Venceslao: George Frideric Handel and Friends (1731)

Renaissance Polish Costume

★★★½

(26 April 2019, Opera Settecento, St George’s Hanover Square; London Handel Festival)

It’s rare for a Baroque opera to look beyond the ancient world for its subject and rarer still for a librettist to look at Central and Eastern Europe; but Opera Settecento are brilliant at unearthing unusual pieces for us. This opera is (apparently) inspired by the life of Wenceslas II of Bohemia and Poland, though when I say ‘inspired’, I mean of course that opera and history bear no relation to one another. We can’t even blame Metastasio for this, because the libretto was written by Apostolo Zeno (I like to think that Metastasio would at least have tried to get some historical accuracy). Zeno’s tale is an identikit Baroque story of love, lust and power and, if I’m going to be perfectly honest, it never quite hangs together. Part of that is due to the plot, on which more shortly; but it’s exacerbated by the fact this is a pasticcio. Handel probably didn’t write anything except the recitatives: the rest was cobbled together from other composers – arias from other versions of Venceslao or from completely different operas – as a quick fix to keep audiences happy while he worked on his next original piece. On the bright side, there’s an awful lot of Leonardo Vinci here, which makes me very happy.

Venceslao’s general Ernando has just won a magnificent victory and, when the grateful king offers him a reward, he asks for the hand in marriage of the beautiful Erenice. This is actually a cunning piece of misdirection: Ernando doesn’t love Erenice, but he knows that Venceslao’s son Alessandro does (and is reciprocated). Being a Good Chap, Ernando plans to get Venceslao’s approval and then hand Erenice’s hand on to Alessandro. I’m not entirely sure why Alessandro can’t just ask his dad himself, but he’s also a Good Chap, so maybe he’s just a bit shy. Or maybe it’s something to do with his brother Casimiro (hear that foreboding music?), who is very definitely Not A Good Chap and also has designs on Erenice. Casimiro is determined to marry Erenice and decides that the perfect way to achieve this is to murder anyone who gets in his way. He heads off to Erenice’s room to inform her that she will be his queen (he’s one of those men who clearly doesn’t understand the word ‘no’ when used by a woman), but discovers he’s too late! Erenice is already hitched! Assuming that his rival is Ernando, Casimiro kills him in the dark – at least, I’m assuming it must have been very dark for reasons we’ll discover in a moment – and runs off, clearly assuming this will overcome any issues that Erenice has with him.

Nick Pritchard

Nick Pritchard

But, crisis! When Casimiro is summoned before his father, there stands Ernando. So who on earth has he just stabbed? He is horrified when it turns out that Erenice’s new husband was actually none other than his brother Alessandro – as I said, it must have been very dark. Suddenly Erenice and Ernando are both demanding that he pay the ultimate price, and Venceslao grimly condemns his son to prison while he thinks about what to do. Casimiro submits surprisingly quietly – probably still in shock – and is taken off to be put in chains. (Incidentally, you might want to start playing Baroque bingo with this plot.) Now, I’ve already told you that Casimiro is a weasel for thinking that a woman is obliged to marry him just because he wants her; but there’s more! Oh yes, my friends. For it turns out that Casimiro is not only a weasel, but a bigamist weasel. Enter Lucinda, queen of Lithuania, who was secretly betrothed to Casimiro during a recent flirtation, and who has now come to claim her rights as his wife. Obviously, because this is a Baroque opera, she comes disguised a man, calling herself Lucindo, because clearly no one will ever guess that it’s her. Casimiro, not being a blithering idiot, does recognise her on their first meeting and fulfils what we’d expect of his weaselly temperament by claiming he doesn’t know what she’s talking about and certainly never married her.

Let’s just sum this up so far for those of you playing Baroque bingo. Two brothers, one good, one bad. Two brothers in love with the same woman. A slighted fiancee in disguise as a man. Protagonist chained and thrown into dungeon. All caught up? On we go. Lucinda reveals her true identity and starts petitioning Venceslao for clemency, because Casimiro isn’t just subject to his authority any more: he’s also king of Lithuania. At the same time, Venceslao has Ernando and Erenice clamouring for the death penalty; and let’s not forget that one of his own sons has been murdered by the other. He comes up with an excellent compromise, in which he grants Lucinda’s wish and announces that she and Casimiro will be married, thereby satisfying her claim; immediately afterwards puncturing their happiness by saying that Casimiro should be aware he’s also going to die today. The party spirit is obviously a bit spoiled and, while Casimiro goes back to jail, Lucinda pulls her sleeves up and starts to organise a popular uprising. Goodness knows why the people actually like Casimiro, but they do, and soon the palace is being beseiged by a lot of angry plebs demanding that Casimiro should not only live, but become king.

Michal Czerniawski

Michał Czerniawski

Ernando and Erenice are taken aback by this, but swear their continued vengeance to one another – only for Ernando to switch sides in the course of about seven lines and to start mumbling that, you know, maybe they’d better listen to the will of the people. And so, in one of the most bizarre endings I’ve yet seen, Venceslao capitulates. Far from the villain getting what he deserves, Casimiro is freed from jail, given Lucinda as his wife, and given the crown by his abdicating father. Let’s go over that again. He stalks a woman who isn’t interested in him, plots to murder his father’s greatest general, murders his brother, denies his affianced wife, and gets rewarded for all of it. It isn’t even like Poppea, where everyone is totally amoral but also quite cool, so you’re actually on their side. He even announces that Ernando can marry Erenice, which apparently makes everyone so happy that they totally forget about poor, murdered Alessandro. The final chorus, with Casimiro and Lucinda happily singing about wedded bliss, and everyone else bowing the knee to the new king, leaves a rather unpleasant taste in the mouth.

The plot is therefore deeply silly, with holes you could sail the Titanic through, but there’s a lot of very delightful music, because Handel seems to have mined Vinci’s Medo wholesale for arias. The choice of music does seem to have been largely pragmatic: he had lots of new singers in 1731, alongside old pros like Senesino, and so many of the arias were things the singers were familiar with from their time in Italy. Not all are sung as da capo arias and, in fact, one or two just had the A-section without even the B-section to follow; but this may have been Handel’s doing. He certainly arranged for the Venceslao libretto to be cut from its full five acts to three, knowing that his English audience had limited patience, and I’m sure this is why the plot just feels so weird – because almost half of it’s been cut away and we must have lost a lot of recitative that explains why the characters are behaving in such bizarre ways.

Helen Charlston

Helen Charlston

There were a lot of familiar faces in this cast, with Nick Pritchard taking the title role of Venceslao. Tenors never get the best arias, although I did rather enjoy Balenar con giusta legge, written by Carlo Francesco Pollarolo (a name new to me) for his Venceslao in 1722. It had a wonderful tune and Pritchard coped well with the demanding coloratura – though he’s at his best in gentler arias, where his articulate, light tenor really holds his own. One such example was Ecco l’Alba d’un giorno sereno, an aria of unknown authorship which had the same kind of tempo as Handel’s Where’er you walk, and which Pritchard sang with beautifully-controlled melismas of notes. As his loyal general Ernando, Olivia Warburton was apparently suffering a slight indisposition, but she nevertheless had a lovely rich voice and went with gusto into her first aria, Se gia di Marte io son Guerriero, which is listed as a parody of a Vinci aria. It certainly did sound an awful lot like him. Unfortunately, due to her illness, she bowed out from singing Vuo ritrar della tempesta, another anonymous aria, although the orchestra did play the rather promising ritornello (I do like a good storm aria).

Christopher Jacklin paired the roles of poor Alessandro, who gets bumped off halfway through (quite rare for a Baroque opera – unless we think of Seneca in Poppea), and the courtier Gismondo, but he was desperately underused, without a single aria. Such is the fate of Good Chaps. Bad Chaps, on the other hand, get a lot of good music, as proven by Michał Czerniawski’s Casimiro. Mind you, when you’re singing a role written for Senesino, you can probably expect some rather fabulous music. Czerniawski is good on the gentler long lines and can pull a fine high note out of the bag, but his lower range isn’t always all that grounded. It seems that he had some difficulty projecting over the orchestra and I was never quite convinced by his ability to pull off the more dramatic pieces. Unfortunately I’m quite critical of my countertenors and, although he certainly has a pleasant voice, I thought he could have had a bit more swank and panache in his main storm aria, the fabulous D’ira armato from Vinci’s Medo, which rounded off Act I. I did, however, enjoy another Medo aria just before the interval, Parto e mi sento, which allows for those long lines that work well with Czerniawski’s voice. I think maybe it’s just a case of different voices being suited to different ‘temperaments’ of music.

Galina Averina

Galina Averina

Erenice, the lady at the centre of the crisis, was sung by Galina Averina, whose rich voice and swelling full notes were a delight to listen to. She has a very agile voice which coped very well with the sprightly coloratura required in arias like Io sento al cor dardi d’Amor, taken from Giacomelli’s Lucio Papirio dittatore of 1723, and her rendition of Son belle in Ciel from Porta’s Ulisee of 1725 was elegant with some beautiful high notes, set off by solos from the first violin. I would also be remiss not to mention Come nave in ria tempesta, from Porpora’s Semiramide of 1724, a wonderful storm aria which concluded Act II, which was a bit of a blinder. But I have to confess that, for me, the evening’s highlight was Helen Charlston’s Lucinda. She had some very good music and her voice was colourful, dark-toned and spicy with a wonderfully expressive quality. I thought Lascia il lido, from Porpora’s Amare per regnare of 1723, was beautiful; and she seemed to thoroughly enjoy her rage aria, Per mia vendetta ingrato, from Orlandini’s Antigona of 1727, which she delivered with force and fun, even throwing in a little swagger in the middle. I’m not aware of having seen her before – she was the one unknown quantity in this cast – but I’ll definitely be looking out for her hereafter.

Opera Settecento continue to delight in finding these pasticci, and I really hope they pull off their plan to record some of the arias – mainly because I want more Vinci to be recorded, because its amazing and I genuinely believe he’s one of the best Baroque composers, blending sentiment and extravagance in just the right degrees. This was a feast of Vinci, which I hadn’t quite expected, but even that wonderful music couldn’t hide the fact that Venceslao, in this form, is not a success as a narrative. Perhaps due to Handel’s ruthless cuts, and perhaps due to its paint-by-numbers plotline, it feels like a series of vignettes rather than a credible story – and the ending is truly bizarre for an age when virtue was rewarded and vice punished. But, as a chance to hear some new arias by a feast of different composers, much of whose work is never now performed, it was quite a treat – and congratulations to Opera Settencento and to their indefatigable musical director, Leo Duarte, who threw himself into the conducting with great gusto.

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Disclaimer: The image I’ve used as a header is, obviously, nothing to do with this particular opera, but – having failed to find any decent image of the historical Wenceslas II, I decided to search for ‘medieval Polish costume’ as a way to give a flavour of this opera’s world. As it happens, this tunic from Pearson’s Renaissance Shoppe is actually based on 16th-century Polish costume but, the minute I saw this photo, it just said ‘Casimiro’ to me.

Olivia Warburton

Olivia Warburton

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