Opera Settecento, directed by Leo Duarte, has quite a tradition of performing pasticcios at the London Handel Festival, having presented Elpidia (1725) in 2016 and Ormisda (1730) a year later. This form was common in the eighteenth century, partly because the demands on an establishment’s resident composer to produce work were so great that it became a standard practice to bolster output in this way, and partly because there was a strong tradition of using such creations to showcase the compositions of a range of musicians of that generation.
Venceslao (1731), however, represented the last time that Handel was to create a work where he allowed the participating singers to throw their favourite arias at him to be woven into a dramatic tapestry. Their interest in doing so was to present music with which they were already familiar (in this instance, arias from operas by Vinci, Porpora, Giacomelli, Orlandini, Porta, Hasse and Lotti), but the approach also suited the composer when he was working with a new cast of untested singers as he knew they could tackle whatever they gave him.
The Venceslao of the title is Wenceslaus II, King of Poland (1271-1305) and descendent of the Good King Wenceslaus of the Christmas carol. In the opera he has two sons, the virtuous Alessandro and malevolent Casimiro. They both desire Erenice, a Princess descended from the ancient Kings of Poland, who herself loves the former. This pair, however, decide to keep their love a secret as they fear what Casimiro might do if he discovers it. The victorious general Ernando is offered any reward he wishes and asks for Erenice’s hand in marriage, with Alessandro being aware that Ernando is really asking for it on his behalf. Casimiro is furious but has his own problems when Queen Lucinda of Lithuania arrives claiming that she is betrothed to Casimiro, in an aspect of the plot that represents pure fiction.
Erenice and Alessandro marry in secret with Ernando as the witness, but Casimiro, believing that the Princess is with Ernando, ends up murdering Alessandro in the dark of their bridal chamber. When he realises he has actually killed his own brother he resigns himself to his fate, but Lucinda pleads for mercy. Venceslao, in an attempt to balance the competing demands placed on him, solemnises the marriage of Lucinda and Casimiro before declaring that the latter will die. Ernando and Erenice meanwhile learn that they really do love each other, although their priority remains enacting revenge for Alessandro’s death.
When, however, they learn that the populace is calling for Casimiro’s release, they plead with Venceslao for clemency. He says he cannot show it as his duty as King is to uphold the law, but it also emerges that Lucinda has roused the army in Casimiro’s cause. This places everyone in a predicament, including Casimiro who fears treason will now be added to his list of crimes, but Venceslao finds a way out. Summoning Casimiro, he places the crown on his head, and with Casimiro’s first proclamation as King being that Ernando and Erenice may marry, he ends their feud and allows everyone to rejoice.
The work feels something of an oddity, but rather a successful one and this might be attributed to a combination of accident and design. The whole point of a pasticcio is that, even though much of the material is pre-existing, it is still crafted to create a new, coherent piece. At the same time, however, the greatest arias, differentially at least, tend to be those that display the biggest emotions and greatest dilemmas. As a result, the act of compiling a list of ‘favourites’ in itself seems to have had the effect of packing every twist, turn and dilemma in the book into one piece. As a result, though the work can feel uneven, it certainly gathers pace as revealed on the night by the audience applauding only at the end of Acts I and II, but then clapping after virtually every aria in Act III. The complexity of the dilemmas faced are surmised in Venceslao’s ‘Balenar con giusta legge’, in which he says justice must take precedence over both rage and pity, so that there are more than two variables in play. Such intricacies also manifold themselves in other places so that Lucinda’s ‘La vaga Luccioletta’ (originally from Hasse’s Attalo) shows two strongly competing moods across its verses. There is subtlety too as one emotional conversation between Venceslao and Casimiro ends with the former quietly, rather than monumentally, proclaiming ‘A Morte’ (To death).
With several arias (by Hasse) involving two horns, and a trumpet being introduced at various triumphant moments, Opera Settecento presented the work extremely strongly. The soloists were well chosen, with Nick Pritchard’s sublime tenor (as Venceslao) working well with Michał Czerniawski’s frequently dreamy countertenor (Casimiro), Olivia Warburton’s beguiling mezzo-soprano (Ernando) and Christopher Jacklin’s mature baritone (Alessandro and Gismondo). Galina Averina gave an especially accomplished performance with her extremely supple, versatile and nuanced soprano working well with the demands of Erenice’s part, while Helen Charlston as Lucinda revealed a mezzo-soprano whose fullness was complemented by a pleasing edge.
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