Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Piramo e Tisbe @ Cadogan Hall, London

28 March 2019

Ian Page & The Mozartists

Ian Page & The Mozartists
(Photo: Benjamin Ealovega)

Three years ago Opera Settecento presented Demetrio, the 1732 opera by Johann Adolph Hasse (1699-1783) at Cadogan Hall. Despite hardly being a household name today, he enjoyed immense popularity in the eighteenth century, with his international fame while he lived possibly being even greater than Mozart’s ever was during his own lifetime. This week Classical Opera presented the penultimate of his sixty-two operas, Piramo e Tisbe of 1768, which the composer believed to be among his very best.

In 1773 Charles Burney asserted that ‘Metastasio and Hasse … adhere to the ancient form of musical drama, in which the poet and musician claim equal attention from an audience; the bard in the recitatives and narrative parts and the composer in the airs, duos and choruses. Calzabigi and Gluck … depend more on theatrical effects, propriety of character, simplicity of diction and of musical execution, than on what they style the flowery description, superfluous smiles, sententious and cold morality, on one side, with tiresome symphonies and long divisions on the other’. However, such a view tends to reinforce the idea that by this point Hasse’s creations were backward looking and that is not a conclusion that could ever be reached by listening to Piramo e Tisbe.

On this occasion, Hasse’s librettist was not Metastasio, with whom he had collaborated on many works, but rather Marco Coltellini, who also in 1768 adapted Carlo Goldini’s play for Mozart’s La finta semplice. Adapting the story from Book IV of Ovid’s Metamorpheses required more creative input from him than La finta semplice, where the theatricality and wit were already there, as well as a departure from Metastasian opera, whose conventions included subject matter that elevated the soul and a happy ending. If, however, the text required more effort from Coltellini, it also enjoyed a greater freedom, and this enabled Hasse to compose music that was different to anything seen in any of his other operas.

The Romeo and Juliet style story tells of two families who are initially on good terms, but then fall out. This leads the father of Tisbe, only ever referred to as Il padre, to forbid her to marry Piramo, and to attempt to force an arranged marriage on her instead. Fearing this, Piramo and Tisbe decide to run away together and agree to meet by the tomb of Ninus in the forest. Tisbe arrives first and, on encountering a lion there, runs away. The lion has just eaten so does not pursue her, but the blood from his kill drips onto the veil and casket of jewellery that she left behind when she fled. Thus when Piramo arrives and finds these, he assumes she is dead and stabs himself. Tisbe returns, discovers the dying Piramo and does the same, as does Il padre when he finds them and declares that he could never look anyone in the face again. However, the conventions and sensibilities of the day required them to die offstage, with each presumably creeping off once they had sung their final words.

Demetrio, written thirty-six years earlier, saw the vast majority of recitative accompanied merely by two harpsichords, although the way in which they interacted by adding richness to chords, and acted as one as lines ‘rippled’ across the two instruments, suggested that Hasse was ahead of most of his contemporaries. With Piramo e Tisbe, however, while some recitative is accompanied by just harpsichord and a few lower strings, much involves the full orchestra. The manner in which arias can lead directly into the next number or scene, with no pause for applause, keeps the dramatic tension high throughout, and the music that immediately follows Tisbe’s ‘Rendete, eterni Die’ as the lion rushes on combines an overwhelming sense of power and menace with strong rhythmic momentum. More generally, the arias feel like models of perfection in binding so many innovations and beautiful music into such neat packages. Parts of the duet ‘Ah che mirar deggi’io!’ sound ‘Mozartian’ (it is not certain Mozart ever heard this opera, but he definitely showed tremendous respect for Hasse), while when Piramo tells Tisbe he could not bear to live without her so he stabbed himself, it has the same overall tone (although not in any strict musical sense) as Gilda explaining to Rigoletto why she substituted herself for the Duke.

This excellent concert performance by Classical Opera, conducted by its founder Ian Page, was also blessed with three outstanding soloists. Chiara Skerath as Tisbe revealed a soprano of beauteous tone and immense versatility, while Kiandra Howarth’s soprano as Piramo had just the right amount of edge to it. Completing the line-up, Gwilym Bowen used his highly pleasing tenor to great effect to portray the sternness, fury and finally sorrow of Il padre.

Piramo e Tisbe was performed as a part of the Mozart 250 series, in which Classical Opera always presents pieces that were either composed or performed 250 years earlier. For full details of all of its recordings and forthcoming events visit the Classical Opera website.

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