Thursday 22 September 2016

A welcome chance to explore: Hasse's Demetrio from Opera Settecento

Opera Settecento - Augusta Hebbert, Rupert Charlesworth, Michael Taylor, Leo Duarte, Erica Eloff, Ray Chenez, Chiara Hendrick
Hasse Demetrio - Opera Settecento
Augusta Hebbert, Rupert Charlesworth, Michael Taylor, Leo Duarte, Erica Eloff, Ray Chenez, Chiara Hendrick
Johann Adolph Hasse Demetrio (1740 version); Erica Eloff, Michael Taylor, Ray Chenez, Ciara Hendrick, Rupert Charlesworth, Augusta Hebbert, cond: Leo Duarte; Opera Settecento at the Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 21 2016
Star rating: 4.5

A welcome opportunity to hear a rare Hasse opera in an enjoyably engaging performance

Writing in the mid-eighteenth century, Charles Burney named Johann Adolph Hasse as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, opera composer of the age. Hasse had a long career, JS Bach heard one of his operas in Dresden, and the teenage Mozart heard and admired Hasse's music. Hasse wrote an enormous number of operas, popular in their day yet which have not made it to the modern stage. At the Cadogan Hall on 21 September 2016, Opera Settecento gave us the chance to hear for ourselves when the company gave the modern premiere of Hasse's 1740 version of Demetrio based on a libretto by Metastasio. Leo Duarte conducted (and was responsible for the edition used), with Erica Eloff, Michael Taylor, Ray ChenezCiara Hendrick, Rupert Charlesworth and Augusta Hebbert.

Metastasio's libretto Demetrio was written in 1731 and first set by Caldara, with Hasse producing his first version in 1732 in Venice. In 1740 Hasse revisited the opera, extensively revising and re-writing it for the carnival season in Dresden. It was this version which we heard at the Cadogan Hall. The opera pre-dates the period when Hasse collaborated closely with Metastasio, setting his librettos uncut and unchanged, but the 1740 version of the opera is a lot closer to Metastasio's original than that of 1732.

We still view early 18th century opera seria through the prism of Handel's operas, the works from the period which have achieved the greatest popularity. Yet Handel was by no means typical. In fact he rarely set Metastasio's librettos, generally preferring to re-use librettos from an earlier period rather than contemporary ones. And English taste seems to have made Handel cut the recitative extensively.Yet clearly the taste in Dresden was different, because Hasse's operas for Dresden are notable for their length and their extensive recitative, it is here that the beauties of Metastasio's poetry can be appreciated. Opera Settecento cut Demetrio so that the running time came to around three hours, with one interval, but we still got a real sense of the way the extensive recitative was essential to showing how Metastasio and Hasse approached the drama.

Demetrio is about Queen Cleonice (Erica Eloff). Daughter of the late usurper Alexander, she needs to choose a husband and is in love with Alceste (Michael Taylor), who is a shepherd, but she is also loved by Olinto (Ray Chenez), who is noble and feels he should be on the throne not Alceste. But Olinto and Alceste are foster-brothers, Olinto's father Fenicio (Rupert Charlesworth) fostered Alceste as a baby and in fact favours his foster-son over his real son. Fenicio knows, yet no-one else does, that Alceste is in fact Demetrio the rightful heir to the throne.

The libretto sticks to the classical unities, and like classical French drama nothing happens. All the action is off stage and reported, the libretto concentrates on illuminating Cleonice's dilemma. And Metastasio uses this to bring home the central idea of the libretto, that rulers are born not made. A natural born ruler puts health of the state before personal happiness, and so in Act Three, Alceste accepts that he cannot marry Cleonice even though he loves her. He nobly cedes her to another, thus showing his 'real' nobility whilst the noble born Olinto spends the entire opera behaving badly.

Hasse's operas are a considerable challenge to perform. The sheer amount of recitative requires careful work and this is punctuated by arias which require virtuoso display and technical control. All the opera needs is four of the greatest singers of the day and an infinite amount of rehearsal time to bring out the innate drama of the recitative. Opera Settecento did not quite manage that, but they came close and did so with engaging enthusiasm. The cast had clearly worked hard to bring the recitative alive and to dramatise it, creating a sense of interaction and interior drama, though the sheer quantity of notes meant that there were times when things did get a little book-bound.

Erica Eloff made a poised and elegant Cleonice, bringing a sense of interior involvement to her indecision and making us care for the character. One of the problems with the opera is that Hasse never really makes us sympathise with any of the characters, they are there to express the noble ideas, so in performance much is dependent on the individual singer. Eloff took a little time to warm up and her opening aria was creditable rather than bravura, yet she developed over the evening and gave us some lovely moments. Even in reflection Hasse's characters are technically challenged, and his vocal writing is often busy, giving the singer plenty of opportunities (or challenges) and Eloff responded to these with ease.

Casting the two male lead roles is a challenge. In Dresden, Hasse was writing for a pair of soprano castratos and Opera Settecento took the risk of casting two high counter-tenors in roles which require the singers to operate at the upper end of their range. As Alceste, Michael Taylor proved to have a warm upper register with a surprising amount of freedom and flexibility, though lower down in his voice he seemed to be having trouble with register changes and there were a number of moments when switching gear was bumpy. In lyrical moments he was impressive, including the long aria which opened the second act.

The real bravura show-off moments were reserved for the bad-boy Olinto, who seemed to spend the entire opera in a strop and succeeds in making a fool of himself at the end and is then suitably contrite. American counter-tenor Ray Chenez has a bright, very narrow focused voice which has remarkable facility in the upper extremes. But after a while I have to confess that I found his tone a little too unvarying, and though it warmed up during the evening there was still something of an edge to his voice. That said, he coped admirably with the technical demands and gave us some real bravura singing in his second act aria, and duetted finely with Joel Raymond's oboe in Act Three.

As a tenor, Rupert Charlesworth was of course only playing the father, Fenicio, rather than a lover but Hasse had sung as an operatic tenor and the role of Fenicio was a substantial one and certainly gave Charlesworth something to get his teeth into. His voice has strengthened and developed an element of steel to it which Charlesworth used admirably in the bravura moments such as his aria which ended Act Two, complete with some fabulous horn playing.

Ciara Hendrick played the other woman, Barsene, who is in love with Alceste. Hendrick had a warm, nicely modulated voice and an understated manner which belied the technical skill she brought to the role and the sympathy which she managed to elicit for Barsene's plight. Augusta Hebbert played Mitrane, a (male) friend of Fenicio's. A subsidiary role certainly, but one with three lovely arias which Hebbert made very personable.

Harmonically, Hasse's writing is not always the most interesting but his orchestration is always very effective. In Dresden he had the luxury of writing for a large band, so we had flutes, oboes, bassoons and horns, with the orchestra of Opera Settecento fielding 24 players in all including theorbo and two harpsichords. They gave us an elegant account of the overture, with some nifty violin playing, and throughout the opera made us aware of the delights of Hasse's orchestral writing.

Leo Duarte clearly invested a lot in this evening, as he created the edition used as well as conducting. He drew a strong performance from his ensemble and the sense of enthusiasm which they all felt for this music was palpable.

Hasse's operas will never, perhaps, be loved in quite the same way as Handel's but they may be admired and more. Listening to a Hasse setting of Metastasio requires a somewhat different frame of mind to listening to a more familiar baroque opera by Handel or Vivaldi. This was an opera which I grew into, and we cannot come to appreciate the music's beauties without learning, so we must be ever grateful to Opera Settecento for providing the opportunity to hear Demetrio, and doing so in a manner which was so involving and so engaging. Let us hope they do more Hasse in the future.

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