Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Modernity vanquished? Verdi Un ballo in maschera, Royal Opera House, London

Verdi Un ballo in maschera at the Royal Opera House - a masked ball in every sense, where nothing is quite what it seems. On the surface, this new production appears quaint and undemanding. It uses painted flats, for example, pulled back and forth across, as in toy theatre. The scenes painted on them are vaguely generic, depicting neither Boston nor Stockholm, where the tale supposedly takes place. Instead, we focus on Verdi, and on theatre practices of the past. In other words, opera as the art of illusion, not an attempt to replicate reality. Take this production too literally and you'll miss the wit and intelligence behind it.

La Traviata in Ljubljana Slovenia

Small country, small opera house — big ensemble spirit. Internationally acclaimed soprano Natalia Ushakova steps in for indisposed local Violetta with mixed results.

Otello in Bucharest — Moor’s the pity

Bulgarian director Vera Nemirova’s production of Otello for the Romanian National Opera in Bucharest was certainly full of new ideas — unfortunately all bad.

Il trovatore at Lyric Opera of Chicago

For its current revival of the 2006-2007 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore by Sir David McVicar Lyric Opera has assembled a talented quintet of principal singers whose strengths match this conception of the opera.

Schubert’s Winterreise by Matthias Goerne

This Winterreise is the final instalment of Matthias Goerne’s series of Schubert lieder for Harmonia Mundi and it brings the Matthias Goerne Schubert Edition, begun in 2008, to a dark, harrowing close.

Mary, Queen of Heaven, Wigmore Hall

O Maria Deo grata — ‘O Mary, pleasing to God’: so begins Robert Fayrfax’s antiphon, one of several supplications to the Virgin Mary presented in this thought-provoking concert by The Cardinall’s Musick at the Wigmore Hall.

Analyzed not demonized — Tristan und Isolde, Royal Opera House

Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at the Royal Opera House, first revival of the 2009 production, one of the first to attract widespread hostility even before the curtain rose on the first night.

Florencia in el Amazonas Makes Triumphant Return to LA

On November 22, 2014, Los Angeles Opera staged Francesca Zambello’s updated version of Florencia in el Amazonas.

John Adams: The Gospel According to the Other Mary

John Adams and his long-standing collaborator Peter Sellars have described The Gospel According to the Other Mary as a ‘Passion oratorio’.

A new Yevgeny Onegin in Zagreb — Prince Gremin’s Fabulous Pool Party

Superb conducting from veteran Croatian maestro Nikša Bareza makes up for an absurd waterlogged new production of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece.

Nabucco in Novi Sad

After the horrors of Jagoš Marković’s production of Le Nozze di Figaro in Belgrade, I was apprehensive lest Nabucco in Serbia’s second city of Novi Sad on 27th October would be transplanted from 6th century BC Babylon to post-Saddam Hussein Tikrit or some bombed-out kibbutz in Beersheba.

La Bohème in San Francisco

First Toronto, then Houston and now San Francisco, the third stop of a new production of Puccini's La bohème by Canadian born, British nurtured theater director John Caird.

Radvanovsky Sings Recital in Los Angeles

Every once in a while Los Angeles Opera presents an important recital in the three thousand seat Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

L’elisir d’amore, Royal Opera

This third revival of Laurent Pelly’s production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore needed a bit of a pep up to get moving but once it had been given a shot of ‘medicinal’ tincture things spiced up nicely.

Samling Showcase, Wigmore Hall

Founded in 1996, Samling describes itself as a charity which ‘inspires musical excellence in young people’.

La cenerentola in San Francisco

The good news is that you don’t have to go all the way to Pesaro for great Rossini.

Rameau: Maître à danser — William Christie, Barbican London

Maître à danser: William Christie and Les Arts Florissants at the Barbican, London, presented a defining moment in Rameau performance practice, choreographed with a team of dancers.

Le Nozze di Figaro — or Sex on the Beach?

The most memorable thing (and definitely not in a good way) about this performance of Le Nozze di Figaro at the Serbian National Theatre in Belgrade was the self-serving, infantile, offensive and just plain wrong production by celebrated Serbian theatre director Jagoš Marković.

The Met mounts a well sung but dramatically unconvincing ‘Carmen’

Should looks matter when casting the role of the iconic temptress for HD simulcast?

Maurice Greene’s Jephtha

Maurice Greene (1696-1755) had a highly successful musical career. Organist of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a position to which he was elected when he was just 22 years-old, he later became organist of the Chapel Royal, Professor of Music at the University of Cambridge and, from 1735, Master of the King’s Music.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Johann Adolph Hasse: Antonio e Cleopatra
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.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):