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Hasse’s Demetrio (Cadogan Hall, 21 September 2016)

demetriohasseOlinto: Ray Chenez
Cleonice: Erica Eloff
Alcestes (Demetrio): Michael Taylor
Fenicio: Rupert Charlesworth
Barsene: Ciara Hendrick
Mithranes: Augusta Hebbert
Conductor: Leo Duarte | Opera Settecento

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.

  1. 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. 

Hasse for London/UK Baroque lovers

Hasse’s Demetrio (from the always interesting Opera Settecento) is coming up at Cadogan Hall in a couple of days. There are still tickets for those interested. Bring a cushion if you choose the gallery pews (they are pews).

The well-mannered Elpidia (London Handel Fest, 31 March 2016)

Las week I was back to St George’s Hanover Sq. for a dose of Spring pasticcio. This time it was made up of slices from Vinci and Orlandini, mixed together by DJ Handel. The concoction resembled a fruit tarte, in that it was neither too heavy nor too fast. Generally speaking, a night of (very good) gentle singing across the board.

Justinian-era atmosphere

Belisario, bass-baritone: Chris Jacklin
Olindus, mezzo castrato: Rupert Enticknap
Ormonte, alto castrato: Joe Bolger
Elpidia, soprano: Erica Eloff
Vitiges, tenor: Rupert Charlesworth
Rosmilda, mezzo: Maria Ostroukhova
Musical director: Leo Duarte | Orchestra of Opera Settecento

Before the perfomance started it was also revealed that the now traditional Opera Settecento September opera at Cadogan Hall will be J. A. Hasse’s Demetrio, on a very popular libretto by Papa Mestastasio.

This time yours truly messed up big time with self positioning. The right aisle has one bonus only: you have a great view of the orchestra and the singers before they reach the stage aria. And that is the only time you do. Also the overhang muffles the sound a bit which is further compromised by the proximity of the low strings. That is to say you will get to hear the low end of the orchestra very well and that’s a good thing if they sound as good as they did in this case. But all other delicate touches are out. And that night was the kind of night where soft singing was the order of the night day.

Another thing was the flower arrangement. Lilies are pretty but this close to inducing a headache.

Woe is me aside, a quick look at the cast will inform a London Baroque Scene follower that singing would be of the highest calibre. I am very happy to report none of the known and loved disappointed. Out of the cast the only one I had not heard before was countertenor Joe Bolger. Usually we listen to countertenors for their agility at the higher end of their voice yet here the role sits much lower. It was interesting hearing Bolger though I find it hard to describe how he sounded. I wouldn’t say it was close to female contralto. Perhaps more like a dark mezzo? Yet Ostroukhova was right there and he sounded nothing like her either. Rather more opaque than your regular countertenor. Occasionally I thought he could be a tenor – in colour if not in texture. Like I said, hard to describe.

But what is Elpidia (or The Generous Rivals) about? It’s set in Emperor Justinian’s time. When most of us think of Justinian we think of ex-stripper Empress Theodora Ravenna, because that was that town’s heyday. Well, this libretto starts when Ravenna was still an Ostrogoth capital under King Vitiges. Greek (and bearded) Princes Olindus and Ormonte are fighting along the great General Belisario to re-capture Italy, one region at a time. For now it’s Ravenna (so it must be the year 540). As per opera seria historical fact is but a background and the two princes are competing for someone’s love instead.

That someone is Elpidia, Princess of Apulia. She loves Olindo but being excessively given to strategic thinking, she says she’s game to marry the bravest of the two. Of course Vitiges throws a spanner in the works by capturing Elpidia whilst Ormonte in turn captures Vitiges’ daughter, Rosmilda. Like Elpidia, Rosmilda also thinks strategically and – in the blink of an eye – falls in love with her captor1. Thems was the times, eh? Women had to keep positive and go with the flow – because Ormonte will marry her in the end, but only after Olindus threatens to accuse him of treason and thus forces him to abandon pursuing Elpidia. Generous rivals indeed.

It is a bit curious that Handel chose mid-tempo, gentle arias to illustrate this episode. As the funny opera seria quiz at the back of the programme sums it up, it’s the kind of opera where cielo! and oh, dio! are more common utterances than the usual navicella and mar turbata, though guinea fowl gets one fist pumping mention. Belisario as Top Man (not guinea fowl) has one nervous aria in act I and then Olindus one in act III – and I think Vitige had something less than placid – but act II is Melancholy Central. Nonetheless, both Olindus and Elpidia, as primo uomo and the eponymous character, have arias that give the singers ample opportunity to show off their pp chops. Both Enticknap and Eloff did an excellent job with their parts, now ringing notes, now piano softness, consistently good vocal acting. I was amused by the icy looks Elpidia shot Vitiges when he captured her. If only they had more memorable music…

As music goes, my favourite bit was Belisario’s above mentioned nervous aria from act I, which had a very catchy (and somewhat familiar) rhythm carried off with lots of energy by the strings all the way to our side aisle. I remembered Jacklin from last year’s Catone in Utica, for the memorable hair (still with us and Jacklin still energetic) and Vivaldi’s romp Benche n’asconda. Now that’s the kind of Italian Baroque I can get behind. Charlesworth’s (bearded2) Vitiges made some worthy noise and shook his Ostrogoth mane with authority. Since Elpidia and the rivals were parked in the high register, I was a bit alarmed when Belisario and Rosmilda didn’t return for act II, worrying they had been prematurely killed off. They thankfully came back for act III. That was (I think) when Rosmilda had a soulful aria that gave Ostroukhova a moment to show the gentle side of her characterful voice. Too short a moment, though.

In conclusion, I was very happy with the singing as such and the Opera Settecento’s orchestra sounded energetic as usual but I wasn’t so keen with how DJ Handel had organised this programme.

PS: After the performance, Leander, Baroque Bird and yours truly shuffled towards the exit and ran into Ostroukhova who was most gracious during the brief chat.

  1. Or, in the wise words of Stephen Stills: if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with
  2. For how civilised this pasticcio sounded, every male singer opted to show off a degree of facial hair. 

Pergolesi’s Adriano in Siria (Cadogan Hall, 16 September 2015)

… after a rather unexpected Monteverdi detour (which was more intense than documented by posts or in the comments), I return, gentle reader, to the brink of Classicism event of last week. For my convenience I mash Monteverdi, Cavalli, Handel, Rameau, JC Bach and Papa Bach all in one big “baroque” soup, though my more meticulous side is rolling its eyes.

I don’t know where to fit Pergolesi, because his opere buffe sound very much of the Classicism to me and this serie one ain’t as Baroque as the kind of stuff Caldara was writing at the time (Tito) – or Handel, for that matter (Orlando, Arianna in Creta, Ariodante and Alcina). His stuff has that Italian quality that makes it all a bit lighter and more melodic, less stiff in feel if not in structure.

Adriano’s toasty effigy

Adriano: Michael Taylor
Farnaspe: Erica Eloff
Osroa: Gyula Rab
Emirena: Maria Ostroukhova
Sabina: Augusta Hebbert
Aquilio: Cenk Karaferya
Conductor: Leo Duarte | Opera Settecento

Had Metastasio been in attendance last Wednesday, I would’ve asked: why did you call this opera Adriano in Siria? Why not Farnaspe in love? His answer: because I wrote it for the Emperor’s1 name-day, duh. But keep on reading between the lines, dehgg.

Pergolesi set the text to music for Queen of Spain’s birthday in 1734. In his version, Adriano, Emirena, Sabina and Aquilio were sopranos, Osroa and Dario (cut here, not a Metastasio character) were tenors and Farnaspe was sung by Caffarelli. Even with a star of that calibre things didn’t go very smooth. It looks like Pergolesi simply was unlucky when it came to the premieres of his opere serie.

281 years later, this London premiere was very fine indeed. I enjoyed JC Bach’s version earlier this year but this resides a few notches above. I’m quite a fan of La serva pedrona, heard some of Lo frate ‘nnamorato and was recently spellbound by the famous Stabat Mater. His Adriano in Siria is as good as any to spur a Pergolesi frenzy chez dehggi. Yes, at the beginning of last week my house was buzzing with Pergolesi. Then the rain stopped and… er.

The cry of the peacock and the howl of the gnarly oak


Taylor (Adriano) vs. Rab (Osroa)

Back at Ye Olde Cadogan Hall (where I heard it’s better to get seats at the front so I did) things were off to an auspicious start via a lively sinfonia with horns. Quite soon came Osroa’s strong oak aria (Sprezza il furor del vento), one of my favourite bravura arias in JC Bach’s setting too. But this one is even better and tenor Gyula Rab was satifyingly “oak-y” – lovely tone, proud, precise delivery. Throughout the night he sang in the no-nonsense way that befits the Parthian king – except for the moment of paternal emotion where he has a long arioso about Emirena. Interesting job Pergolesi and Rab, giving a slightly wider dimension to Roman-hating, headstrong Osroa.

We know we’re still Baroque because the first two acts end with a long aria sung by our title char… I mean by Farnaspe. When the oboist made his way up front I knew we were in for something good. Hero + wind instrument = match made in musical heaven. Pergolesi knew it too, he milked the voice-oboe duet for 20min and a half 😉 kidding. It was a long lament but beautifully written and kept interesting by Eloff’s attention to detail, with lots of slight mood changes to the returning phrases. Her voice has the kind of gentle nobility/quiet heroism that fits Metastasio’s sensitive men so well; no aria feels too long when a voice cradles you like that. How about Sesto in the near future?

Michael Taylor was obviously there to have a good time, his Adriano the spoiled but generous after all kind of tyrant. I liked how he exploited every moment of uncertainty Emirena showed in hopes his Adriano would get lucky. Nice tone, not puny; humorous and well managed, though the you’re all enemies aria – the one time Adriano really gets annoyed – was a bit same-y.

As I remarked to Leander during intermission, Eloff seems to get full voiced sopranos as her damsels in distress. Good thinking, as dueling high sopranos could get a bit much over 3 hours. Here all three ladies had very distinctive voices. Hebbert’s Sabina was the typical high soprano, Eloff herself the very lyrical voice and Ostroukhova the voluptuous-toned Emirena.

My first encounter with Ostroukhova was last year Grimeborn’s Coronation of Poppea. I still think of her as one of the best Ottavias I’ve heard. In this case her voice stood out thanks to its density, which is more akin to marmalade then honey. You don’t often hear this type of confectionery in this repertoire but it fits the lyrical arias and troubled determination of Emirena’s character. Let me remind you that Aquilio advises Emirena to deny any involvement with Farnaspe (whom she loves), which causes Adriano to think she’s fair game and Farnaspe to get to the brink of an aneurysm. For her part she’s thickly stuck in a mess of suffering and misunderstanding but has to put on a poker face. When Emirena and Farnaspe are finally reunited their duet comes of rather hypnotic, thanks to these two inward looking voices.

Sabina’s noble, lyrical arias gave Hebbert several opportunities to show off beautifully held notes in the upper register. I enjoyed her elegant, minimalist (by Baroque standards) performance and would love to hear her again in something similar.

Aquilio – as intermediary between Adriano and various others, mainly the ladies – talks a lot and in this performance also had one aria. Karaferya is in possession of a feathery countertenor voice which didn’t quite comes off as shrewdly scheming but wasn’t unpleasant. I suppose it shows off best in the kind of stuff Vince Yi prefers.

Opera Settecento played with the kind of youthful aplomb we’re used to by now. I basked in sound chiefly due to the very clear and enjoyable interplay between the two sides of the orchestra. Aside from the lovely and gutsy oboe solo/voice duet, I need to mention the horns, which were delightful and added that extra oomph when called into action.

A very rewarding evening in a warm and friendly atmosphere (especially in the lobby, when the lavish – and free – programmes showed up 😉 ) with excellent music enthusiastically performed. The word is Opera Settecento’s next “installment” is a(nother) Handel pasticcio in the Spring.

  1. same chap who got Tito two years later. 

Catone in Utica (London Handel Festival, 17 March 2015)

catonelondonMarzia soprano: Erica Eloff
Emilia soprano: Christina Gansch
Arbace mezzo-soprano: Emilie Renard
Catone counter-tenor: Andrew Watts Christopher Robson
Cesare bass-baritone: Christopher Jacklin
Conductor: Tom Foster | Opera Settecento | St. George’s Hanover Square

It was Handel’s habit to put on a pasticcio every season where a libretto was matched with interchangeable arias from other operas and composers. This one is from 1732 and is based on Leonardo Leo’s opera of the same title about good ol’ Roman Grumpy Cat man of principle Cato. It’s an opera libretto so only marginally about ethics. Mostly it’s about who marries/loves whom. oh so seria-ous

Rockin’ Griselda (Cadogan Hall, 18 September 2014)

Ever notice how in 18th century opera seria the title character does not sing the biggest number(s)? This is a typical opera seria libretto, boasting a ruler who’s more open minded that his subjects1 and a strong woman who goes through much before the tangled plot is happily resolved. There are no murders but there’s a kidnapping attempt and a gracious pardon from on high. The libretto is rife with metaphorical storms and wild beasts.

Griselda: Hilary Summers (contralto) griselda
Roberto: Andrew Watts (counter-tenor)
Ottone: Erica Eloff (soprano en travesti)
Gualtiero: Ronan Busfield (tenor)
Costanza: Kiandra Howarth (soprano)
Corrado: Tom Verney (counter-tenor)
Conductor: Thomas Foster | Opera Settecento

This was my first time at Cadogan Hall (off Sloane Square) and what an auspicious one! A few months ago I made time to listen to Griselda in its entirety and discovered there’s a lot more to it beside Agitata da due venti and Dopo un’orrida procella. I dully got a ticket to this concert performance and awaited it with some trepidation. It exceeded my expectations.

It seems to me that the major problem an opera director faces today is that the audience for which these operas were written had disappeared. (Captain Obvious alive and kicking on Amazon)

That is certainly not true for Baroque opera! The audience tonight – and every other night I’ve attended a Baroque opera – looked like they were already ancient when I was born. I’m sure they’re hiding hoop dresses and powder wigs in their closets. Why is it that young people would rather see Mimi whinge than watch in amazement as singers negotiate difficult coloratura? With Baroque horns! Come on, horns: they make the heart swell. Anyway 😉

Opera Settecento and Maestro Foster were very supportive. As often the case with Baroque, it was all about the singers and I was sat close enough to even see their facial expressions. Though a concert performance, all of them looked like they were having a good time and were wonderfully committed in their vocal acting. They must’ve fed off the audience’s appreciation, because they seemed more and more relaxed as the evening progressed. It’s hard to imagine them doing more had it been staged.

Contralto Hilary Summers in the title role had a strong stage presence and acting chops, a warm tone and meshed with the orchestra beautifully. Countertenor Andrew Watts as Costanza’s lover, Roberto, showed off impressive ease at the top and let it rip to much applause in his bravura aria. Kiandra Howarth, whom I noticed in JPYA’s Summer Performance this past July, was spirited throughout as Costanza. She had to take on that mofo, Agitata da due venti, and did admirably. I’d say the voice needs a bit more polish but I’ve no other complaints. Tenor Ronan Busfield as Griselda’s royal hubby, Gualtiero, already had some fiendish coloratura within the first five minutes of the show. He tossed it off with impressive confidence. Vivaldi made sure to give Gualtiero more of the same in the upcoming acts and he rolled with the punches. It’s a mofo part, I tells ya. Counternor Tom Verney didn’t have that much to sing as Corrado but got the other horned aria, Alle minacce di fiera belva and was appropriately heroic.

I left soprano Erica Eloff (as the stalkerish Ottone) last because WOW. I didn’t know of her, so she came out the left field. Holy mother of agility and lovely pianissimos! Gorgeous and confident singing, easy top, solid middle – and a lovely tone, especially for the first two soulful arias. Add to that great acting, although maybe playing Ottone’s defeat for laughs wasn’t very opera seria 😉 But you know I’m easily amused. She unquestionably aced Dopo un’orrida procella. But even before that, in fact, right from Ottone’s first lament it was obvious that she just owned it. It’s not every day that a singer just grabs you the first time you hear them and it’s even better when that’s live. The only thing I could hope for – and I’m only saying this because I liked her singing so much – is a bit more heft to the voice.

An outstanding evening. Pity Griselda is so seldom performed, it should get back into the repertoire as it’s easily one of the most entertaining Baroque operas I’ve heard so far.

  1. Gualtiero doesn’t care about social standing and marries shepherdess Griselda for love, much to his people’s displeasure. Kinda like in Anna Nicole, right? Poor girl marries rich and tries to be a good mother at the same time. Except with happy ending. Them 18th century optimists!