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Classical Opera at the Wigmore Hall
22 Sep 2016

Classical Opera: Haydn's La canterina

We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value … a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.

Classical Opera at the Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour


The principal attraction on this occasion was Haydn’s intermezzo, La canterina (The singer) which Classical Opera have recently performed at the Eisenstadt Haydn Festival.

Opera is not the first genre that comes to mind in connection with Haydn, but the composer wrote (according to Grove) thirty dramatic works for the stage, most of which date from the period when he was in the employ of the Princes Esterházy, whose passion for the stage was evidenced by the daily performances that were arranged in the beautiful 400-seat theatre - equipped with the most advanced technical apparatus - at Esterház castle.

After early essays in opera seria Haydn turned from mythological subjects and tried his hand at the emerging buffo form. La canterina is a farcical tale concerning the double-dealing of would-be singer, Gasparina (Susanna Hurrell), aided by her friend Apollonia (Rachel Kelly) who is disguised as her mother. The two tricksters are renting rooms from the singing teacher Don Pelagio (Robert Murray). They exploit his obvious affection for Gasparina to their advantage, but don’t neglect also to tease the smitten Don Ettore (Kitty Whately). When her two lovers discover her deception, Gasparina plays the old game of feigning a faint and her threats to kill herself expel her lovers’ wrath anger and arouse their compassion. The smelling salts cannot be found, but the scent of their gifts of money and jewellery effect a surprisingly swift recovery - ‘How lovely is the aroma of diamonds’ - and Gasparina is absolved by the self-congratulatory dupes: ‘I forgive your many faults for pity is truly heroic.’

Haydn’s music is graceful and the aria forms show invention and dramatic insight - as when Apollonia’s aria, in which she instructs her protégé in the art of make-up, is interrupted by recitative. This performance was billed as ‘semi-staged’; and, it’s true that, despite the music-stands positioned stage left and right, the cast sang off-the-score and made a lively attempt to bring some individuality and definition to what are essentially commedia stereotypes. But, the end result was limited both by the lack of space offered by the crowded Wigmore Hall platform for choreographic invention and by the rather superficial nature of Haydn’s dramatic gaiety.

Fortunately, the vocal performances more than compensated for any dramatic short-comings. Rachel Kelly’s bright, warm mezzo conveyed Apollonia’s mischievous spirit beneath the simplicity and artlessness of Haydn’s melodic line and the flexible rhythmic sway of her ‘make-up aria’ had a folky nonchalance which was enhanced by perky playing from the flutes and horns. Robert Murray had vivid presence and did a good job of capturing Don Pelagio’s nervousness when he arrives to perform the new aria he has composed for Gasparina, anxiously snatching glances at the score and then, ironically, closing it and singing confidently from memory with affected portentousness. Murray’s tenor was relaxed, with a strong baritonal range, and the melodic ornamentation was delivered with insouciance. In Act 2, the disillusioned Don Pelagio attempts to evict the two women and here Murray sang impressively through the line with an even strength and focus across all registers.

Soprano Susanna Hurrell was superb as Gasparina. Her clear lyric quality and sweet-sounding sighs, allied with plaintive cors anglais, softened the angular piquancy of the melodic line, successfully swaying the affections of her offended lover. And, her inflated wistfulness was matched by her thrilling, sparkling timbre in the more melodramatic passages as Haydn ridicules his seria model, until, ‘tormented and grief-stricken’ she had ‘no more voice left’!

Haydn ends both short acts with a lively finale and Page kept up the urgent momentum at the end of Act 1, aided by scurrying strings in unison (though I did wonder if there was a need for the Orchestra of Classical Opera to re-tune between the two acts, given their brevity). I was impressed by the poise and polish of the continuo playing, especially by the unobtrusive precision of cellist Jonathan Rees’ pithy, vibrato-less punctuation of the secco.

Having recently relished Opera Rara’s Proms performance of Rossini’s Semiramide ( review), I thought I was pretty familiar with the tale; but, no, the Metastasio libretto set by Josef Mysliveček (1737-81) - and also by Porpora, Jommelli, Hasse and Gluck, among others - wanders down some twisting byways.

Nowadays, the Prague native is generally considered only in the context of his friendship with Mozart, who greatly admired the older Czech musician’s work. But, Mysliveček might lay posthumous claim to being one of the most successful opera seria composers of his day, and the four arias - characterised by melodic freshness and rhythmic vitality - from his first opera Semiramide that were presented in the first half of this concert showed why. The opera was performed in Venice just two and a half years after Mysliveček had arrived there, having given up his career as a miller to try his hand as a professional musician.

The back-history is convoluted, but as the opera commences Semiramide, having eloped with an Indian prince Scitalce and then survived his jealousy-fuelled assassination attempt, has just assumed the Assyrian throne, disguised as her son Nino, after the death of her husband the King of Assyria.

Tamiri (Whately), a princess from Bactria, must choose from three suitors who have arrived in Babylon to advance their claims. First up was Murray’s Ircano, a ‘wild and unruly Scythian prince’. Murray exhibited impressive vocal strength and evenness, allied with expressive, vigorous delivery and assured breath control in the long, but fairly bland, lines which convey Ircano’s unjustified overconfidence. Murray felt obliged to indulge in bravura display but it did not consistent come off: the heights attempted in the da capo were somewhat strained and not always secure.

Tamiri is more impressed by Scitalce, though. However, to her exasperation, he refuses her for he has espied Semiramide whom he had previously been duped into believing had been unfaithful. Whately’s tone in ‘Tu mi disprezzi’ was rich and formed a nice counterpoint to the horns. She also coped well with the aria’s flexible tempo, shaping a fluent line from disjointed material. Rachel Kelly’s multi-layered mezzo conveyed Semiramide’s ardour, and she was accompanied by beautifully focused, well-tuned flutes and horns who conjured a pastoral idyll. Kelly had no trouble negotiating the floridity of the da capo repeat, singing with vibrant dynamism. Hurrell displayed admirable agility, fluidity, colour and brightness as Mirteo (the brother of Semiramide, who believes his sister is dead), and produced some stylish trills and cadential ornaments. Her vibrato was dynamic but never distorted the pitch, and Hurrell could also ease naturally into gentler moods too.

Haydn’s Symphony No.34 opened the concert. This is one of Haydn’s lesser known symphonies, but like the productions of Norma that have been rattling around the UK during the last six months, this symphony proves to be like a London bus: you wait for ages, and then several turn up at once. Having enjoyed the BBCSO’s Proms performance under Sakari Oramo ( review), it was good to have an opportunity to hear the work with smaller forces in a more intimate venue than the cavernous RAH. Under Page’s guidance the opening Adagio felt ponderous and weighty - though I also sensed in the pulsing D minor strings, intimations of the opening of Mozart’s future Requiem Mass. The lines did have a flowing continuity, but it was not until the second movement Allegro that the sporadic bursts of energy, striking dynamic contrasts, punchy horn playing and shimmering string tremolos lifted the music above the mundane. The strings running scales were superbly precise and well-coordinated, the clear-edged sound creating a dramatic contrast with the preceding clouded darkness. The Menuet and Trio were cheerfully melodious: the motifs slithered easily, coloured by the occasional faux-ominous semitonal inflection. The whirling strings were countered by sturdy horns in the final Presto assai and the brightness and excellent ensemble of the coda brought things to an impressively unified close.

2017 will see Classical Opera step into 1767, and Mozart ‘take centre stage’. The programme for next year includes stagings ofDie Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots, which the company recorded in 2013 (review) and Apollo in Hyacinthus, as well as performances with Kristian Bezuidenhout at the Wigmore Hall of Mozart’s first four keyboard concertos.

Claire Seymour

Classical Opera: conductor/artistic director, Ian Page.

Haydn - Symphony No.34 in D minor; Myslivecek - Arias from Semiramide (‘Talor se il vento’, ‘Tu mi disprezzi ingrato’, ‘A pastor se torna’, ‘Fiumicel che s’ode appena’); Haydn - La canterina (semi-staged).

Ailish Tynan (soprano, Gasparina), Rachel Kelly (mezzo-soprano, Apollonia), Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano, Don Ettore), Robert Murray (tenor, Don Pelagio); Orchestra of Classical Opera.

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 19th October 2016.

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