Monday 13 January 2014

Che puro ciel - the rise of classical opera

Che puro ciel - The rise of classical opera: HMC 902172
Che puro ciel - the rise of classical opera: Bejun Mehta, Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin, Rene Jacobs: Harmonia Mundi
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 13 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Fascinating and brilliantly performed: the rise of reform opera

We tend to think of Gluck's reform operas being a unique development between baroque opera and classical opera but of course it was never so simple. This new recital disc on Harmonia Mundi from counter-tenor Bejun Mehta with the Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin conducted by Rene Jacobs, explores the world of opera at the time of Gluck. Taking in operas by Gluck, Traetta, Hasse and Mozart, the recital looks at the world of opera as composers explored the new theatrical developments and bravura virtuoso gave way to the search for a new kind of theatrical truth.

The recital opens with Che puro ciel from Gluck's Orfeo, the archetype of the classical reform opera, written for a new type of virtuoso Gaetano Guadagni. Guadagni was a castrato who had been trained to sing Handelian oratorio by the ageing Handel and who had had lessons from the actor David Garrick. When Guadagni first performed Orfeo Gluck wanted him to achieve a new kind of dramatic naturalism. (Guadagni also sang the role of Oreste in Traetta's Ifgenia in Tauride in 1763)

There is certainly nothing cool and passionless about Mehta's performance. His voice is vibrant and though there is a good sense of line, he makes the music vivid and vibrant. He is supported by a wonderfully textured or orchestral accompaniment in which the flutes, oboes and bassoons are as important as the strings, creating something which is some distance from a baroque orchestra.  This is followed by the short but dramatic chorus Vieni a'regni del riposo.

Mozart wrote Ascanio in Alba in 1771, at a time when the young Mozart's operas were heavily influenced by JC Bach and, to a lesser extent, the other reformers. Here we have a dramatic accompagnato which is finely shaped by Mehta. Mozart's orchestral accompaniment is full of imaginative and dramatic touches. The accompagnato leads to the aria Cara, lontano ancora. There is nothing straightforward about the aria, with little sense of beautiful simplicity. But Mehta gives a fluid account of Mozart's vocal line with its elaborations and drama.

Tommaso Traetta is not yet as well known as he should be. He wrote a series of operas mediating between the French and Italian styles, including a group of Italian operas based on librettos to Rameau and Lully operas. His Antigona was written in 1772 for the court in St Petersburg. Mehta sings the aria Ah, se lo vedi piangere from the opera, a vivid fast paced number with more than a hint of Gluck about it. There is a hint of rawness to Mehta's tone in the acuti and by the end we feel a little breathless, but then the character is threatening to commit suicide. Certainly this and the other Traetta numbers on the disc make me want to learn more of his music.

Johann Adolf Hasse was of an earlier generation,  he was 15 years older than Gluck. But in tandem with the poet Metastasio, Hasse made an important contribution to the development of operatic drama. Here Mehta sings an aria from Il Trionfo di Clelia, an opera written for Vienna in 1762, Dei di Romani, ah perdonate. It is a slow, rather galant style piece with some lovely details in the orchestra.

Johann Christian Bach is best known for the influence his operas had on Mozart, who heard JC Bach's work in London in 1764. Bach's Artaserse was written in 1760, and here Mehta sings the aria Vo solcando un mar crudele preceded by a wonderfully dramatic accompanied recitative. The aria is a fast paced piece, vividly performed and it could easily be early Mozart. Certainly the opening ritornello has a very Mozartian cast. The vocal line is quite elaborate with a more poised simplicity in the middle section.

We return to Traetta for Dormi Oreste from his opera, Iphigenia in Tauride, written in 1763 in Vienna. It opens with a Gluck-ish chorus which then develops into a dramatic dialogue between Mehta and the chorus. The piece is quite large scale and it makes fascinating listening. You wonder what the rest of the opera is like.

Gluck's Ezio was premiered in 1750 in Prague, but then performed in a revised version in Vienna in 1763. (The reason for the revision had as much to do with the fact that Gluck had already re-used some of the music in another opera as a desire to make the piece more reform). The aria Pensa a serbami, o cara is a nicely poised piece with a relatively straightforward vocal line given a beautiful performance by Mehta.

The aria Ah di si nobil alma from Mozart's Ascanio in Alba has something of a galant feel to it, with rather a virtuoso feel to the vocal line. Ah, si, da te dipende from Traetta's Antigona has a rather Gluckian feel, quite an elaborate but not overly virtuoso vocal line. Here it receives a poised and beautiful performance from Mehta. Se il fulmine sospendi from Gluck's Ezio is a vividly dramatic piece, starting simply but developing in spectacular manner.

The disc finishes with an accompagnato and aria, Gia dagli occhi il velo e tolto, from Mozart's Mitridate, his opera from 1780. The accompagnato is rather Gluckian, but the aria also shows Mozart's debt to Gluck and Traetta.

The CD booklet includes a fascinating article on the historical background to the arias, plus full texts and translations.

On one hand this is a fascinating programme illuminating an interesting period in opera's development, but it is also a terrific recital. Mehta is on strong form, providing a fine emotional drama and some vocal fireworks. Jacobs and the Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin are in strongly supportive form, with some lovely richly textured orchestral lines.

Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714 - 1787) - Che puro ciel! (Orfeo) [6.06]
Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714 - 1787) - Vieni a'regni del riposo (Orfeo) [1.46]
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791) - Perche tacer degg'io? (Ascanio in Alba) [4.33]
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791) - Cara, lontano ancora (Ascanio in Alba) [5.01]
Tommaso Traetta (1727 - 1779) - Ah, se lo vedi piangere (Antigona) [3.17]
Johann Adolf Hasse (1699 - 1783) - Dei di Roma, ah perdonate (Il Trionfo di Clelia) [4.32]
Johann Christian Bach (1735 - 1782) - No, che non ha la sorte (Artaserse) [1.58]
Johann Christian Bach (1735 - 1782) - Vo solcando un mar crudele (Artaserse) [6.45]
Tommaso Traetta (1727 - 1779) - Dormi Oreste (Ifigenia in Tauride) [7.47]
Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714 - 1787) - Pensa a serbami, o cara (Ezio) [5.07]
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791) - Ah, di si nobil alma (Ascanio ad Alba) [3.42]
Tommaso Traetta (1727 - 1779) - Ah, si, da te dipende (Antigona) [5.00]
Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714 - 1787) - Se il fulmine sospendi (Ezio) [3.27]
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791) - Vadasi (Mitridate) [1.23]
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791) - Gia dagli occhi il veto e tolto (Mitridate) [9.19]
Bejun Mehta (counter-tenor)
Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin
Rene Jacobs (conductor)
Recorded April 2013, Berlin

HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 902172 1CD [69.50]

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