(Festival Valle d’Itria, Martina Franca, 2011)
In late February 1730, Hasse’s Artaserse opened at the Teatro S. Giovanni Grisostomo in Venice, mere weeks after Leonardo Vinci’s version premiered in Rome. (I think you all know the story of this opera by now. However, if you’d like to refresh your memory, check here and possibly also take a look here.) Musically there’s quite a contrast between the two versions. Vinci’s simple lyricism gives way to Hasse’s ornamentation, bells and whistles. And it’s not just the music that’s different.
Metastasio’s ink was barely dry on the libretto, but Hasse engaged the theatre’s resident poet Giovanni Boldini to make some changes. Arias were cut or replaced, recitatives rewritten, and the end of the first act altered so that Mandane, not Arbace, had the closing aria. The last change might have been forced on Hasse. Unlike Vinci, he used female singers (Venetian laws were more tolerant than those in Rome). His prima donna was the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni. Somewhere I’ve read that she flew into a rage after reading a first draft, realising that Arbace had much better arias than Mandane. Hasse gritted his teeth, went to his primo uomo and asked for permission to change the end of Act 1 so that Cuzzoni ended in the limelight. Luckily for Hasse, his Arbace was being played by Farinelli, the nicest guy in 18th-century opera, and he agreed. Hasse made it up to him by writing a new showpiece in Act 3, in the place of what would have been L’onda dal mar divisa. Farinelli’s Parto qual pastorello may not be the most insane Baroque aria ever written, but is possibly the craziest that anyone nowadays has tried to sing.
Considering that they premiered almost at the same time, it’s rather neat that revivals of both Vinci’s and Hasse’s Artaserse were put on within months of each other in 2012. I’m not sure why it’s taken so long to get the Hasse DVD out, but let’s be grateful that we’ve got it at all. It was produced for the Festival della Valle d’Itria in Martina Franca, and staged outside in a public square, which has a certain impact on the set – monolithic and rather static. The acting is also on the static side: people tend to sing with one foot up on a step, and there aren’t many occasions when you have a sense of the interaction between the different characters. As for the costumes, they made me think of a 20th-century dictatorship: black military uniforms with gold braid and red stripes. The ladies have rather unflattering Empire-line gowns in dusky colours; they gain frogged boleros in the second half and glittering tiaras for the finale. The overall feel is rather dark and oppressive: entirely appropriate, you might say, but it lacked exuberance both aesthetically and dramatically.
Hasse also chose a different pattern of voice types. His Artaserse is a tenor (Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani), which is logical because tenors usually sing the role of the ruler or patriarch. Artabano, by contrast, becomes an alto (Sonia Prina). The chameleonic Prina is on fine form as a white-haired old man, chewing the scenery at every opportunity. Her technical flair is astounding, but in a way she doesn’t quite seem able to leave it alone: the bubbling coloratura risks taking over everything. The key exception, I should note, was her Pallido il sole, which was beautifully elegiac. While her performance was great, I can’t shake off the niggling feeling that Artabano should be a tenor. He’s the older figure after all and, although he’s not explicitly the ruler, he’s the one pulling the strings. Artaserse, by contrast, is a young, idealistic lover and so it’s more intuitive that he would have a higher, lighter voice. That also plays into his characterisation as a naive, rather floundering chap. Giustiniani has a nice clear voice and was perfectly fine in the role, but he didn’t give Artaserse a lot of personality. Crucially, I wasn’t really convinced by his supposedly deep friendship for Arbace. They don’t spend much time together, because here Artaserse runs off before Arbace sings Parto qual pastorello, and even when they are interacting I didn’t get a huge sense of emotional engagement.
Another change surprised me too. Semira (Rosa Bove) becomes a low mezzo or contralto in Hasse’s version. This changed my entire perception of the character. I’m used to thinking of Semira as fluttery, sweet and unworldly, but Bove’s performance was much more powerful. She benefits from some feistier arias: compare Hasse’s writing of Se del fiume altera to Vinci’s (no link available to Valer singing it; sorry). Bove’s Semira seemed exasperated rather than threatened, and even when Artabano gives her away to Megabise you don’t feel that she’s helpless. On the contrary, I was just waiting for her to knee him in the groin. Bove also has a kind of Persian handsomeness, which is rather fitting. As for Megabise himself… I am not objective, as you all know, and I really don’t like Hasse’s take on him full stop. I’m narked by the added recitative which tells us he’s nothing but a gutter rat who’s been given his big break by Artabano, to whom he is thus slavishly loyal. But even getting beyond my historian’s spluttering, I found him the weakest character here. That’s not to say Antonio Giovannini isn’t good: his voice is light and agile, and he had some very enthusiastic responses from the audience. It’s just that I found his voice a little bit thin, and high, so that he seemed almost insubstantial. And the role didn’t give him much of a chance. By making Semira stronger, you diminish Megabise, and in this production he’s less of a lecherous general and more of a mildly sexually frustrated pencil-pusher. Plus, his glasses with the military uniform kept reminding me of Himmler, which was unfortunate. He’s so much Artabano’s creature that it’s a bit of a shock to hear he’s had the initiative to fight a duel with Arbace at the end.
Arbace is, once again, sung by Franco Fagioli, so business as usual there. Right from the off, he has some seriously complicated music: Fra cento affanni develops some killer ornaments in the da capo section, and that’s even before we get to the positively acrobatic Parto qual pastorello. But that’s what you get when you’re singing a part written for Farinelli. Typically, Fagioli tackles it with aplomb, diving between head and chest voice like an agile cormorant, and the audience clearly loves it. Overall, his characterisation is much the same in Hasse as it is in Vinci. One difference is that Hasse’s Arbace is even more idiotically noble (“What? You’re freeing me? You mean I have to escape and avoid certain death? Must I?”). Another is that his relationship with Mandane is a lot more physical and tactile here than in the Vinci version. Perhaps that’s because Fagioli felt slightly more comfortable getting into public clinches with Maria Grazia Schiavo than with Max Cencic, but that’s just my own assumption.
But this has an important impact on the reading of Mandane’s character. In this version she comes across as softer and more fragile, intensified by the fact that her rage aria Dimmi ch’un empio sei is omitted and instead she gains Che pena al mio core, in which she explains her torn sympathies between father and lover, and her desperate suffering. Plus, Hasse includes the ‘dagger scene’, where Mandane is about to kill herself when Arbace rushes in to stop her, just before the duet, so again we see her frailty. She’s more obviously conflicted in Hasse – too much so, perhaps. When she marches in, demanding Arbace’s blood in Act 2, it feels if it’s come out of nowhere whereas, in Vinci’s version, the last time we saw her she was absolutely livid with him, so it makes more sense. I’ve seen Schiavo in other things and I like her a lot, but here I felt she didn’t manage to wring all the emotion out of the role. Ultimately, I like my Mandanes to be imperious but vulnerable – my favourite remains the splendid Marina Comparato in the Terradellas version. It pains me to say it, but in this Hasse production Semira is actually more majestic than Mandane.
I understand, of course, that I am horribly biased towards Vinci’s version, but I just feel this production lacks a bit of fizz. The music is much more ornamental than Vinci’s, which makes for lots of impressive skipping around and flamboyant trills, but I don’t think it does such a good job of getting the story across. That said, the cast are strong and there are some jaw-droppingly spectacular arias – not just Parto qual pastorello, but Artabano’s S’impugni la spada, which isn’t actually by Hasse at all but by Vivaldi (presumably another example of Baroque ‘borrowing’). And, while understanding the limitations of an outdoor stage, I’d have liked just a bit more exuberance in the costumes and set, and generally more emotional engagement in the acting. Although the Vinci version is self-consciously artificial and (let’s face it) a bit camp, the cast seem to be having a huge amount of fun, and it casts a spell which this production, for all its dark naturalism, simply can’t match
For those who can handle Italian, there’s a rather fun half-hour ‘making of’ documentary about the Hasse production, with cast and crew talking about the story, rehearsal footage and some clips from the final performance.
Now we just have to wait for someone to stage the Terradellas version, and for a full recording (please) of J.C. Bach’s setting. I still live in hope that the Royal Opera House might revive the Arne version which, despite the ghastly 18th-century English translation, seems from photos to have been the most visually magnificent production of the opera ever staged.