(Opera Settecento at St George’s, Hanover Square, 28 March 2017)
I’m running slightly behind on London Handel Festival reports, but didn’t want to forget this remarkable Orsmida, dominated by an absolutely brilliant performance from the talented mezzo Maria Ostroukhova. Like Catone and Elpidia in previous Festivals, Ormisda is a pasticcio, pulled together by Handel using arias from other composers’ operas. Not only did this enable him to fill one of the slots in the 1730 opera season, easing his workload a little, but it also introduced London audiences to some top arias from the Continent. Ormisda pulls together some very enjoyable music by Hasse, Orlandini, Vinci, Leo and Giacomelli, to tell a classic opera seria tale of dynastic politics in ancient Persia.
The story opens with the coronation of Artenice, queen of Armenia. Since her father’s death, she has been the ward of the Persian king Ormisda, who decrees that she will marry whichever of his sons becomes his heir. Both these sons are equally noble, but Artenice already has eyes for the younger, Arbace, the son of Ormisda’s second wife Palmira. And Palmira, in the best tradition of Persian queens, is absolutely determined that her child will get the throne. The only problem is that Cosroe, Arbace’s half-brother, is older and a warrior of confirmed valour. He, too, loves Artenice. If Palmira can get her own way, and hasten Cosroe’s shuffle off this mortal coil, then Arbace will happily get both throne and girl. But what will the virtuous young man do, when he realises that in order to fulfil his mother’s dearest wish, and win the light of his heart, he will have to be accessory to the murder of his beloved older brother?
This is a relatively simple plot by Baroque standards and I was relieved, as I was still recovering from the complexities of Faramondo. Opera Settecento had gathered many of their usual singers along with a couple of new faces, making a strong cast overall. Of those I hadn’t heard before, the most striking was Maria Lys as Artenice. Based on the number of arias for each character, she’s joint protagonist along with Palmira, and the future and current queens offer two very different visions of womanhood: love against envy; sweetness against vindictiveness; honesty against guile. Lys has a very clear and bright soprano, which made easy work of her elegant first aria, Hasse’s Pupillette vezzosette, making it sound refined and very graceful. Her second Act I aria was Hasse again, Non ti confonder, and here she had a chance to show off her fine emotional engagement with the character. I was struck by the power behind her bell-like tones and the frustration she managed to convey: this was evidently a delicate but strong princess.
Palmira was sung by Ciara Hendrick, whom I last saw as Barsene in Demetrio. She got to kick off with a Vinci aria, Infelice, abbandonata, which wasn’t one of his absolute best, and required her to dip into the deeper end of the mezzo range. I noticed, as I hadn’t in Demetrio, that she sings with quite heavy vibrato, which sometimes disguised the actual ornamentation of the aria. I’m not one of those people who automatically disapproves of vibrato in Baroque, but here it felt just that bit too much. Palmira also has the honour of closing Act I, with Hasse’s Se quel cor con nobil vanto, which was a rather enjoyable aria, with Chad Kelly banging industriously away on the harpsichord and the violins playing so energetically that Guy Button broke a string. Hendrick was perfectly good vocally, but I couldn’t help thinking she needed a bit more scene chewing. This is, after all, a woman scheming to spill the blood of her stepson. It’s one of the few occasions where the chewing of scenery is not only appropriate, but required.
Acts II and III gave the two ladies further chances to shine. Palmira has two more arias here: Nel tuo amor by Orlandini, a very pretty and romantic aria with fluttering ripples of notes; and Timido pellegrin by Giay, which was unfortunately overshadowed by the absolutely stonking aria that preceded it, but gave Hendrick the chance to show off some of her vocal suppleness. Finally, in Act III, she brought everything to the fore for Se mi toglie il tuo furore by Hasse, where the scene-chewing burst into life. There was much to love in this aria: a cantering pace, Hendrick’s raging, trembling coloratura, and much flashing of eyes. Wonderful stuff. As for Artenice, she was keeping a bit of a low profile in Act II, until she closed the act with Vinci’s Sentirsi dire, which Lys once again performed with poise and refinement. She evoked all the character’s grief in her voice, but without weighing down the prettiness of the aria. (‘Vinci’, I wrote in my notes, ‘could write a good tune’.) Act III allowed her to save up her energy for two arias in the final few minutes: first Passagier che in selva oscura, by Hasse, where her bright voice wove a glimmering net over the low strings, and there was excellent ornamentation in her da capo section. But her most impressive aria was Agitata dal vento, by an unknown composer. As in Catone, Handel seems to have decided to finish with a flashy aria to wake everyone up, and Lys showed off exactly how good she is at vocal acrobatics. Very impressive.
Ormisda himself was sung by John-Colyn Gyeantey, whom we saw recently as Pan in Cavalli’s Calisto and as Eumaeus in Monteverdi’s Ulisse for English Touring Opera. I liked him very much in those, but here I found it slightly harder to warm to him. Partly this was because he was singing in a heavier, more bel canto style, with a lot of vibrato which sometimes loosened his very fast coloratura. It also sounded as if he was holding back from some of the higher notes, although I don’t yet know his voice well enough to know why this might be. To be fair to Ormisda, he doesn’t have the best music in the piece. He does get to start off with a storm aria, courtesy of Se non sa qual, by an unknown composer, but his following arias Non fumina ancor by Orlandini, Si, si lasciatemi (by the same) and Speranze del mio cor by Giacomelli, didn’t give him the chance to shine. Poor Ormisda. It’s a simple truth that, if your name’s on the opera, you don’t get the best arias. However, at least Ormisda did get a few, unlike poor Erismeno (Nicholas Mogg), a satrap who is Palmira’s confidant. He only got one, Come l’onda furibona by Fioré – though, to be fair, that was a storm aria and thus worth two. To his credit, Mogg strapped on his swagger and went swashbuckling into it. I noted down afterwards that there is definitely space for more baritones doing storm arias. His ability made up for the fact that his character is utterly useless at court intrigue (“Dagger? What dagger?”).
In theory, I would have expected Cosroe to get the best music. He has four arias to his brother’s three, and in the original performance he was sung by Bernacchi, who was replaced in December 1730 by the then superstar Senesino. But I was surprised that he didn’t get any blazing showpiece arias. All his music is quite gentle and romantic, which was actually a godsend for Tom Verney, singing the role. I’ve seen Verney a few times now and fiery drama isn’t his strong point, but he is good at the sweeter, more graceful arias. He set the scene for his performance with Ricordati ch’è mio by Orlandini, which allowed him to show off his graceful middle range, and E quella la bella (also by Orlandini) offered him much the same: a simple, almost lullaby-like aria which didn’t make any startling demands. He did, however, turn in a nicely-held long note on ‘sen va‘. Act II continued the pattern, with Reo mi brami (by an unknown) sounding incredibly polite and graceful for a man who’s just been condemned to death; but Act III gave him something slightly different in the form of Orlandini’s Di mia costanza. This was angrier and Verney tackled the coloratura with flair; it was a creditable job but could just have done with a bit more oomph. He just isn’t quite up to primo uomo levels of power yet (I found myself wondering, unfairly, what Ray Chenez would have made of his arias), but Verney is getting better every time I hear him.
As soon as I saw the cast list, I’d been wondering why Verney had been given the primo uomo part rather than Maria Ostroukhova, here playing a man for the first time that I’ve seen. Judging their voices in a gender-blind fashion, she is the better singer. But the mystery was solved as soon as I heard the arias assigned to each character. Cosroe, as I’ve said, gets the gentle and elegant arias. Arsace, however, reaps every single utterly mental aria in the piece. Interestingly, Ostroukhova is following precedent in playing this role: the very first Arsace in 1730 was also a woman, Francesca Bertoldi. Despite having only three arias, there’s no doubt that this role not only steals the show but carries it off cackling in a bag painted with the word ‘swag’. Although, to be fair, that was mostly Ostroukhova’s performance. I knew I was going to love her when she came on at the beginning – in a concert performance, mark-you – with a moustache and goatee drawn on her face. With her tumbling curly hair and a ruffled blouse, she looked like a rakish Stuart fop who’d escaped from Charles II’s court. And she sang like a dream.
Her first aria was by an unknown composer, Tacerò se tu lo brami, but the melody was compellingly bouncy and Ostroukhova threw in effortless ornamentation as though it cost her nothing at all. Moreover, she effectively staged her performance, acting even when she wasn’t singing and occasionally roaming away from her stand even as she sang. It’s no mean feat to be the last main character to sing in Act I, and still to blow everyone else off the stage. She compounded her victory in Act II, with Tuona il ciel by Leo. It fulfilled all the promise of the title: a truly swaggering aria, and again she sang as if it was easy (this was the aria which overshadowed Palmira’s Timido pellegin). I’d forgotten how deep and rich her voice is: as Dehggial said later, you can well imagine her ending up as a contralto later in her career. Her final delivery of pyrotechnics was in Act III with another aria of unknown parentage, this time Io corro pietoso, in which Arsace begs for the life of his imprisoned brother. Again the notes came fast and tumbling and effortless, and I wished fervently that Handel had seen fit to squeeze in a couple of extra arias for the character. Yet, with only three, Ostroukhova dominated the night.
Naturally I always get very excited about Persian stories, but this one is harder than usual to pin down. We’re certainly no longer in the Achaemenid period, as we are with Xerxes and Artaserse. We seem instead to be in the Sasanian period, and the closest historical parallel I can find is with the reign of Hormizd IV, who ruled from 579 until 590. Admittedly the correspondences are slim, as the librettist (Apostolo Zeno) seems to have romanticised it all even more than usual. But Hormizd’s name fits; and his son and successor was Khosrow II, so that fits too. Khosrow is a bit of a hero in Persian literature, primarily as the protagonist in a romantic epic, Ḵosrow o Širin, written by the poet Neẓāmi. This tells the story of Khosrow’s love for the princess Shirin, who in some of the legends becomes Armenian. Goodness knows if this is the correct source or, if so, how on earth Zeno transformed this into his opera – but the names of king and crown prince, and the idea of a royal Armenian love interest, seem to link to it. Zeno just added in another brother, calling him Arsace (the standard opera seria catch-all name for any fictional Persian hero), and added one of those thoroughly implausible final scenes where noblesse is oblige to give up his dearest wish in order to make everyone happy.
Overall, I felt this was much stronger musically than Elpidia last year and Catone back in 2015 (with the exception of Erica Eloff’s Vo solcando). Handel seems to have found a good balance of very strong arias, balancing beautifully elegant music with a few show-off pieces. The orchestra of Opera Settencento performed them beautifully, under the expert baton of Leo Duarte. And the combined forces of Lys and Ostroukhova left me feeling as if I’d witnessed something seriously good. I’ll be keeping a sharp eye on both of them from now on, needless to say. Something about Ostroukhova’s energy, dramatic flair and vocal richness has made me dub her ‘the new Hallenberg’ in my mind. Let’s see.
It’s just a shame that so few of these pasticci are recorded. I’d love to hear these arias again. I see that ‘Handel’s’ Catone has recently been released with a strong cast including Sonia Prina, but there is definitely room for an enterprising company to record more of these little gems. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.