichord by founder and director David Bates, produced playing of fleetness, vivacity and charm. The Sinfonia epitomised the perfectly synchronised panache of the strings’ Italianate lines, and the striking contrasts of dynamics suggested the surprising twists and turns of the drama to follow. In the complex arias, oboe (Leo Duarte) and bassoon (Rebecca Hammond) added colour to the tutti sections; the more contrapuntal accompaniments were incisively articulated. Conti’s recitative is fast-moving, Metastasio’s lines often shared between characters; Bates unfailingly created forward motion and excitement in these exchanges, which the soloists delivered with naturalness and spontaneity. Sudden harmonic swerves and interruptions were emphasised but never mannered.

Concert performance this may have been, but the drama was transfixing. The three hours whizzed by. One longs for a recording.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

La Nuova Musica. David Bates, director; Lucy Crowe, soprano (Issipile); John Mark Ainsley, tenor (Thoas), Lawrence Zazzo, countertenor (Giasone); Flavio Ferri-Benedetti, countertenor (Learchus); Diana Montague, mezzo-soprano (Eurynome); Rebecca Bottone, soprano (Rodope). Wigmore Hall, London, 22nd January 2014.