Although hardly known today, Niccolò Jommelli (1714-1774) wrote approximately eighty operas in his lifetime, and his reforms in the genre are sometimes regarded as being equal in importance to those of Gluck. Il Vologeso of 1766 was around his sixtieth creation, and, set in Ephesus in c.164 AD, focuses on the aftermath of the Roman Emperor Lucio Vero’s conquest of the Parthians. If all went according to plan, he would be set to marry the other Roman Emperor Marco Aurelio’s daughter Lucilla, who loves him dearly. He has, however, remained in Ephesus following the conquest because he has fallen for Berenice, the bride of the defeated King Vologeso IV.
At the start everyone believes Vologeso to be dead but he is actually disguised as a Parthian slave, and is thrown into jail following a failed attempt to poison Vero. Following a dramatic episode, Vero discovers Vologeso’s identity and the rest of the opera sees the Emperor attempt to force Berenice to agree to be his by threatening the defeated King’s life. Vologeso is adamant that he prefers death to Berenice sacrificing herself to save him, and even as Vero appears to hold all of the power, the pair remain united in their opposition to him.
Interestingly, the most intriguing character is also the least sympathetic. This is Vero, who readily describes himself as a liar and a cheat, as he believes his status and power enable him to behave as he pleases. Nevertheless, he is shaken himself by his infatuation with Berenice because it means he is neither in control of his own emotions or the wider political situation. He readily accepts that it would be easier if he were able to love Lucilla, which would consolidate power at the heart of the Roman Empire, but cannot bring himself to turn his back on Berenice.
The opera has a happy ending that, although not entirely satisfying, is nowhere near as jarring as Tiridate’s change of heart at the end of Radamisto, which feels so sudden and out of character that it is almost laughable. Vero ultimately agrees to restore Vologeso’s kingdom and to let Berenice be his, and this is believable because he is being held at ‘knifepoint’ at the time. However, his acceptance of Lucilla also seems to derive from seeing the total devotion that she still shows towards him, so there may be some good in him as well.
This performance by Classical Opera, directed by Ian Page, was the first ever of the work in the UK and we can certainly hope it will not be the last. Written in 1766, it stands very much on the cusp between the Baroque and the Classical, and in fact represents Jommelli’s unique style. It may be easiest to see it as representing the most ‘advanced’ stage of the Baroque era with so many of that style’s concepts and techniques being developed to the full, but certainly parts of the Overture sound Classical if not Haydnesque. The orchestration is frequently complex, including in the recitative where Jommelli is recognised as being a great developer of obbligato recitative. The consequence is that, while there are a number of large arias, the music does not so much encourage subjects to be dwelt on, as it can in so many Baroque operas, as constantly drive affairs forward. During the Roman Ambassador Flavio’s aria ‘Crede sol che a nuovi ardori’ the singer’s trills find a close parallel in the string playing, while a macabre dance is portrayed very effectively in the music. At the other end of the spectrum, however, parts of certain arias are accompanied simply by wind.
In the title role Rachel Kelly was superb, with her mezzo-soprano being full and lush, and her phrases being rounded off to perfection. For much of the time Stuart Jackson as Vero brought a sense of ease and lightness to his expansive tenor, before bringing arias to shattering climaxes by opening his voice out to the full. As Berenice, Gemma Summerfield’s soprano was rich, rounded and sumptuous, as was Angela Simkin’s mezzo-soprano as Lucilla, though this was also possessed of a more forthright edge. Jennifer France was mesmerising as Flavio, excelling in the complex aria ‘Crede sol che a nuovi ardori’, while Tom Verney brought his pleasing countertenor to the fore in the role of Vero’s attendant, Aniceto.
Classical Opera’s future performances include ‘Che puro ciel’ with Ann Hallenberg at the Wigmore Hall on 23 May and Don Giovanni at Cadogan Hall on 17 June. Its CD ‘Where’er you walk’ featuring Allan Clayton is due for UK release on 6 May.