Classical Opera: La Cantarina (1766)

Rachel Kelly

Haydn: Symphony No. 34 in D Minor · Mysliveček: Arias from Semiramide · Haydn: La Canterina

(Classical Opera, directed by Ian Page, Wigmore Hall, 19 September 2016)

I deliberated long and hard about whether to rate this or not. After all, I don’t rate recitals but I do rate operas. Which was this? In the end, I decided that I would treat it as a recital, because the opera element was only one of three different sections. Plus, that saved me the trouble of having to think of a rating, so everyone’s a winner. But, had I rated it, it would have been very much a thumbs-up. This evening at the Wigmore was another stage in Classical Opera’s Mozart 250 project and introduced us to a variety of interesting works written in 1766, all performed with great elan by the orchestra and a quartet of admirable singers under the baton of Ian Page.

We began with Haydn’s Symphony No. 34 in D minor. I’m still getting to know Haydn – you might remember that I was pleasantly surprised by his Creation last year – and I very much enjoyed this piece, although I felt its structure was rather odd. Rather than the usual ‘sit up and take notice’ opening, this Baroque symphony began with an adagio, the violins gradually making themselves felt through the gentle undulations of the music. There was something autumnal about the melody, which soothed and lulled: all falling leaves and sudden bursts of rain. I had just relaxed when we leapt into the second movement, the allegro, and a sudden flourish of horns perked me up in my seat. If we follow the visual analogy, then our autumn forest clearing had suddenly been stirred up by a hunting party dashing through the leaves. Robust and jaunty, this allegro would make a splendid overture. Why on earth, I wondered, didn’t Haydn start with this and save the dreamy adagio for the middle of the symphony? But who am I to judge?

The third movement was a polite minuet – flogging the metaphor to death, this felt like a break from the hunt for afternoon tea. The wind instruments were prominent, pacing out the rhythm, and it all felt comparatively neat and tidy, but I missed the exuberance of the preceding allegro. I was happy, then, when we passed into the final movement, the presto assai. Here Page kept his orchestra at cantering pace, occasionally varying the spirit so it moved between refined and boisterous. At the heart of the movement was a playful exchange between violins and the bass instruments, rounded off with yet another cheery blast of musical panache. It was a good start – although I still feel it would have worked even better as allegro, minuet, adagio and presto assai. But that’s probably because I’ve missed some vital musicological point.

The instruments had had their moment in the sun and we passed on to some arias taken from Mysliveček’s opera Semiramide. Our team of warblers were the soprano Susanna Hurrell (replacing Ailish Tynan, who was indisposed), mezzo Rachel Kelly, mezzo Kitty Whately, and tenor Robert Murray. My knowledge of Mysliveček is even sketchier than my knowledge of Haydn, so I was really looking forward to this as the singers came on one by one to perform four of his arias.

Robert Murray

Robert Murray

First up was Murray, playing Ircano (‘a wild and unruly Scythian prince’, according to the programme), with Talor se il vento freme. He definitely has an agile voice; he’s one of the more swashbuckling tenors I’ve heard and he managed a lovely long ‘freme‘ in the first line. Occasionally greater vibrato crept into his voice and you could hear a belcanto tenor struggling to get out. He was generally very strong, although his higher notes occasionally felt unstable, but he was brave nevertheless, going for a rousing high note in the final repetition of the da capo. Since I’d never heard him before I was impressed. He was followed by Whately, playing Tamiri, the princess of Bactria who has just been rejected by the Indian prince Scitalce. This screamed out for a ‘miffed princess’ aria and I had high hopes for Tu mi disprezzi ingrato, but for some reason it just didn’t quite live up to expectations. Whately didn’t quite have Murray’s dramatic panache and I felt that she was being a bit too cautious in her rendition. Her singing was perfectly mellifluous and, in another kind of aria, I wouldn’t have found anything to complain about, but here I thought she could have had a harder edge ton her voice. Tamiri has just been turned down in front of her other suitors: she shouldn’t sound elegantly disappointed, surely; she should be fizzing with rage, spitting out the words and exuding sdegno from every pore!

Then was Kelly, playing Semiramide herself, who sees Scitalce’s rejection of Tamiri as justification for rekindling her own feelings for him (she is currently disguised as another of Tamiri’s suitors, for reasons which I’m sure would become clear if I ever saw the opera). She compares her renewed hopes to a shepherd who forgets the hard winter with the onset of spring in Di Scitalce… Il pastor se torna aprile. I’ve seen her twice before, once in Ormindo and once in Orfeo, and liked her voice on both occasions, but she really came into her own at this concert. Her strength and presence were impressive, and although her voice has a touch of vibrato, this never sounded too belcanto for the music. Incidentally, she has a habit of wearing very glamorous sheath dresses; first in Orfeo and now here. I liked her voice before, but thought she really came into her own on this night. She’s a talented actress, living the song through her expressions as much as through her voice, and her diction is so crisp and clear it’s a pleasure to listen to her. All in all, it was a very pretty aria, in which flutes were predictably wheeled out for the pastoral subject, playing at cuckoos and cleverly echoing Kelly’s ‘risuonar‘.

Finally Hurrell came on for Fiumicel che s’ode appena, looking very elegant in a sequin-bedecked grey gown. I’d previously seen her in Ormindo, where she made a great impression – partly because of her all-in-one bed-dress, but largely because of her perfectly-judged acting. Here she was playing Mirteo, Semiramide’s brother, who ends up being the successful candidate for Tamiri’s hand in marriage. Hurrell’s voice is very elegant, but not quite as rich as Rachel’s. Nevertheless she is very swift and supple, and there was some machine-gun coloratura that almost recalled the Queen of the Night on the ‘piacer‘ in the first A section. The B section was very impressive, with a final swelling note on the last ‘piacer‘. With all our singers introduced to it, it was time to take a break for the interval before the main event.

Susanna Hurrell

Susanna Hurrell

This was Haydn’s mini opera La Canterina. It’s a frothy little piece devoid of seriousness, and is formed from two short acts which originally served as intermezzi: combined, they come to little over an hour. It follows two shrewd con-women, Gasparina and Apollonia, who have taken rooms in the house of the wealthy Don Pelagio (Murray) in the hope of charming away the nobleman’s fortune. Apollonia (Kelly) is masquerading as a genteel widow, hiding her youth behind theatrical makeup, whose qualities she praises at length in the opening aria. Her friend Gasparina (Hurrell) takes on the role of the widow’s pretty daughter, with whom Don Pelagio is already infatuated and to whom he gives singing lessons in the hope of seducing the ‘artless’ girl. As the opera opens, the two women are waiting for Don Pelagio’s arrival but, when a knock comes at the door, it’s actually another of Gasparina’s admirers, Don Ettore. Having been convinced that Gasparina loves him and him alone, this bumbling youth (Whately) has come to give her a diamond bracelet and with such a calling card, the women can’t resist letting him in.

But problems arise when Don Pelagio turns up for the singing lesson. The women convince him that Don Ettore is only a merchant, and dispatch Don Ettore downstairs to a cafe while Don Pelagio takes Gasparina through a piece he has written for her – a pastiche of a romantically mournful high Baroque aria. He uses this as an attempt to conquer the young woman’s modesty, but Gasparina is too canny for him. When Don Pelagio leaves, she calls Don Ettore back to flirt with him, but in a shocking turn of events, Don Pelagio comes back under the guise of having forgotten something. He is enraged to see Gasparina in another man’s company and threatens to evict both her and her ‘mother’. As the second act opens, we see the two women being turned out by bailiffs, but Gasparina saves the day by fainting in an ostentatiously tragic manner. Both Don Pelagio and Don Ettore are alarmed, and discover that the swooning beauty can only be revived by having large quantities of cash or diamonds waved under her nose. Charmed by this peculiarity, both gentleman are mollified and the opera ends with Gasparina and Apollonia being allowed back into their home and – implicitly – continuing to make fools of both the men.

This is pure and simple fun, and the best thing about it is the way that Haydn parodies the conventions of opera seria. His characters are gulls and tricksters, but they’re consumed by all the rage, despair and passion that you’d find in any good Metastasio libretto. The piece isn’t meant to stick in the mind, but it makes a charming interlude: a palate-cleanser for the mind. All four singers performed very well, with Hurrell’s vivacious acting coming to the fore as Gasparina, and Kelly’s gorgeous voice giving Apollonia a matronly dignity. The two ‘men’ were suitably naive: Murray played Don Pelagio, the prey who believes he’s the predator, with great relish; and although Whately’s role as Don Ettore was modest, she carried it off very well. Light and nonsensical, it was a perfect way to round off the evening and proof that, even in the 18th century, opera seria was ripe for mockery.

Classical Opera’s Mozart 250 project continues to unearth some hidden gems that we probably wouldn’t have the chance to hear otherwise, and as ever I’m very impressed by the effort and commitment that the team have put into this series. I think this is the last installment for this year, and we’ll reconvene with them in January for an introductory concert containing some of the loveliest music written in 1768. I can’t wait!

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Kitty Whately

Kitty Whately © Natalie J. Watts

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