Wednesday 10 June 2015

Gasparini's 'Il Bajazet' rediscovered

Gasparini - Il Bajazet - Gossa
Gasparini Il Bajazet; Leonardo de Lisi, Filippo Mineccia, Giuseppina Bridelli, Ewa Gubanska, Antonio Giovannini, Auser Musici, Carlo Ipata; Glossa
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on June 02 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Brilliant rediscovery of an opera best known for its influence on Handel

In 1723 Handel was writing a new opera for the King's Theatre in London, to be premiered in 1724. It was based on the libretto Il Tamerlano by Agostin Piovene which has been performed in Venice in 1711 set by Francesco Gasparini. Handel's cast included a new member of his company, the star tenor Francesco Borosini. According with the conventions of the day, Borosini would not be playing a leading role but the heroine's father, the captive Sultan Bajazet. Borosini had played the role before in both Gasparini's 1711 Il Tamerlano and in Gasparini's 1719 version of this opera, Il Bajazet. Borosini seems to have travelled to London in Autumn 1723 with the score of Il Bajazet in his luggage.

The combination of a star tenor, with strong musical and dramatic skills, and Gasparini and Piovene's remarkable treatment of the role of Bajazet in Il Bajazet seem to have inspired Handel to radically revise his plans for Tamerlano and introduce a major new scene for Bajazet, the character's on-stage suicide. The role of Bajazet would be the largest, most significant tenor part Handel wrote in a dramatic work until his oratorios written for John Beard.
Gasparini - Il Bajazet - Opera Barga 2014, photo credit Rudy Pessina
Raffaele Pè (Leone), Ewa Gubanska (Irene),
Filippo Mineccia (Tamerlano), Antonio
Giovannini (Andronico), Leonardo De Lisi (Bajzet)
and Giuseppina Bridelli as Asteria
Gasparini - Il Bajazet - Opera Barga 2014
photo credit Rudy Pessina

This new recording of Gasparini's Il Bajazet from Carlo Ipata and Auser Musici on the Glossa label presents us with the opportunity to discover Gasparani's remarkable 1719 original, with tenor Leonardo De Lisi as Bajazet, counter-tenor Filippo Mineccia as Tamerlano, mezzo-soprano Giuseppina Bridelli as Asteria, mezzo-soprano Ewa Gubanska as Irene, counter-tenor Antonio Giovannini as Andronico, alto Benedetta Mazzucato as Clearco, counter-tenor Raffaele Pe as Leono and soprano Giorgia Cinciripi as Zaida. The recording was made in 2014 following staged performances at Opera Barga in Italy.

Francesco Gasparini (1661-1727) was a generation older than Handel and his writing is very forward looking, though there is an inevitable late 17th century feel to aspects of the work. In fact her wrote three Bajazet/Tamerlano settings in 1711 (Venice), 1719 (Reggio Emilia), 1738. The 1719 version is the one that Borosini took with him to London and by sheer chance it is this one which survives in full score. We have only arias from the first and third versions so cannot tell how much Gasparini's music for one is indebted to the other, but the libretto for the 1719 version was radically altered from Piovene's original by Ippolito Zanella, radically expanding the role of Bajazet.

The biggest changes between this version and Handel's are that Gasparini's opera has three extra characters and the quantity of recitative is far greater, with a relative fleetness of structure including many more shorter arias (when adjusting libretti, Handel always reduced the number of arias and increased their length). To Handel's character's of Tamerlano (Emperor of the Mongols), Bajazet (Sultan of the Turks), Andronico (Greek prince), Asteria (Bajazet's daughter), Irene (Tamerlano's bethrothed) and Leone (friend and confidante), are added two further friend/confidante figures Zaida and Clearco. The profusion of friend/confidante/servant type characters is an aspect of 17th century opera, which gradually disappeared in the 18th century.

Handel always kept his recitative to a minimum, though Tamerlano elicited his longest span of recitative. Here Gasparini was writing for an audience that understood Italian so we get far more of the details of the plot. Luckily Gasparini's recitative is dramatic and highly imaginative with some quirky harmonic details, and being based on staged performances the cast here give us a vividly dramatic narrative. This is one of those performances which show that the staid world of opera seria can leap off the stage in the right hands.

Gasparini's opera has 32 da capo arias, plus ariosos and a terzetto, and the role of Irene rather comes to prominence (it was sung by the young Faustina Bordoni), with Clearco getting some powerful numbers.

This is far more than a dusty archive curiosity and Gasparini's opera is, within it own parameters, both dramatic and imaginative with only the occasional suggestion of note spinning. He uses quite a rich orchestration (played here by an ensemble of 16) and many of the arias use solo instruments with violin, recorder, cello and oboe solos popping up. And we don't seem to have too much of that good old opera seria stand-by, the simile aria (Oh, I feel so angry, just like a ship on a storm tossed ocean).

The cast is by and large a strong and balanced group. Ewa Gubanska who sings Irene, was known to me as she won the Handel Singing Competition in 2014, whilst counter-tenor Raffaele Pe also took part in last year's London Handel Festival with Oxford Baroque (see my review) and released his disc The Medici Castrato last year (see my review). counter-tenor Filippo Mineccia has recorded a disc of Leonardo Vinci arias with Stile Galante (see my review).

Borosini was a baritonal tenor so that Bajazet in Handel's Tamerlano lies low enough for a modern baritone to perform). Here Leonardo de Lisi gives a nicely centred performance in the role singing with vibrant tone. Coloratura baritone role are not common, and Leonardo de Lisi moves his voice round the elaborate ornamentation in a very creditable manner, but perhaps it is in his recitatives rather than arias where his sense of character tells the most.

Filippo Mineccia as Tamerlano has a nicely sweet-toned counter-tenor voice which he imbues with confident vigour in the more dramatic numbers and he certainly makes a lot of the words. But, for me his tone gets a bit wild and unstable in the upper register, but then his character is not a little mad. Counter-tenor Antonio Giovannini, singing Andronico, has a warm focused tone with a nicely bright edge and a good sense of line. Though finely lyrical he has moments of temperament and comes over as rather less of a wimp than the character can do in Handel's opera. The third counter-tenor in the mix is Raffele Pe as Leone who sings with a confident swagger, though his passage-work can sound a bit effortful at times.

Giuseppina Bridelli impresses as Asteria, singing with bright forward tone, and a nice accuracy especially in the fast fioriture. She can be a spitfire too, so that her vendetta aria at the end of Act 1 is really spat out. Ewa Gubanska as Irene lives up to expectations in the showy numbers written for Faustina Bordoni. She gives a performance full of poise and style, singing with a nicely focussed accuracy, sense of phrasing and that little extra ping which comes with fine Handel singing. Her performance, and the number of arias the character gets, certainly re-focuses the drama as compared to Handel's opera where it is Asteria who stands out amongst the women. Benedetta Mazzucato makes a big impression in the relatively minor role of Clearco because of the poise and fabulously focussed tone of her singing, and bravura way with the fioriture. Giorgia Cinciripi gets only two arias as Zaida, but she delivers them with aplomb.

There is a crisply dramatic performance from Auser Musici and Carlo Ipata, and the various solo instruments are beautifully taken. As the opera's overture is missing, they give a fine account of the overture to Gasparini's Ambleto from 1705 to open things.

Handel's debt to Gasparini in this opera is well known but it was rather striking to hear the parallels between the two, such as Bajazet's opening Forte e lieto. In fact scholarship is revealing that Gasparini may have had a similar influence on Handel's Faramondo (1738) which derives from Gasparini's 1720 version of the opera, an interesting demonstration that Handel's Italian influences were not restricted to Venetian opera.

But his set has far more to it than simple curiosity value With its more than creditable performances, rather good dramatic pacing, vivid sense of narrative and imaginative score, there is much to enjoy.

Francesco Gasparini (1661-1727) - I Bajazet (1719) [205.08]
Bajazet - Leonardo de Lisi (tenor)
Tamerlano - Filippo Mineccia (counter-tenor)
Asteria - Giuseppina Bridelli (mezzo-soprano)
Irene - Ewa Gubanska (mezzo-soprano)
Andronico - Antonio Giovannini (counter-tenor)
Clearco - Benedetta Mazzucato (alto)
Leone - Raffaele Pe (counter-tenor)
Zaida - Giorgia Cinciripi (soprano)
Auser Musicia
Carlo Ipata (conductor)
Recorded in Barga (Chiese del Crocifisso), Italy, June 29 to July 6, 2014.
GLOSSSA GCD923504 3CD's [75.40, 67.30, 61.50]

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