There are many eighteenth century composers who enjoyed immense popularity during their lifetime, and yet are hardly known today. Even allowing for this, however, Edward Houghton believes that the case of Johann Adolph Hasse (1699-1783), whose international fame while he lived was possibly even greater than Mozart’s ever was during his own lifetime, is extraordinary. This is because the most popular of his sixty or so operas enjoyed productions all across Europe, and yet are rarely if ever performed now. Originally written in 1732, Demetrio was one of his most famed creations, and was rewritten for the Dresden Opera House in 1740. In spite of this, this concert performance from Opera Settecento, utilising a critical edition created by its conductor Leo Duarte, represented its first ever outing in modern times.
In the opera, which is set to a libretto by Metastasio, Queen Cleonice of Syria finds herself torn between her private desires and public responsibility as she sets about choosing a husband. Olinto, the son of the nobleman Fenecio, is of suitable rank, but she loves his father’s more lowly adopted son, Alceste. Cleonice inherited the throne when her father Alexander Bale was killed, but he had actually usurped it from King Demetrio who died after going into exile. Before Demetrio left, however, he entrusted his son to Fenecio, which means that Alceste is, in fact, the rightful King. Fenecio kept his true identity a secret from everyone, including Alceste, for his own protection, but Alceste proves himself to be noble in terms of displaying virtue and valour.
All is finally revealed when a letter written by Demetrio before he died proclaiming the truth is released. This enables Alceste to be crowned King Demetrio II of Syria, and Cleonice to become his Queen as the woman he truly loves. There are a host of sub-plots concerning Cleonice’s handmaiden Barsene also loving Alceste, and a nobleman Mitrane loving Barsene, but none of these seem to come to anything as the Finale focuses on celebrating the resolution of the central issue.
A lot of the themes and dilemmas explored can be found in many an opera, but one of particular note is the role of the older man, Fenecio. When Cleonice believes that she cannot have Alceste, because of his lowly status, she chooses Fenecio as her King, partly because she has some feelings for this good and kindly man but also to avoid having to marry Olinto. This seems remarkably similar to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg where, at a point when it seems that Walther is beyond her reach, Eva favours Hans Sachs in order to thwart Beckmesser’s advances. In both cases as well, the older man voluntarily steps aside while also engineering affairs to ensure that the virtuous candidate triumphs.
In April 2016, Classical Opera presented Niccolò Jommelli’s Il Vologeso of 1766 at Cadogan Hall. That seemed to represent the Baroque at its most developed in that it really seemed to sit on the cusp between the Baroque and Classical worlds. This earlier work might also be described as revealing the Baroque in an advanced state, but in the different sense of bringing out the genre’s standard devices to such an accomplished degree. Thus, while there is not always a great deal of thematic development within each aria, the way in which variation is introduced through alterations in texture and emphasis, with different instruments acting as the prime movers at various points, would seem to epitomise good writing for the period. The strings were generally the dominant section in arias, but one was led by the flutes and another by solo oboe, while horns featured in some.
The opera comes from a time before obbligato recitative really took off (although it did exist), and the vast majority of recitative was accompanied merely by two harpsichords. However, the way in which they interacted by adding richness to chords, and acting as one as lines ‘rippled’ across the two instruments, was deeply impressive. Virtually all of the singing was solo (only one or two duets appeared), there was no chorus and the only time in which all six principals sang together was during the evening’s Finale. The opera lasted three hours (with interval) and, although it sometimes felt obvious that it was originally designed for listeners to talk through half of it, by and large it did sustain interest for the current audience who, rightly and respectfully, remained silent throughout.
Opera Settecento, conducted by Leo Duarte, clearly understood how to play out the score so as to bring out the range of effects that Hasse surely intended, while the cast was extremely strong. As Cleonice, Erica Eloff, recently seen in the title role in Opera Settecento’s performance of Elpidia at the London Handel Festival, revealed a soprano of immense sweetness and maturity. In particular, she shaped the difficult sounds demanded by the part with a skill that made us genuinely feel both for the character’s emotional frailty and sense of moral duty.
The opera can be seen as a battle of the countertenors as the rivals for Cleonice’s affections, Alceste and Olinto, are both played by that voice part. Michael Taylor and Ray Chenez worked very well together as their different voices marked out their respective characters. As Alceste, Taylor’s tone was light and expansive (although he occasionally dipped into a lower register), as it revealed the ‘carefree’ nature of one to whom virtue and courage seemed to come effortlessly. Chenez’ own sound felt more focused and controlled, revealing how the man who deep down surely knew he was likely to lose had to think and scheme at every turn to stay in the game at all. Their acting was also strong as Olinto stared silently and disparagingly at Alceste during the latter’s arias, and Taylor suggested that Alceste was not only virtuous, but also sanctimonious. For example, the way in which he rejected Barsene after she declared her love for him may have revealed his own steadfastness, but showed no sensitivity towards someone who was clearly distraught at their feelings not being reciprocated. As Fenecio, Rupert Charlesworth, who also appeared in Elpidia, presented a warm and seemingly effortless tenor sound, Ciara Hendrick as Barsene combined a spiritual, soft-edged mezzo-soprano with excellent diction, while Augusta Hebbert was deeply affecting as Mitrane.
Opera Settecento will perform Handel’s pasticcio Ormisda at St George’s, Hanover Square on 28 March 2017 as part of the London Handel Festival. For further details on its activities, visit the Opera Settecento website.