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Rowan Hellier [Photo by courtesy of Rayfield Allied]
16 Apr 2015

J. C. Bach: Adriano in Siria

At this start of the year, Classical Opera embarked upon an ambitious project. MOZART 250 will see the company devote part of its programme each season during the next 27 years to exploring the music by Mozart and his contemporaries which was being written and performed exactly 250 years previously.

J. C. Bach: Adriano in Siria

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Rowan Hellier [Photo by courtesy of Rayfield Allied]


The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions, as well as works by his contemporaries. The journey has begun with an exploration of Mozart’s childhood visit to London in 1764-65 and a performance of Johann Christian Bach’s Adriano in Siria — the first staging since the original production 250 years ago (although a concert performance was given at the Camden Festival in March 1982 by the BBC Concert Orchestra under Sir Charles Mackerras, and several of the opera’s arias, most notably the celebrated ‘Cara la dolce fiamma’, have survived in the repertory).

Classical Opera have presented many fine performances on the concert platform of repertory from the late-eighteenth century and have made a number of excellent recordings of lesser-known works — among them Mozart’s Die Schuldigkeit des Ersten Gebots and Apollo and Hyacinth, and Arne’s Artaxerxes. But, it is good to see the company putting opera where it truly belongs, on the stage, and even better to have the opportunity to see and hear a work by a composer whose music is seldom performed today but who was known during his day throughout Europe as the ‘London Bach’.

Invited to write two operas for the King’s Theatre Haymarket, J. S. Bach’s eleventh surviving son arrived in the city in 1762 as a 26-year-old and stayed for the rest of his life. Two years later, the 9-year-old Mozart came to London with his family for a visit that was to last for 15 months. Adriano in Siria was presented during the 1764-65 season. Classical Opera’s founder, Ian Page argues that Mozart almost certainly attended at least one performance of this work and held the opera and its composer in high regard. London audiences were less enthusiastic though, and after seven performances it was withdrawn and never revived. In a recent Guardian article, Page cites an amusing letter written by an ‘anonymous footman’ at the King’s Theatre to The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, which records that ‘the extraordinary merit of Mr Bach’s Adriano in Siria could not rescue it from the vengeance of these destroyers; it was doomed to oblivion as soon as it was presented: and why? Because forsooth Mr Bach did not breathe Italian air as soon as he was born. All but the Italians acknowledged the beauties of Mr Bach’s operas; and none but the Italians could have been capable of smothering so elegant a production’. ‘Extraordinary merit’ is indeed apt praise, based on this performance in the Britten Theatre at the Royal College of Music.

First set by Antonio Caldara in 1732, Pietro Metastasio’s libretto subsequently served more than 60 composers. It presents a fictional account involving Emperor Hadrian and King Osroes I of Parthia, during the former’s time as ruler of Syria. Adriano is a flawed figure: infatuated with one of his prisoners — Emirena, the Parthian princess who loves Farnaspe — he rejects his own betrothed, Sabina (who is secretly admired by Aquilio). The enraged King Osroa attempts to kill Adriano, first by burning down the citadel, then by disguising himself as a Roman soldier and stabbing him; both efforts are unsuccessful and when Farnaspe, who is suspected of arson, is discovered by Adriano fleeing with Emirena and holding Osroa’s sword, all three find themselves back in prison. The Parthians suffer yet more wretchedness at the hands of the barbarous Emperor, but eventually, Adriano’s better instincts surface — perhaps he is inspired by the nobler example set by his citizens, who demonstrate loyalty and integrity in adversity. In a hasty lieto fine, Osroa is spared death and restored to the throne, Aquilio is forgiven, and the pairs of lovers suitably matched up. (Perhaps the political dimensions of such a tale, probably designed by Metastasio to please the absolutist authorities in contemporary European city states, did not go down well in late-eighteenth-century London?)

The structure follows the typical opera seria pattern of three acts built from scenes of recitative (some of which was abbreviated in this performance) followed by a solo exit aria, and director Thomas Guthrie has had to work hard to overcome the resulting static quality — with some success. Most imaginative are the transformations from exterior to interior which are effected during the long da capo arias, often triggered by the change of mood in an aria’s contrasting middle section. Particularly striking was the descent of the black backdrop during Osroa’s first aria, in which he laments his daughter’s imprisonment and swears defiance and vengeance; the transmutation from sky-blue expanse to dark inner chamber was suggestive of the shadows in Osroa’s heart and made his aria intimate and affecting, despite his wild fury. Less successful were the attempts to indicate the unfolding ‘action’ as the soloists performed their arias at the front or side of the stage. Against a sky streaked with fiery red, at the rear of the stage Romans raced back and forth to save the burning citadel; Adriano’s henchmen stomped about seeking rebellious Parthians; in the more serene moments, actors swooped and fluttered paper birds. But, such to-ing and fro-ing distracted from the affekts being articulated by the protagonists at these moments, as if the narrative conveyed through the recitative was being noisily shoe-horned into the arias themselves. Moreover, while there was a sensible concern to show the brutality of Adriano and his regime, the rough-treatment dispensed by the Roman soldiers was often at odds with the exquisite grace of the score.

Rhys Jarman’s designs were simple and beautiful. A few plinths and costumes — the latter reminiscent of the luxurious decadence of Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s depictions of the Roman Empire — were all that were needed to establish the epoch. Lighting designer Katharine Williams employed the expansive back-drop as a canvas — bare expect for a few suggestive silhouettes of columns and topiary — on which to unfold a gradually metamorphosing palette (also evocative of Alma-Tadema) to match the sung emotions.

The cast were uniformly strong. As Adriano, mezzo-soprano Rowan Hellier was appropriately restless and headstrong. Though a little uncertain in her opening aria, she gained in confidence and the lovely richness of her tone gave stature to the Emperor despite his fickle caprices, while in higher registers her voice shone beautifully. The other castrato role, Farnaspe, was taken by soprano Erica Eloff (given Page’s commitment to period performance, why no countertenors?). Eloff struggled with the virtuosity of her first aria, ‘Disperato in mar turbato’; in the higher-lying runs her voice seemed unsupported. But, there is no doubting the exquisite beauty of her tone and in the expressive phrasing of ‘Cara la dolce fiamma’ Eloff demonstrated considerable musicality and sensitive appreciation of the style. It was a highlight of the evening, alongside Emirena’s ‘Deh lascia, o ciel pietoso’. In the latter role, soprano Ellie Laugharne was also challenged by some of the more taxing coloratura but her singing persuasively communicated character and feeling. As Sabina, Filipa van Eck sang accurately and vivaciously but her resonant, burnished soprano was rather odds with the others voices and with the eighteenth-century aesthetic.

Stuart Jackson’s Osroa was a commanding presence; although not possessing a huge voice, Jackson used his alluring tenor, and the text, to convey the King’s integrity in his two arias. Tenor Nick Pritchard performed Aquilio’s Act 3 aria, in which he admires the manipulative cunning of his efforts to win Sabina, which considerable confidence and skill. It was worth waiting for.

The Orchestra of Classical Opera, under Page’s baton, were stylish and charismatic. In particular, Page brought to the fore Bach’s inventive and captivating writing for the woodwind; there were some lovely clarinet solos and one could almost imagine the excitement of the young Mozart upon hearing the wonderfully warm blend of groupings of clarinets, horns and bassoons.

Page suggests that J. C. Bach was arguably the biggest influence on the young Mozart’s burgeoning compositional voice. Indeed, Mozart travelled to Paris in 1778 where he again encountered Bach and attended a performance of Bach’s opera, Amadis de Gaul. Mozart wrote to his father: ‘Mr. Bach from London has been here for the last fortnight. … You can easily imagine his delight and mine at meeting again; perhaps his delight may not have been quite as sincere as mine —but one must admit that he is an honorable man and willing to do justice to others. I love him (as you know) and respect him with all my heart; and as for him, there is no doubt but that he has praised me warmly, not only to my face, but to others, also, and in all seriousness — not in the exaggerated manner which some affect.’ (27 August 1778)

Whatever the degree of his influence upon the young Mozart, J. C. Bach — described by one London contemporary as a ‘second Handel’ — contributed many individual numbers for inclusion in operas by other composers and produced 14 operas of his own. It would be good to hear more of them.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Adriano — Rowan Hellier, Osroa — Stuart Jackson, Emirena — Ellie Laugharne, Fasnaspe — Erica Eloff, Aquilio — Nick Pritchard, Sabina — Filipa van Eck, Actors — Leiran Gibson, Victoria Haynes, Lauren Okadigbo (Sabina’s lady-in-waiting), Sandro Piccirilli, Daniel Swan (Adriano’s attendant), Lotte Tickner (Emirena’s lady-in-waiting); Conductor — Ian Page, Director — Thomas Guthrie, Designer — Rhys Jarman, Lighting — Katharine Williams, The Orchestra of Classical Opera. Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London, Tuesday 14 th April 2015.

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