(Opera Settecento at Cadogan Hall, 16 September 2015)
It’s no exaggeration to say that I’d been looking forward to this Adriano in Siria since the curtain fell on the last one. It’s the first full opera I’ve heard by the precociously gifted Pergolesi, who died at the age of only 26, and who is best known here in England for his haunting Stabat Mater. However, I suspect I’ll get to know Adriano itself pretty well by the end of the year. The production company Parnassus will soon* be releasing their own new recording of the opera, featuring a rather formidable cast, and Opera Settecento’s concert performance was perfectly timed to whet appetites and throw down the gauntlet.
Let’s have a quick recap. Adriano (Hadrian) is stationed in the province of Syria when he receives word of Trajan’s death and his own succession as Emperor. He has recently subdued the troublesome kingdom of Parthia and has taken as his prisoner the lovely Emirena, daughter of their king Osroa. It is dramatically inevitable that Adriano is immediately smitten by her beauty. He dreams of winning her love and making her his consort, but there are several obstacles to this plan. Foremost among them is Adriano’s existing fiancée, Sabina. With impeccable timing, she arrives from Rome to congratulate him on his accession, only to find herself distinctly de trop. Moreover, Emirena is also already betrothed. Not only that, but she and her fiancé, the young prince Farnaspe, are passionately devoted to one another.
The political situation is also problematic: Emirena’s father Osroa is determined to get revenge for the loss of his kingdom and, even now, is approaching Adriano’s court, disguised as a nondescript member of Farnaspe’s entourage, with murder on his mind. Farnaspe, being your average noble and virtuous Baroque hero, has come to beg Adriano to release Emirena, little suspecting that the new Emperor is his rival in love. But Adriano tries to be generous, though it galls him. He promises to release Emirena if she confirms Farnaspe’s claim that they are promised to one another. If only Emirena told the truth! But then this would be a rare form of opera in which everyone communicates honestly and openly, and everything is resolved in twenty minutes. Needless to say, that doesn’t happen. This is Metastasio, after all, and that means complications.
Enter Aquilio, stage left: a Roman officer who is hopelessly in love with Adriano’s fiancée Sabina and who hopes to engineer a marriage between Adriano and Emirena so that Sabina will be left available for him. Disingenuously, he persuades Emirena to deny her love for Farnaspe when questioned by Adriano: only in this way, he assures her, can the Emperor’s wrath be deflected and Farnaspe’s life saved. Poor, innocent Emirena believes him. Her stout denial horrifies Farnaspe, delights Adriano and lays the foundation for two and a half hours of confusion and intrigue. Will the lovers ever be happily reunited? Will Adriano learn the magnanimity required of a good ruler? And can Osroa be halted in his quest to murder the new Emperor? (Well, I’d hate to give anything away, but here’s a hint: it’s Metastasio, so you can be pretty sure it’ll all be resolved in a sudden and somewhat contrived fashion in the final five minutes, just in time for the final chorus.)
I was delighted to see familiar faces in both cast and orchestra. The conductor was Leo Duarte, the excellent oboist whom I saw perform with Erica Eloff at Handel House earlier this summer. I confess I was rather surprised to see him up on the conductor’s box, because Pergolesi’s Adriano offers what must surely be one of the most beautiful pieces of Baroque music for the oboe, namely the accompaniment to Farnaspe’s aria Lieto così talvolta. However, Duarte graciously handed over that honour to Daniel Lanthier, who drew out all the haunting beauty of the melody and threw in some playful ornaments for good measure. I’m not yet knowledgeable enough to judge conducting, but it seemed to me that Duarte was doing an excellent job of keeping the momentum going, while smoothly changing pace to accommodate the more elegiac moments (of which there were several) and also the barnstormers (of which there were also several, with plentiful and very pleasing use of horns).
Only two of the singers were new to me. As Sabina, Augusta Hebbert sang with an increasingly dramatic sense of injury, but her first aria didn’t really give her much scope to shine (Pergolesi’s fault, I fear) and she was only really able to show off in Act 2. Here, for reasons I’ll mention in a moment, she had to sing two arias right on top of one another, which is no mean feat: a challenge to which she rose splendidly. I especially enjoyed her Splenda per voi sereno, which featured some agile coloratura and some lovely high, clear notes. It crossed my mind, as she switched movingly between defiance and misery in Act 3’s Digli ch’è un infedele, that Metastasio really specialises in conflicted aristocratic women who just don’t know what they want.
The other newcomer was Maria Ostroukhova, singing Emirena, who was my discovery of the night. She’s described as a soprano but surely she must be a mezzo? That velvety, rich and supremely powerful voice can certainly hit the heights, but it’s founded on a smoky substratum which resulted in some seriously gorgeous low notes. Her projection was fabulous and her voice filled the hall without any visible sign of effort. As one of the romantic leads she naturally had a high proportion of angsty arias, but she sang with deep feeling: her Quell’ amplesso e quel perdono towards the end of Act 2 was very beautiful. Moreover, her voice blended sumptuously with Eloff’s: that turned out to be particularly important because they had a duet in Act 3, L’estremo pegno almeno. This was a typical Metastasio duet: the two characters are obviously in love but, in their quest to be nobly self-sacrificing, just keep interrupting and confusing one another. Wonderful stuff.
I’d encountered all three of the male singers before and was rather pleased to see Michael Taylor singing Adriano. I last saw him as Alessandro in Gluck’s Antigono and his vivacious acting makes him very fun to watch in live performance. He’s really rather good at singing flamboyantly stroppy rulers. This Adriano was petulant and highly-strung and, as in the Gluck, Taylor acted his part with great gusto. His exasperated guilt and hangdog glances when Sabina once again caught him trailing after Emirena were priceless. Adriano gets some very good music and Taylor’s at his best in slightly mad arias, where he can make the most of his quickfire coloratura and ringing high notes. Obviously I’d been looking forward expectantly to Tutti nemici e rei, which turned out to be perfectly berserk.
He was accompanied by another countertenor, Cenk Karaferya, singing Aquilio. I saw Karaferya a few weeks ago in Gluck’s Parnaso confuso and have my reservations, although I understand he was ill with tonsillitis last night. He must be congratulated for still singing, despite his mysterious and (at the time) unexplained absence for Act 2: his aria was therefore skipped and Sabina had to sing her two arias in quick succession. However, that break clearly gave him some respite, because when he returned in Act 3 his voice was stronger and more secure.
The final member of the male trio was the tenor Gyula Rab, whom I remembered with pleasure from the Handel Festival’s Giove in Argo. It seems to me that his voice has grown considerably stronger since and it’s now a lovely, powerful, clear light tenor (not dissimilar from Juan Sancho’s). Osroa has some of the best swagger-arias in the opera, namely Sprezza il furor del vento and Leon piagato a morte. Rab made a lovely job of them, cutting a swathe through a whole host of Metastasian metaphors (stout oaks, wounded lions, and so forth) with ease. He’s been added to my watchlist.
But I’ll be totally honest: most of my anticipation was focused on hearing Erica Eloff sing Farnaspe again, after her performance of the Bach version earlier this year; and she was just as marvellous as I’d expected her to be. Farnaspe has a bit of a vocal rollercoaster in this version. The role was first sung by Caffarelli and Pergolesi clearly didn’t pull any punches and made him work for his fee. At first Farnaspe seems to have an easy opening – his first few scenes are heavy on the recitative without making any greater demands – but then we get to his first aria, Sul mio cor so ben qual sia. This takes us straight into the realm of mental bravura, calling not just for crazy trills and virtuoso coloratura but also some immensely athletic skipping around between high and low notes. It’s a bit of a stunner. No sooner is that done then Farnaspe has to switch mood entirely for the exquisite Lieto così talvolta, which requires immaculate control of long sweeping lines, peppered with deft combat with the oboe.
We were, however, in entirely safe hands. Eloff effortlessly moved from majestic vocal gymnastics to gracious, almost ethereal pieces and, as ever, performed with real emotional conviction. Farnaspe’s suffering, alarm, cautious delight and outright joy were all acted as well as portrayed through music. It was certainly a performance worth waiting for.
So where does that leave us? Well, I’m waiting with interest for Parnassus’s CD to be released to see how their team measures up to the music. There are already some very brief teaser videos from their recording sessions, showing the rival Osroa, Adriano and Farnaspe tackling some of their arias (you need to scroll down the linked page until you reach posts from about 22 August). Let battle commence! But the key thing is that Opera Settecento have been able to set the bar and it’s pretty high, especially for Farnaspe. Interesting times ahead.
Beyond Adriano, of course, I’m eagerly awaiting Opera Settecento’s promised plunge into Hasse next year. One can only hope that the reliably superb Eloff will again be involved.As one last, absolutely final comment, I must applaud the artist who produced the delightful cartoons in the programme, which are featured above. I can’t immediately see a name given in the credits, but the signature seems to read Leasor. I just think they’re wonderful. Light-hearted, colourful and playful, they offer an immediate context for the libretto and never allow the opera to take itself too seriously. It is my considered opinion that more programmes should have cartoons.