Il Vologeso: Niccolò Jommelli (1766)

Vologases IV of Parthia

★★★

(Classical Opera, at Cadogan Hall, 28 April 2016)

Another rummage in the drafts folder has unearthed several music posts which are now well out of date, but I would still like to publish them for my own records. Please indulge me! Let’s start with an opera, which I saw in a concert version at the end of April. This was part of Classical Opera’s Mozart 250 project, which was inaugurated by last year’s Adriano in Siria by J.C. Bach.

This ambitious project aims, every year, to produce an opera written either by Mozart or by his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. And so, this year, it was the turn of 1766 and an opera first produced at Ludwigsburg, in the splendid palace of Charles Eugene, Duke of Württemberg (dedicatee of Bach’s 1744 Württemberg sonatas). The composer, however, was not  Bach but the Neapolitan Jommelli, and the subject was yet another of those gloriously labyrinthine stories of loyal lovers and dastardly princes: Il Vologeso.

As with Adriano, we’re in the Middle East, although this time in Parthia, not Syria, and the action takes place during the joint reign of Hadrian’s successors, Marcus Aurelius (who is namechecked but doesn’t appear) and Lucius Verus (who here becomes Lucio Vero, the villain of the piece). Vero has defeated the rebel Parthians, whose king Vologeso is missing, presumed dead, and has high hopes of marrying Vologeso’s beautiful widow Berenice. As usual with historical operas, the balance of good and bad doesn’t quite ring true: the real Vologases IV of Parthia had actually invaded the Roman province of Armenia and installed his own client king on the throne, so he wasn’t quite the wronged nobleman we see here. But that’s by the by.

Berenice (who presumably didn’t exist – ‘Berenice’, like ‘Arsace’, was a go-to name for Baroque librettists when creating ‘exotic’ characters) has naturally resisted the advances of her conqueror. However, as the opera opens Vero is throwing a grand feast, which he hopes will soften her heart. Matters are interrupted, however, when a slave brings Vero a chalice for his victory toast. Ever the gent, Vero offers it to Berenice first and the slave, alarmed, bursts out with a warning. Berenice knows his voice: it is Vologeso himself, disguised, who has poisoned the chalice. (It’s all go here: usually you have to wait until the finale for the poisoned chalice, but here you get it out the way in the first scene!) Ever true to her beloved, Berenice doesn’t betray him and, ignorant of his would-be murderer’s identity, Vero has him marched off to await his fate. Of course, he is to be thrown to the lions in the arena (echoes of Salustia here), but Vero discovers the truth just in time.

Vero isn’t quite as noble as Adriano was, and still hopes to strike a deal in which Vologeso gets his throne back, and he, Vero, gets Berenice. Unfortunately, like Adriano, he’s forgotten to factor in one tiny little inconvenient detail: the existence of his fiancée. In Vero’s case it’s even more awkward: his betrothed is Lucilla, daughter of his co-emperor Marcus Aurelius. With prompt inevitability, she arrives at Vero’s court with the Roman envoy Flavio in tow, hoping to convince Vero that it’s time for their engagement to be formalised. Flavio is rather startled to see Vero slavering over a foreign princess, rather than the wholesome Roman Lucilla, but Vero’s sidekick Aniceto watches and glories in his master’s distraction. Aniceto is in love with Lucilla and fancies his chances if Vero throws her over. And so the struggle begins – dressed up as a battle for political supremacy, but in reality revolving around a tyrant’s ungovernable lust for the wrong woman.

I’d come across some of the singers before: Baroque London is a small place and it was good to hear some voices at greater length. Rachel Kelly was the maid Mirinda in Cavalli’s Ormindo and the infinitely chic Proserpina in Monteverdi’s Orfeobut here she tugged on her trousers to fill the role of the noble Vologeso. Her strong, rich voice is slightly heavier on the vibrato than I’m used to, but its colour makes it very suitable for a trouser role, and I found her very impressive. She was slightly hamstrung by the fact that Vologeso doesn’t have much characterisation beyond Standard Virtuous Baroque Hero™, nor does he get much stage time after his rather action-packed opening scenes of attempted poisoning and battling lions. His operatic existence is peripatetic, spent shuttling back and forth from prison and occasionally making noble self-sacrificing gestures. However, Kelly managed to give him a bit of flair. She was joined on the trouser role side of things by Jennifer France, whom I don’t think I’ve seen before, singing Flavio. I very much liked her bright, confident soprano, but she felt a little underused – I was surprised she didn’t have more arias, on which more in a moment – and I hope to see her in another production soon, where she gets a bit more stage time.

It took me a while to warm to Gemma Summerfield’s Berenice, whom I found powerful but rather hard-edged at first. However, one might expect nothing less of a woman in Berenice’s unenviable position and I grew rather fond of Summerfield as we progressed. A particular favourite was her Act 2 aria Tu chiedi il mio core, in which she questions her best course of action in a beautiful piece, vacillating between anxiety and fierce defiance. She was also striking in Berenice, dove sei? in Act 3, where in an eerie recitativo accompagnato she is tormented with false visions of her husband’s death (thanks to Vero drawing on the power of dumbshows in a very Websterian fashion).

Angela Simkin’s Lucilla was rather less imposing, but very gentle and charming. Usually I find it hard to believe in wronged ladies who generously take back their erring lovers at the final curtain, but Lucilla was so utterly sweet (verging on desperately naïve) for the entire opera that it made sense for her to embrace Lucio Vero’s last-minute and somewhat out-of-character repentance. An amusing subtext was offered by Simkin’s advanced pregnancy, which unintentionally strengthened poor Lucilla’s case as the wronged betrothed. Suddenly it made perfect sense that Flavio, on behalf of Lucilla’s father, was pressing Vero for a marriage: ‘the wedding must go ahead; no more time for delay’.

The philandering Caesar himself was played by Stuart Jackson, whom I saw as Osroa in last year’s Adriano in Siria and about whom I was, then, somewhat ambivalent. Here too, in Act 1, I was a little lukewarm, although several friends had praised his talents enthusiastically to me beforehand. I just felt he wasn’t snappy enough on some of the faster coloratura, although I did note that his warm tenor seemed much more robust and resonant than it had before. But then Acts 2 and 3 kicked off, and they were a very different story. One of my concerns with Jackson’s Osroa had been that his performance just didn’t have enough dramatic verve. Either he’s done a lot more work on that side of things, or it’s easier to appreciate his style in the more intimate setting of the Cadogan Hall. He triumphantly came into his own during these last two acts, where he was able to focus on developing Vero’s character through recitativo, reaction and overall acting. Drawing out all Vero’s blind, lustful folly , he knew exactly where to pause or emphasise to draw a laugh from the audience. The result was that he became less of a paper tyrant and more of a misguided, multi-layered character – easier by far to identify with, perhaps, than the upright and virtuous Vologeso.

A final quick word on Aniceto, sung by the countertenor Tom Verney. I’ve seen Verney several times in the past and quite liked him on those occasions, but I’m afraid I wasn’t a fan at Vologeso. It wasn’t just that he was occasionally swamped by the orchestra, because this is a fate that also befell his fellow cast members. The problem was his control. He sounded insecure and wavering, and it was a shame because I’ve heard him in better voice before. Fingers crossed that he’ll be back to full form the next time I see him.

Ian Page

Ian Page of Classical Opera

Something I must point out – although I didn’t notice it for myself – is that the opera had been extensively cut. It wasn’t much shy of three hours as it was, but some of my more knowledgeable friends in the audience were rather indignant at the number of arias which had been stripped away. Once they started to point it out, I could see what they meant: every character should sing an aria before exiting the stage, for example, and that certainly wasn’t the case here. Vologeso, as primo uomo, should have had five arias to his name, but Kelly only had the chance to sing one and a half (if we count Vologeso’s duet with Berenice as a half). Neither Flavio nor Aniceto got a real opportunity to to show off, and the opera’s focus shifted very much onto Vero’s own desires and self-doubt. I’ve since bought the CD recording of the opera (which I presume is complete?) in the hope of finding out whether the full version offers a different slant on any of the characters.

However, let me stress: my overwhelming impression was very positive. It was the first time I’d heard Jommelli’s music at any length, and I found his style very attractive: still with the patterns of Baroque music, but with plenty of foreshadowing of Mozart and classical music. It was also interesting to see the extensive use he made of trios and quartets to close acts, which is something that I always associate with Mozart. Of course, the more I learn, the more I realise that nothing is new and that, for all his genius, Mozart was merely gilding an existing lily. My only real regret is that Classical Opera didn’t stage this, as they did with Adriano. Their stagings are always superb and, although I’m grateful to have heard the opera at all, I find it harder to lose myself in concert performances.

Dehggial and thadieu were also at Vologeso, so do pop over to their blogs to see what they made of it.

Now, I want to hear more Jommelli. I’ve added all the recordings I can find to my wishlist, but perhaps more erudite readers could advise me where to begin to get to know this composer a little better?

Jommelli: Vologeso

The curtain call at Cadogan Hall

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