(Opera Settecento at Cadogan Hall, 21 September 2016)
Another long-overdue post finally surfaces from the drafts folder! This time it’s Hasse’s Demetrio, to which I’d been eagerly looking forward. We don’t hear much Hasse in London and Opera Settecento had managed to gather a truly exceptional cast, featuring many of the singers I enthuse about repeatedly on this blog. Erica Eloff, Rupert Charlesworth and Michael Taylor were joined in a casting coup by Ray Chenez, whom I last saw as a manipulative and ultimately tragic Marzia at Versailles. On paper, it couldn’t fail. On the night, however, unsympathetic cutting of the opera resulted in a fragmentary show, which I felt didn’t do justice either to its splendid cast or to Hasse himself.
This is the Dresden version of Demetrio. In case you know as little about the opera as I do, this means it’s the rewritten second version. The opera was performed for the very first time at the theatre of San Giovanni Grisostomo in Venice in 1732, but Hasse tweaked it eight years later and presented it again at Dresden Opera House. It is, of course, based on a Metastasio libretto, which means the usual romantic entanglements, noble suffering and implausible last-minute changes of heart are all present and correct.
Although Metastasio based his plot on the early life of Demetrius II Nicator, a Seleucid ruler in the 2nd century BC, he was never one to let history get in the way of a good story. The opera’s acquaintance with fact is even more tenuous than usual and it relies on a fairly complex backstory. Demetrio, the old king of the Seleucid empire (i.e. Demetrius I Soter), has died in exile after being ousted from his throne by Alexander Balus. Handel, of course, would write an entire oratorio about Alexander several years later, but we don’t actually meet him here. We do, however, meet his brilliant young general Alceste (Michael Taylor).
Alceste is the son of a shepherd, who has risen from noble origins to become a brave warrior. In the process, he hasn’t just won Alexander’s esteem but also the love of his daughter Cleonice (Erica Eloff). Alceste’s star looks assured but, just before the opera begins, there is a great battle. Rumours have been spreading in Crete that Demetrio, the son of old Demetrio (keep up), is alive. If so, this would make him, rather than Alexander, the rightful king of Seleucia. So, the Cretans have risen up and attacked Alexander’s forces. The king has been defeated and killed; his forces have been scattered; and the dashing Alceste is missing in action.
As the opera opens, Cleonice reviews her options. Her father is dead, which makes her de facto queen of Syria and a powerful woman in her own right. However, she will need to marry, and soon, because the vultures have already begun to circle around the throne. She loves Alceste, of course, but he’s a shepherd and she knows that their difference in rank makes marriage impossible. Her other option is the arrogant young Olinto (Ray Chenez), the illegitimate son of the Syrian nobleman Fenicio, but Cleonice loathes his ambition, his posturing, and his childish sense of entitlement. If only there was someone she could trust! Perhaps Fenicio himself (Rupert Charlesworth)? He’s a solid, dependable fellow, and Cleonice knows that he has the kingdom’s own interests at heart: he was once a friend of the old king Demetrio and his political acumen has kept him safe under the new regime. Fenicio is also the mentor of young Alceste, whom he favours even above his own son, seeing that Alceste’s virtues are far superior to those of the spoiled Olinto. And then Cleonice has her maid, Barsene (Ciara Hendrick), although Barsene’s counsel might not be entirely disinterested, as she herself has feelings for Alceste.
Now, if anyone actually believes that Alceste is a shepherd, then you clearly haven’t seen enough operas. Of course he isn’t some rustic swain: on the contrary, unknown to him, he is the young Demetrio, who, as an infant, was smuggled away from his parents and fostered out of danger with some old retainers in the countryside. And who achieved this daring rescue? Why, none other than loyal Fenicio! Now, with his young lord grown to manhood, Fenicio decides that the time has come to reveal his true identity; but he must be careful. With his ally Mitrane (Augusta Hebbert), he begins to plan a royal restoration – knowing that in doing so he must destroy his own son Olinto’s dearest hopes of power.
And so, what will happen? Do you think we might finish with the lovers joined in marriage, the right king on the throne, the jealous rival humbled and everyone extremely happy and jolly? I couldn’t possibly comment…
Cleonice is really the main character: the opera turns on her choice of her husband and her difficulties in doing so. As you know, I’m a great fan of Eloff’s and have rarely seen her anything but utterly sublime; but it took her a while to warm up in this Demetrio and she wasn’t the only one. In fact, for most of the first act it sounded as the arias somehow hadn’t been set at the right level, forcing the singers into the less powerful parts of their range. In Eloff’s first aria, the coloratura didn’t quite sound snappy enough to my ears, although in her second – lamenting Cleonice’s lack of freedom to choose the man she truly loves – she gave a captivating performance, full of thwarted passion. She inhabited the character’s emotions as deeply as always, which served her well up against two would-be lovers who are similarly expressive singers. Usually, it’s true, Eloff would have carried the show for me… but here she had some very stiff competition.
I still couldn’t quite believe that we were lucky enough to have Ray Chenez in London, but it swiftly became clear why Opera Settecento had been so keen to engage him. Olinto benefits from the craziest, most challenging music in the opera. His opening aria, Di quell’ingiusto sdegno, was massively ornamented and demanding and, to some extent, this was true of all his arias that followed. So far I’ve only ever seen Chenez play stroppy characters and he really is very good at it, because he’s a delightful actor. To see him and Michael Taylor playing off against each other was sheer heaven. Taylor’s Alceste, radiant with bonhomie and generosity, arrived on the scene in Act I to be met with an absolutely thunderous expression on Olinto’s face. Bringing in elements of his disdainful Marzia, Chenez managed to throw some serious countertenor shade. As Alceste began to recount his adventures, Olinto cut in, sounding deeply bored, ‘Yes, Alceste, we’ve heard it all before! The battle… the storms…’ If this really is in the original libretto, then it turns out that Metastasio was more self-aware, and had a better sense of humour, than I thought. With a beatific smile, Taylor’s Alceste hardly even seemed to notice the slight.
Chenez’s second aria was an absolute stunner: I thought he did a fantastic job with something which had ‘insane showpiece’ written all over it and I’d love to hear him record some more music like this, because he delivers it with all the brattish disdain you could possibly desire from a Baroque antihero. (‘Please,’ I begged the stars at the end of it, ‘let him do Xerxes one day.’) Sung through the teeth, dripping with arrogance, this aria immediately catapulted Chenez up the list to become my new favourite operatic baddie. Poor Olinto gets his comeuppance in the end, though. At the end of the third act, he smugly bursts in with a sealed letter from the Cretan army, proclaiming their candidate for the throne, which he assumes will douse Alceste’s upstart ambitions. Chenez began to read the missive with delicious arrogance, and when he reached the section with Alceste’s name in it, stuttered to a halt looking so horrified that you almost felt pity for poor, thwarted Olinto. Maybe it’s just that I have a soft spot for villains, but he was far more interesting as a character than Alceste.
And so to the secondary roles. Hendrick, singing Barsene, had a lovely creamy voice, but was given a rather muted first aria, where her lower range was occasionally obscured by the orchestra. (Unfortunately this wasn’t an isolated problem.) Luckily for Hendrick she had a much prettier aria in the third act where, in one of Metastasio’s typically over-egged metaphors, she becomes a turtledove flying from a falcon (Olinto), only to fall into the lap of the hunter (Alceste). There, though the aria fails to specify, she is presumably plucked and roasted.
Charlesworth, of course, was a dream as Fenicio. His hair becomes ever more rakish and piratical every time I see him, and his Fenicio was something of a hipster nobleman, decked out in a waistcoat and open black shirt. His physical presence meant that it was hard to see this Fenicio as an old greybeard, but never mind. I’ve always admired his vocal performances, but here he was the star of the show for me – not because he got the best arias, but because he rode out the music more smoothly and strongly than the rest of the cast. His first aria, Ogni procella infida, was an affirmation of renewed hope, full of energy; while Act 2’s Disperato in mar turbato was a wonderful piece bristling with horns, and so distractingly familiar that it drove me almost mad wondering where I’d heard it before. Sartorially, Fenicio’s style was copied by his ally Mitrane. Hebbert (whom I last saw playing Casanova in a rather odd pasticcio at King’s Place) was resplendent in a waistcoat and scarf, and sang beautifully, although the opera doesn’t give Mitrane very much space to shine. Her first aria nagged at my mind, because I’m certain I’ve heard it before, but am yet to place it exactly.
One of my friends, who knows much more about Baroque opera than I do, was incensed by the amount of trimming involved – or perhaps its approach – pointing out in exasperation that ten of the arias were performed without their da capo sections. That might sound like a minor thing, but the whole point of a Baroque aria is that the da capo repetition allows for musical experimentation on the part of the singer and, from a psychological point of view, a moment of catharsis for both the character and the audience. Without it, the aria feels lopsided and somehow wrong. I don’t normally notice when sections have been cut, but here it was awkwardly obvious even to a newbie like me.
This raises the question of what to do with ‘rediscovered’ Baroque operas, and I’d be very interested to know what other people think. Should an unrecorded rediscovery really be focused on a single performance, like this? Wouldn’t it be better to channel all that hard work into making a CD for the benefit of a wider audience? I’ve always thought it a huge shame that so much work goes into these revivals and yet it can only be appreciated by the people who turn up to one concert. What if you’re ill or working or away on business? If an opera like Demetrio has to be cut so much to make it an ‘acceptable’ length, then are we really hearing Hasse’s opera at all? I can’t help thinking it’d be nice to be able to get a CD of the entire five-hour opera instead, which would do justice to the editor’s hard work. And that way you could approach the opera in true 18th-century fashion, having a bite to eat, stretching your legs and a glass of wine while you listen, rather than being trapped in the middle of the stalls fidgeting because you need the loo or fretting about catching the last train. A recording would also ensure that these rediscovered works wouldn’t be immediately lost again: they’d be there for people to buy and would contribute in the longer term to making Baroque operas more widely known and accessible. Something to consider. It’d help to raise the profiles of Opera Settecento and the singers too.
I wish I could be more gushing. Opera Settecento use some of my favourite singers and musicians and I admire their policy of seeking out the unusual and giving us the chance to hear these crazy, unfamiliar operas. But I have to clumsily fumble my way through my honest opinions, because that’s how I learn. Perhaps I’ve got the wrong end of the stick here: Robert Hugill gave Demetrio 4.5 stars, after all, and God knows he’s far more knowledgeable than I’ll ever be. But from my own layman’s viewpoint, I think Opera Settecento need to have a good hard look at how and where they cut arias, perhaps taking out a whole aria or two rather than cutting several in half, and I also feel it’d be good to focus a bit more on getting across the verve and energy of Hasse’s music. I know he can be lively and gripping because I’ve listened to the CD recording of Siroe; but if I were judging solely on the Martina Franca version of Artaserse and on this Demetrio, then as a newcomer I would be thinking twice about seeking him out again.
For another opinion, and a helpful diagram, have a look at Dehggial’s post.