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Reviews

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12 Dec 2010

Johann Adolph Hasse: Antonio e Cleopatra

Johann Adolph Hasse (1699-1783) was arguably the most successful opera composer of the 18th century. Together with his favourite librettist, Pietro Metastasio, Hasse defined the genre of opera seria for an entire generation.

Johann Adolph Hasse: Antonio e Cleopatra

Jamie Barton, mezzo-soprano; Ava Pine, soprano. Ars Lyrica Houston. Matthew Dirst, artistic director, conductor

Dorian Recordings DSL-92115 [2CDs]

$29.99  Click to buy

The greatest of his more than sixty stage works were performed in all the major musical centres of Europe and dozens of his arias were the mainstay repertoire of the leading singers of the day. Celebrated above all for his melodic gift and the supreme elegance of his vocal writing, Hasse was held by the contemporary English music critic and historian Charles Burney to be ‘superior to all other lyric composers’. One measure of Hasse’s popularity was the enormous salary he received as court opera composer in Dresden; together with his wife, the famous prima donna Faustina Bordoni, Hasse earned the staggering sum of six thousand Reichsthaler annually — sixty times the amount paid to Johann Sebastian Bach for his services as Thomaskantor in Leipzig.

Hasse-Johann-Adolf-06.pngJohann Adolph Hasse by Balthasar Denner (1740)

Called ‘il divino Sassone’ by his Italian admirers, Hasse was in fact not a Saxon but a native of North Germany. Born in the village of Bergedorf near Hamburg, the composer began his musical career in 1718 as a tenor at Hamburg’s Gänsemarkt opera — an important station for many prominent German opera composers, including Händel, Keiser, Mattheson and Telemann. After a short engagement the following year at the court in Braunschweig, Hasse journeyed to Italy, where he settled in Naples and studied with Porpora and Alessandro Scarlatti. One of Hasse’s first Italian works, the present serenata Antonio e Cleopatra, was composed in 1725 and was followed by a series of opera commissions for the Neapolitan court. His fame grew quickly over the next several years, culminating in the success of Artaserse at Venice during the Carnival season in 1730, the composer’s first collaboration with Metastasio and the opera which launched his international career. The following year, Hasse and his new bride Faustina were engaged in Dresden, where they remained on and off until the beginning of the Seven Years War in 1756, with sojourns in Venice, Vienna, Warsaw and Paris. Following the war, which ruined the Saxon court both financially and artistically, Hasse moved to Vienna in 1764 before retiring to Venice with Faustina in 1773.

Hasse’s music is historically significant as a perfect embodiment of the stile galant, which, though it was the principal style for at least half of the 18th century, has been sadly misunderstood by a music historiography centred on the supposed dichotomy of ‘baroque’ and ‘classical’. Fixated on the far-from-mainstream J.S.Bach and Mozart, generations of musicologists have explained away central figures like Telemann, Hasse, C.P.E.Bach and J.C.Bach as ‘post-baroque’ or ‘pre-classical’. Only since the 1970s have scholars begun to undertake a serious examination of the style which dominated Europe for decades.*

In light of the traditional view of the 18th century as the age of Bach and Mozart, it is not surprising that mid-century opera composers such as Hasse or Carl Heinrich Graun — who was regarded as the former’s near-equal by contemporary critics — remained largely forgotten during the so-called ‘early music’ revival in the latter half of the twentieth century. Another reason their music has remained locked away in the archives is the inherent difficulty of opera seria itself as a genre. With the notable exception of Händel, no composer of opera seria has gained acceptance into the repertoire today, and even Händel’s operas are routinely subjected to absurd attempts to make the genre ‘understandable’ or ‘relevant’ to modern audiences. Apart from aesthetic considerations, the sheer difficulty of singing this music represents a further barrier, as the style simultaneously requires purity of tone, great nuance in expression and consummate virtuosity. It is not a coincidence that one of Hasse’s favourite singers was the celebrated castrato Farinelli, whose appearance in a 1734 performance of Artaserse in London was described (long after the fact) by Charles Burney: ‘The first note he sung was taken with such delicacy, swelled by minute degrees to such an amazing volume, and afterwards diminished in the same manner to a mere point, that it was applauded for full five minutes. After this he set off with such brilliancy and rapidity of execution, that it was difficult for the violins of those days to keep pace with him.’

All of the above-mentioned factors, taken together with the music industry’s narrow-minded focus on ‘commercially viable’ composers, have meant that Hasse’s music has heretofore been rarely heard on stage and in recordings. Even the three-hundredth anniversary of his birth in 1999 did little to change this. It is typical that more of the composer’s (historically insignificant) instrumental music has been recorded than have his operas. The only full-length Hasse opera on CD is still William Christie’s pioneering 1986 recording of Cleofide (Capriccio 10193/96), with Emma Kirkby reprising the title-role composed for Faustina Bordoni (very highly recommended if one can find a used copy).

Under the circumstances, any new recording of dramatic music by Hasse is a welcome addition to the composer’s meagre discography, and is automatically a must-have for enthusiasts of opera seria. It was therefore with great expectation that I noted the recent release of the 1725 serenata (Marc’)Antonio e Cleopatra (Dorian Sono Luminus DSL-92115), a two-act ‘mini opera’ featuring only the two title characters. Antonio e Cleopatra is interesting not only because it was one of Hasse’s first significant works, but also since it was composed for Farinelli himself (Cleopatra), together with the Florentine contralto Vittoria Tesi (Antonio). While the former is widely regarded to have been one of the greatest singers of all time, contemporary accounts suggest that Vittoria Tesi (1700-1775) was at best inconsistent. Although she received many honours and enjoyed the patronage of Maria Theresia, Metastasio once called her a ‘grandissima nullità’, and Pierre Ange Goudar wrote in 1773 that Tesi had been ‘perhaps the first actress who recited well while singing badly’.

That Hasse knew his singers’ abilities well is immediately evident in the disposition of the eight arias in Antonio e Cleopatra: Farinelli sings the virtuosic music, while Tesi receives only cantabile arias. In the lively duets which close each act, Hasse restrains Farinelli’s virtuosity while increasing his demands on Signora Tesi. These duets also serve to illustrate one reason why lovers in opera seria were usually both cast as high voices: the close part-writing and frequent use of parallel thirds and sixths underscores the intimacy shared by the main characters. Though all of it is attractive, the best music in Antonio e Cleopatra is to be found in the cantabile arias, where we most clearly hear the elegant turns of phrase which made Hasse famous. The arias ‘Fra le pompe peregrine’ and ‘Là tra i mirti degl’Elisi’ are superb examples of the composer’s graceful lyricism: using the simplest of means, he strings together many small gestures to weave a fine melodic filigree. This is the very essence of the stile galant.

Unfortunately, the present recording fails to deliver in precisely that element which is so essential to opera seria: excellent singing. The two soloists, Ava Pine (Cleopatra) and Jamie Barton (Antonio), are inadequate to the task. They do not display the most rudimentary grasp of the subtleties required by the stile galant, and their conservatory-trained ‘operatic’ voices, plagued by incessant vibrato and a portamento approach to the higher octaves, are entirely unsuitable to this music. Take for example the wonderful aria ‘Pur ch’io possa a te’ (Antonio): the ritornello begins with great promise, but then Ms Barton spoils the effect by plodding through the notes one-by-one without the slightest sense that she is singing 18th-century music. We cannot wait for the aria to end — what a shame! As sung by Ms Pine, Farinelli’s arias hardly fare any better. In the bravura ‘A Dio trono, impero a Dio’ (Cleopatra), for example, the soprano negotiates the coloratura passages reasonably well, but her voice is overtaxed by the highest notes and her indiscriminately-applied vibrato is sometimes wider than the intervals being sung.

The orchestra, Ars Lyrica Houston, turns in more skilful performances than the vocalists. Its director, prize-winning harpsichordist and organist Matthew Dirst, has a good grasp of the style, and the playing is competent, if not outstanding. Dirst’s decision to include flutes, recorders and oboes to double the strings is both historically defensible and aesthetically appropriate. That a period-instrument ensemble from Texas should undertake to record Hasse is in itself notable and praiseworthy.

Antonio e Cleopatra has been nominated for a Grammy Award in the category ‘Best Opera Recording’. Given its flaws, ‘Most Important Opera Recording’ might be more appropriate. Nevertheless, the nomination is significant because it shows that perhaps Hasse could indeed become a ‘commercially viable’ composer. Perhaps a singer of Philippe Jaroussky’s calibre can be persuaded to take up Hasse’s cause as he has done recently for Johann Christian Bach (‘La Dolce Fiamma’ on Virgin Classics).

Despite its shortcomings, this recording is recommendable for the simple fact that we will probably not hear another version of this splendid music. If one can hear past the vocal performances, the beauty of Hasse’s music cannot fail to captivate listeners today as it did nearly three centuries ago.

Dr. Brian D. Stewart © 2010


* Highly recommended is Daniel Heartz’s Music in European Capitals: The Galant Style, 1720-1780 (Norton, 2003) , which culminates the author's longstanding crusade to rehabilitate the music of this period.

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