Wednesday 27 October 2021

A sense of exploration and discovery: Jommelli's Il Vologeso in a live recording from Ian Page and the Mozartists

Jommelli Il Vologeso; Stuart Jackson, Rachel Kelly, Gemma Summerfield, Angela Simkin, The Mozartists, Ian Page; Signum Classics

Jommelli Il Vologeso; Stuart Jackson, Rachel Kelly, Gemma Summerfield, Angela Simkin, The Mozartists, Ian Page; Signum Classics

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 October 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A live recording of The Mozartists performance from 2016 reveals an exciting exploration of an opera notable for its sense of drama and innovation

When Ian Page and Classical Opera performed Niccolo Jommelli's 1766 opera Il Vologeso at Cadogan Hall in 2016, it was simply part of their Mozart 250 project, exploring influential works from 1766. Jommelli's operas are important waystations in the journey from high baroque to classical but they don't get that many outing so this was lovely opportunity to hear one live, with a fine young cast. But five years later, and with 18 months of enforced quiet, Ian Page started to think about the recording that had been made of the performance. There were downsides, the opera wasn't performed complete (the evening lasted three hours as it was) and as there was a fine studio recording already on disc, there was no thought of a commercial recording so there was no patching, this really was live.

Thankfully, the decision was made to release it so we now have the wonderfully vivid recording of Niccolo Jommelli's Il Vologeso on Signum Classics. Ian Page conducts The Mozartists (Classical Opera renamed itself in the meanwhile), with Stuart Jackson as the Roman emperor Lucio Vero, Rachel Kelly as the Parthian king Vologeso, Gemma Summerfield as Vologeso's wife Berenice, Angela Simkin as Lucilla,  Lucio Vero's betrothed, Jennifer France as Flavio, ambassador and Lucilla's father, and Tom Verney as Ancieto, Lucio Vero's confidant.

The story is simply one of Emperors behaving badly, Lucio Vero defeats Vologeso and pursues his wife, who remains steadfast and true. There are echoes here both of Handel's Rodelina and Radamisto, but the plot is a standard trope. The libretto Jommelli set is at two removes, a rewrite of a rewrite, and the words he set were created by long-time collaborator Mattia Verazi We are a long way from the cool classicism of Metastasio, so that though the basic form is still recitative and aria, stuff actually happens. The finale of Act One is in the Roman arena where Vologeso is being fed to the lions, Berenice leaps in to join him and thus makes Lucio Vero throw Vologeso a sword so that he (and thus Berenice) can survive. Thrilling stuff.

And Verazi's text is more uneven, more dramatic than Metastasio's, though it has to be confessed that Jommelli's secco recitative can chug somewhat, despite the best efforts of the cast who have clearly invested a lot in it. Being a live performance and with singers taking care over the words and text, this really does sound like a drama. Granted, the rate of delivery can be a bit steady for those used to the way the live performances from Göttingen International Handel Festival can rattle along.

The opera was written for the Duke of Württemberg's brand-new Schlosstheater at Ludwigsburg. The duke was an opera lover and spent money he did not have (Ian Page's booklet article details the profoundly tragic consequences of the overspending) on opera. And the duke had been to Paris, liked French opera, whilst Jommelli had revised one of his Italian operas for Paris. The French influence is felt in Jommelli's Stuttgart operas, and in Il Vologeso it is in the form of accompanied recitative. At moments of stress, the characters launch into accompanied recitatives, there are are whopping ten on the disc including Berenice's five-minute scene in Act Three where she is imprisoned and imagines her husband dead.

Another French influence is that Jommelli and Verazi are by no means fixated on the da capo aria and the exit aria. Where Handel could, occasionally, break the rules for dramatic effect, here the drama flows in a distinctly idiosyncratic way and made me think of Handel's early opera Teseo which was his first attempt to marry French dramaturgy with Italian opera seria and did away with the exit aria.

The fascinating thing is that the opera seems to just as interested in Lucio Verio as well as Berenice (and far more than Vologeso). And here we come to another of Jommelli's innovations, the amazing dissolving finale; in Acts One and Two, the finale starts as an ensemble but characters pare away. So at the end of Act Two a trio between Vologeso, Berenice and Lucio Vero, where Vero has put the pair in chains but they remain steadfast, dissolves into a puzzled solo for Lucio Vero where he tries to come to terms with the fact that Berenice simply does not love him. Similarly the crucial quartet at the end of Act One, for Vologeso, Berenice, Lucio Vero and Lucilla, which comes at the end of the scene in the arena, dissolves into a duet for Vologeso and Berenice.

The arias are well fashioned and expressive, though Jommelli lacks Handel, Vivaldi and Gluck's various abilities to create music which is toe-tapping, and like his contemporary Hasse (some 15 years older than Jommelli), Jommelli is adept at creating virtuoso music. But it never feels completely like show for show's sake, and the allocation of arias is closer to what we might expect from the drama rather than allotting the lead role eight, because that is how many are his due.

Stuart Jackson fully invests the role of Lucio Vero with the complexity with which Jommelli endowed it. Jackson has a strong, vibrant voice and an ability to bring this music to life and with it the character of Lucio Vero. Yes, there are odd bits of smudgy passagework, but overall this is a powerful, thoughtful and expressive performance. He is fully matched by Gemma Summerfield's strong Berenice, wringing every moment from her climactic accompanied recitative in Act Three, an the aria that follows is far more lack Gluck's vivid manner than the showy climactics of Hasse and here as elsewhere, Jommelli's orchestra is active too. And the opera ends not with a big show number, but for a lovely little arioso for Berenice (touchingly sung by Summerfield with fine flute support) followed by more accompanied recitative

The rather put-upon Vologeso is one of those people to whom things happen, and frankly Jommelli and Verazi seems less interested in him than the others, though Rachel Kelly sings finely and engagingly. Angela Simkin brings strength to the role of Lucilla, and her second aria when she gives Lucio Vero his freedom has a fabulous Gluckian cast to it. the two supporting roles were very well taken, and you wished that Tom Verney as Ancieto and Jennifer France as Flavio had a bit more to do.

Ian Page and the orchestra support and accompany with great style, and there is plenty for them to do; as I have mentioned, Jommelli's writing includes quite an active role for the orchestra and the overall drama is all the better for the style that Page and his period instrument ensemble bring to the piece.

I will be quite frank, I have not heard the 1998 recording of the opera from Frieder Bernius and Stuttgarter Kammerorchester on Orfeo, but this recording wonderfully captures the vividness of the live occasion, and the sense of exploration and discovery that the cast brought to it.

For those interested in opera of the period, might I suggest my article To delight the eyes and ears without the risk of sinning against reason or common sense: the creation of Reform Opera which details more about Jommelli and also the importance of dramatic ballet in his operas. There is also my original 2016 review of the performance recorded here. 

Niccolo Jommelli (1714-1774) - Il Vologeso (1766)
Lucio Vero - Stuart Jackson (tenor)
Vologeso - Rachel Kelly (mezzo-soprano)
Berenice - Gemma Summerfield (soprano)
Lucilla - Angela Simkin (mezzo-soprano)
Flavio - Jennifer France (soprano)
Ancieto - Tom Verney (countertenor)
The Mozartists (formerly Classical Opera)
Ian Page (conductor)
Recorded live on 28 April 2016 at Cadogan Hall
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD691 2 CDs [70:25, 69:45]

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