Hasse’s Demetrio (Cadogan Hall, 21 September 2016)
Opera Settecento’s latest offering is Hasse’s Demetrio, on a libretto by the indefatigable Metastasio. They were the dreamteam of the (early) 18th century opera and solidified the basis of that young-ish art form in general.
This wasn’t one of their best efforts. Sure, the lofty ideals of the Enlightenment shine through, as the opera starts with a strong feminist-friendly recit. Queen Cleonice of Syria asserts that women are as capable of ruling as men, citing other examples from around the Ancient World. Of course this is tempered a bit by her accepting the necessity of finding a husband. At least she is allowed to choose one. More or less. But it was written in 1732 so the thought counts. Then there’s her musing about the possibility of the world accepting a brave and patriotic shepherd (Alceste) as king instead of a self-entitled aristocrat (Olinto). The fact that she does not know Alceste’s identity until the end speaks well in her favour. Though it isn’t completely clear if the only reason she’s not prejudiced is because she is smitten with love, you see. But again, the thought counts. You’re a good man, Mr. Metastasio.
The libretto also offers us something like 10 storm arias, which you all know I love beyond all else. Then there’s the animal simile arias (everything from lions to turtle-doves is mentioned. Or was that a turtle? Why is it called a turtledove in the first place? It looks nothing like one. The eggplant effect?) and plant similes. Like I said, I’m fine with the libretto.
It’s the music that lets it down a bit. Though I have noticed a few interesting things Hasse did. In the first Barsene aria there is a wicked rhythm that gives the harpsichord the opportunity of going to town. I found myself following it with gusto rather than the vocal line (though I liked Hendrick’s singing a lot – when I could hear it! For whatever reason she chose to sing rather quietly most of the time).
Then there’s a neat trick that you (or at least I) don’t often hear in Baroque opera: a sung response to a recit. This came after the intermission, when the Queen was asking Mithranes why – apprently – Alceste did not want to talk to her anymore. Without further ado Mithranes launches into a jaunty answer-aria that reminded me a lot of Atalanta’s humorous Dirà che amor per me (you know the one that reoccurs a few times during Atalanta’s conversation with Serse about Arsamene). There really should be more of these, because science tells us that people remember messages better if they hear them sung 😉
Another thing was the arioso/duettoso between Cleonice and Alceste when they think (or she thinks) they need to do the right thing and split because he’s a plebeian. It wasn’t the best thing I’ve ever heard (could’ve used a lot more orchestral variety – says I, from my 21st century armchair) but you could tell Hasse tried to make the moment specifically angsty.
Then you had the arias themselves. In this opera it’s the baddie – Olinto (what kind of antagonist name is that?!) – who gets to bring down the house. He has the foot-stomping horn arias. I’ll say Hasse did very nice in these instances and gave Chenez the opportunity to rock out to the delight of the (otherwise rather unjustly reserved) audience. Chenez has very good stage presence though he’s very slight. I got a kick out of his proper piercing squillo and enjoyed his very free coloratura and solid breath. I hope he comes back for more of the same 🙂
With such a brat character to the forefront, Alceste/Demetrio’s only chance was to play it cool, relaxed and amorous, which Taylor did. Also, absent the badass arias, he chose to go for the chest register once or twice. This brings me to the question: when countertenors go for the chest register, are they tenors1? Either way, Taylor was pretty good at it and also quite nice in the duettoso with Eloff.
Eloff herself was once more the duty/love torn queen. She’s good at these roles, she has the regal bearing for them, both vocally and physically but these virtuously hearbroken roles aren’t giving her the opportunity to rock out and make the audience worship her excellent coloratura chops. By the end even in spite of some impressive manipulation of vocal dynamics up and down the range, ppp and ffff, the audience still wanted more horns and more stomping.
Hendrick and Hebbert were also good. Hendrick had the advantage of some rather snarky lines – her character is scheming to get Alceste but all falls apart because he couldn’t care less (and she’s the second soprano, what was she thinking?).
At the beginning, Cleonice, pining for her lover, asks whistfully: Have you heard anything from Alceste? Which is meant to be taken as “Comfort me, Barsene!” Well, Barsene takes her at face value: Don’t be stupid, Cleonice, Alceste is dead. Focus on your other suitors.
As per opera seria, the second soprano is supposed to love someone and be loved by a third character, with whom she usually couples up by the end. In this case it was Mithranes who was interested. He says so, Barsene has an aria along the lines of “How sweet! Though you’re not my type I believe your feelings for me are genuine. How does the friendzone sound to you?” His answer seems to be a cheerful “Oh, well”, and that, dear reader, is the last we hear of this matter. Eh?? How odd. I bet you there were cuts. Anyway, I remember some good work with phrasing and a lovely tone from Hendrick.
Although Mithranes had countless of single recit lines of the “Here he is, My Queen!” variety, Hebbert also got to sing 2 arias and did very well with them. Both asked for a good middle and easy-flow ventures into the top notes, both of which she had.
I guess Hasse wasn’t interested in basses because the wise father figure in Demetrio is sung by a tenor. It was a bit funny imagining Charlesworth as Olinto and Alceste’s dad but he did good chiding Olinto, praising Alceste and worrying that his – benevolent – scheming might backfire. Fenicio is the only one who knows Alceste’s true identity, as the previous Demetrio left the child in his care. He had a couple (or more) of those alarmed helmsman in a storm arias and sung well, though Hasse short-changed him a bit along the way (the first aria was rocking and the first of the night that got applause).
I was very pleased with the level of singing, there were no weak links. The singers seemed to have a good time and were dressed more casually than usual (aside from Olinto, but he’s stuck up). The general atmosphere was very congenial, though I must say Hasse doesn’t bring people in the yard as much as others do. Lucky for me as I upgraded to a spot in the centre of the auditorium. Cadogan Hall is a bit cold at this time of the year even though I was rather overdressed for the tube. All in all, a good welcome back to live opera for me, after my (gasp) monthlong hiatus.
- This question was half-amusingly debated on an (at least one) episode of the Opera Now! podcast which I found via Jennifer Rivera’s blog, during my recent raids into the past (no pillaging). For some interesting Baroque banter (and the countertenor/tenor bit) you should listen from about 1hr into the podcast. ↩