Sunday 21 February 2021

A Life On-Line: the 'wrong' Xerxes, RVW in Australia, Ash Wednesday at Wigmore Hall, and Mary, Mary Quite Contrary

Richard Tognetti and Australian Chamber Orchestra at Sydney Town Hall (ACO StudioCasts)
Richard Tognetti and Australian Chamber Orchestra at Sydney Town Hall (ACO StudioCasts)

When Puccini announced his intention of writing an opera based on the story of Manon Lescaut, this caused some controversy because Massenet's opera, based on the same source, was already popular. This sort of overlap in subject matter, somewhat controversial in the late 19th and 20th centuries, was an everyday occurrence during the Baroque era. Some of Metastasio's librettos seem to have been reused 1000s of times, and librettos would be rewritten and reworked over time. A number of Handel's operas are based on 17th-century Venetian librettos (he seems to have had a fondness for this style of opera), though with the comic business and subsidiary action removed. In 1738, Handel presented his opera Serse; it wasn't a success. Based on a libretto originally written in the mid-17th century, Handel kept in a comic character and the tone of his opera is more varied than the heroic, morally uplifting tales that his aristocratic audiences expected.

Handel had based his opera on a libretto created in 1694 for Giovanni Bononcini, which in turn was based on one written for Cavalli. Cavalli's Xerse was premiered in Venice in 1654, but in 1660 he travelled to Paris to write an opera for King Louis XIV's wedding. This opera, Ercole amante was famously delayed and in the meanwhile Cavalli presented a revised version of Xerse in Paris. A year later the king's chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin died and King Louis took over reigns of government personally. There was an anti-Italian push-back (Mazarin had been Italian), Italian singers and composers (including Cavalli) were sent packing and French tragedie lyrique was born.

The fame of Handel's Serse has rather knocked Cavalli's opera from the running so chances to see it are rare. Marcio da Silva and his Ensemble OrQuesta were due to be staging Cavalli's Xerse this year, but that has been delayed. In the mean while, to tempt us, the ensemble gave a concert performance of the Paris version of Xerse live-streamed from the Cockpit.

For anyone familiar with Handel's opera, Cavalli's offers a slightly disturbing element, the right words with the 'wrong' music. But Cavalli's approach is very different. For a start, there are more characters and more plot. Serse has one comic servant, whilst this version of Xerse had three servants, an ambassador and Amastre's elderly uncle. Each major character has a minor one to confide in, and the minor characters also interact. This is the style of the full versions of Monteverdi's late operas, and the music is still in that world. The opera is mainly recitative, highly expressive and fleet, which flowers into brief arioso and aria at key moments. This is very much a play set to music, and was intended to be enjoyed as such.

Though this was a concert performance the cast all seemed to enjoy the lively drama. Nathan Mercieca was Xerse, Sophie Levi-Roos was Romilda, Alexander Pullinger was Arsamene, Helen May was Amastre, Celena Bridge was Adelanta, Hugh Cutting was Elviro, Thomas Kelly was Ariodate, Sarah Parkin was Eumene, John Holland-Avery was Periarco, Kate Dobson was Clito and Marcio da Silva was Aristone, with an instrumental ensemble of two violins, cello, theorbo, and two harpsichords let by da Silva from the harpsichord.

With no dramatic action, a little of the comedy of the piece got lost, but we were able to appreciate the liveliness and sheer character of Cavalli's music, the way it responds to the words in quicksilver fashion. The characters seemed rather more pointed and edgier than in Handel, Xerse had moments of sheer nastiness and there was a real edge to Adelanta's scheming, whilst Amastre seemed rather less confident than her Handelian incarnation, yet there were some lovely duets for the lovers Arsamene and Romilda, whilst Xerse has a touching aria at the end when he realises he has lost Romilda. I certainly look forward to the staging, in the meanwhile the performance is available on-demand until 27 February [Ensemble OrQuesta]

The Australian Chamber Orchestra, artistic director Richard Tognetti, has launched a season of on-line concerts, ACO StudioCasts, each beautifully filmed to create a visual and aural experience. The first, Rapture and Revolution, was filmed in the late 19th-century Centennial Hall of Sydney Town Hall by Matisse Ruby, Tyson Perkins and Drew English. The result his highly dramatic and a long way from plain concert presentation. The programme features three of Tognetti's adaptations of chamber repertoire alongside an RVW classic. Things began with Schubert's Quartetsatz in C minor, and then we moved on to a very successful string orchestra arrangement (by composer Adam Johnson) of RVW's The Lark Ascending. Tognetti was a dramatic and impulsive soloist, making the violin line very much his own. The Cavatina from Beethoven's String Quartet in B-flat major, Op.130 followed, beautiful in itself but I rather longed for the whole quartet. The real meat of the programme was Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, Op. 133 and here the string orchestra arrangement took wing as the work is definitely one which pushes the bounds of string quartet repertoire. [ACO StudioCasts]

Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, and Andrew Carwood and the Cardinall's Musick gave a lovely lunchtime recital, Shriven and Forgiven, at Wigmore Hall with music which reflected the period. This wasn't a service reconstruction, instead a selection of 16th century works on themes arising from Ash Wednesday. Andrew Carwood lucidly introduced the music and we heard pieces by Byrd, Tavener, Tallis, Weelkes, Mundy, Farrant, and Tye ending with the pair of settings of words from Psalm 136 (Vulgate) by Philippe da Monte and William Byrd, evidently written as complementary pieces. [Wigmore Hall]

We stayed in the same world for the Marian Consort's programme, Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary. Rory McLeery directed the ensemble of 12 singers in music that was written during the early part of the reign of Queen Mary I, William Mundy's magnificent Vox patris coelestis paired with Thomas Tallis' early Gaude Gloriosa, which was probably modelled on the Mundy. It was lovely to hear this large-scale pieces of late Tudor polyphony, works which look both forward and back. Interleaving them were smaller pieces, Tye's Peccavimus cum patribus and the anonymous Ballad of Joy along with actor Nicola Harrison reciting popular rhymes and nursery rhymes which are link to Mary's reign. A fascinating idea, beautifully executed [Marian Consort]

There was more words and music from the Wigmore Hall on Friday, when mezzo-soprano Alice Coote and pianist Christian Blackshaw were joined by actor Ralph Fiennes for a programme of Tchaikovsky songs interspersed with readings from poems by Alexander Pushkin (on whose writings Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, Mazepa and Queen of Spades were based), Mikhail Lermontov (whose words Tchaikovsky set in The love of a dead man), Afanasy Fet (Tchaikovsky had a particular fondness for Fet's poetry and set a number including the first song in the recital), plus the composer's own letters. The selection of these seemed to bring out quite how much of a misery guts he was. An illuminating and fascinating programme. [Wigmore Hall]

The Lantivet Duo (Anna Brigham, violin and viola, Brendan Musk, pianist and trumpeter) has begun its Spring Series with the first of a lively series of recitals, with music varying from Beethoven to Martinu to music from Russia, Japan and Columbia, and much more [Lantivet Duo]

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