Wednesday 25 May 2022

Striking music, terrific performances: the modern day premiere of Handel's pasticcio Caio Fabbricio based on music by Hasse

Handel/Hasse: Caio Fabbricio - London Early Opera - Bridget Cunningham
Handel/Hasse: Caio Fabbricio; Anna Harvey, Ildiko Allen, Kieran Rayner, Anna Gorbachyova-Ogilvie, Thalie Knights, Hannah Poulsom, Phoebe Haines, London Early Opera, Bridget Cunningham; St George's Hanover Square
Reviewed 24 May 2022 (★★★★)

One of Handel's pasticcios revived for the first time since the 18th century, giving us a chance to hear some striking music in terrific performances from a young cast.

The 18th century's fondness for operatic pasticcio seems rather strange to us nowadays. We happily accept musical theatre created out of pre-existing songs, but still have too much of the Wagnerian idea of an opera as a sacrosanct work of art. In the 18th century opera was a far more malleable thing. For a start, an impresario in London wishing to put on Hasse's Cajo Fabricio would need access to the score, which generally meant access to the composer. This was Handel's problem in 1733, and his solution was a typically pragmatic 18th century one. Thanks to the traveller Edward Holdsworth (who knew Handel's friend and librettist Charles Jennens), Handel possessed a songbook from Hasse's opera along with the libretto. From these Handel planned to create a new opera, with Hasse's arias, Handel's new recitatives and orchestration.

Thanks to considerable scholarship, the resulting opera Caio Fabbricio received its first performance in modern times on 24 May 2022 at St George's Hanover Square, when Bridget Cunningham directed London Early Opera with soloists Anna Harvey, Ildiko Allen, Kieran Rayner, Anna Gorbachyova-Ogilvie, Thalie Knights, Hannah Poulsom and Phoebe Haines.

Handel premiered Caio Fabbricio in December 1733, the first season of his opera company following the split with the Opera of the Nobility. This split is why Handel was worrying about pasticcios, he had a complete season to present and, unlike previously, there was only him to write the operas (the original Royal Academy of Music had had a team of composers). The London audience liked novelty, and instead of a raft of revivals, Handel chose to create new works from old music; it was quicker and it enabled him to include the soloists' favourite arias as well.

18th century operas were always adjusted to suit the cast, rather than the present method of selecting the cast to suit the opera. Handel did this with his own operas; with Caio Fabbricio he had rather a different line-up of singers to the original, and the resulting work uses 13 of Hasse's 21 arias along with others. What all the composers have in common is that they were from the younger generation of Italian composers of the Neapolitan school, writing arias that were melodic and often simpler than Handel's large-scale structures. This was music the audience could come out humming.

English audiences disliked long stretches of Italian recitative and someone, perhaps Handel himself, cut the original to the bone. Hasse's Cajo Fabricio evidently has a significant amount of recitative, elucidating the story. The opera we heard on Tuesday, by contrast, was positively telegraphic and required quite a close reading of the text; there were a few important plot points that were conveyed in blink and you'll miss it moments. 

Handel, though, had written typically punchily dramatic recitatives, which helped delineate the strong characters. The plot is one of those that give 18th century opera a bad name, even the synopsis requiring considerable space. But, as is often the case, in performance it was more obvious and of course the work is not so much about the plot, per se, as about the emotion situations and moral dilemmas that the characters are placed in.

Basically, the Greeks Pirro (Anna Harvey) and Turio (Thalie Knights) have allied together to fight the Romans. Pirro has won a great victory but the Greeks have incurred major losses (Pirro is Pyrrhus, hence the pyrrhic victory). When the opera opens Pirro is behaving like a conqueror and treating Turio as a subject. Add to the mix, Volusio (Thalie Knights) who is in disguise and presumed dead, but wants to kill Pirro, because Pirro has taken as a slave Sestia (Ildiko Allen), Volusio's betrothed. Sestia's father, Caio Fabbricio (Kieran Rayner) is the Roman envoy, come to negotiate, and also kicking around is Cinea (Phoebe Haines) who was Pirro's envoy to the Romans. As Pirro has fallen in love with Sestia and plans to marry her, the plot has to have the complication of his original betrothed, Bircenna (Hannah Poulsom) who is in disguise and wants revenge, or perhaps her man back.

The result is a typical mid-18th century opera placing everyone in difficult positions. Handel's limitations of casting mean that the opera uses four alto/mezzo-soprano voices and as the male lovers had to be played either by castrati or women, Handel's two castrati played Pirro and Volusio, with Turio played by a woman. This leads to a significant role in the drama for Volusio, when he is actually rather inessential to the plot. In effect, the librettist needs to constantly make Volusio pop up in unexpected moments. But he gets some terrific music. The person who loses out is the title role. This could be sung by a lower voice (he is a father and general not a lover), and Handel cast him with his reliable but less than virtuoso bass, Gustavus Waltz, who only gets one aria.

The plot is supposed to be about the contrast between Fabriccio's nobility of purpose and Pirro's selfish, quixotic nature, but in fact really becomes a fight between three men (Pirro, Turio, Volusio) about two women (Sestia and Bircenna). 

The music is interesting. Handel writes quite strongly dramatic, even punchy recitatives and the characters are all strong meat. Fabriccio is noble to the point of idiocy and, as I have said, reduced to a cipher, whilst the others are all vibrant and hot-headed. Yet the arias are often in contrast to this, far more lyrical and tuneful than might be expected if Handel had written it, music that you could hum. There were, of course, bravura moments too and each of the two male leads, Pirro and Volusio, got virtuoso showcases.

Anna Harvey had great fun as the capricious tyrant Pirro, making her recitative highly trenchant and giving us some athletically bravura moments such as the aria that closed part one. She was also allocated the final aria of the opera, a strong piece that gave the singer plenty of scope. Volusio might have been secondary to much of the plotting, but Anna Gorbachyova-Ogilvie made sure that his arias were unforgettable. It seems that it was Carlo Scalzi, the soprano castrato playing Volusio, who got the lions share of the really virtuoso numbers and Gorbachyova-Ogilvie made vibrant work of these. 

The third man, Turio (Thalie Knights) was less important but Knights made sure her arias were stylish and memorable. As Sestia, Ildiko Allen was a last minute stand in but you couldn't tell. She got to conclude Act One with an aria that managed to be both gently expressive and also busily elaborate in a way that Hasse had made his own. Bircenna (Hannah Poulsom) never really got the vivid revenge aria you felt the character needed, but Poulsom had a fine way with the lyrical, and melodic yet elaborate music of her arias. Phoebe Haines as Cinea impressed in her one aria and managed to my a strong impression despite her small amount of stage time.

In the title role, Kieran Rayner managed to make nobility interesting in his recitatives and gave a fine account of his one aria, making you regret that this version of the opera did not explore this character more.

This certainly wasn't simply a stand and deliver performance, and despite the small performing space the cast tried to make the most of the work's dramatic opportunities. 

The orchestra featured oboes and horns, but Handel seems to have used those sparingly being content with some imaginative string writing. Bridget Cunningham and the orchestra gave us Handel's Concerto in D in lieu of the overture, and throughout they accompanied with lively attention.

The Hasse/Handel Caio Fabbricio is never going to become an opera house staple, but then when was the last time you heard Hasse's original (there were concert performances in Vienna and in Poland last year). But this was an opportunity to hear some fine and memorable music sung in terrific performances by a young cast, and to experience one of the aspects of 18th century opera-going that is too often neglected.

Bridge Cunningham and London Early Opera's premiere recording of Caio Fabbricio is released on      on 3 June 2022.

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