Orlando: George Frideric Handel (1733)

Ricci: Angelica and Medoro

★★★½

(La Nuova Musica with David Bates at St John’s Smith Square, 1 February 2018)

I’ve seen a lot of very silly operas in my time, but Handel’s Orlando really does take the biscuit. Based loosely on Canto 23 of Ariosto’s Renaissance romance, Orlando Furioso, it tells the story of Charlemagne’s great paladin, who is driven mad by his unrequited love for the pulchritudinous princess Angelica. Let’s be glad that I’m not judging it solely on the libretto by Carlo Sigismondo Capece, which features paper-thin characterisation and the most egregious deus ex machina ending I’ve seen so far. I’m also judging it on Handel’s music, which includes some rather delicious arias, and on the performance of La Nuova Musica and their cast, which was extremely strong. Best of all, this concert performance featured a vivacious performance by Laurence Zazzo in the title role and a general tongue-in-cheek approach that acknowledged the silliness of the story to the full. It didn’t stop the opera from being complete nonsense, but it did make it fun to watch.

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The Return of Ulysses: Claudio Monteverdi (1640)

Monteverdi: The Return of Ulysses

★★★★

(Royal Opera House & Early Opera Company at the Roundhouse, 19 January 2018)

We now use the word nostalgia to mean a bittersweet memory of the past or, sometimes, a desire to go home. But the original Greek has a slightly different meaning. Nostos means, not ‘home’, but ‘the act of returning home’. And algos means ‘pain’. Thus, in its original form, nostalgia literally means ‘the pain of homecoming’. And that strange emotion is at the very heart of this bleak but intelligent production of Monteverdi’s late opera, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, rendered here in an excellent English translation by Christopher Cowell. While I think that Ulisse is, overall, my least favourite musically of Monteverdi’s operas, this stripped-back production proves that it’s capable of packing a powerful emotional punch.

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L’Incoronazione di Dario: Antonio Vivaldi (1717)

Dario 20

★★★★

(Teatro Regio Torino, directed by Ottavio Dantone, 2017)

My New Year’s Day treat was this opera, staged at the Teatro Regio in Turin earlier this year and now released on DVD. I already knew the CD recording, conducted by Dantone with a slightly different cast, but I always find it difficult to truly appreciate an opera until I’ve seen it staged. The adventurous Dehggial and Thả Diều actually went to Turin to see it in the flesh, and their posts whetted my appetite; not that it needed much whetting. How could I resist an opera about Darius I, which neatly forms the third instalment of a Baroque Persian trilogy, alongside Xerxes and Artaserse? Served up with intrigue, romance and a very, very silly princess, this proved to be a deft comedy, well worth the wait.

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L’Incoronazione di Poppea: Claudio Monteverdi (1643)

Monteverdi: L'Incoronazione di Poppea (Berlin)

★★★★

(Berlin Staatsoper, conducted by Diego Fasolis, 13 December 2017)

Berlin’s Staatsoper has just reopened after a seven-year refurbishment. On Wednesday, the house was sold out as people gathered to celebrate its freshly gilded finery. And what was on the menu for the grand reopening? Not a safe and predictable opera – a Tosca or a Bohème – but a dose of Roman passion and psychosis from the 17th century. With only three performances (this was the last, until its projected revival next summer), this Poppea felt intense, fresh and daring. It wasn’t without its wobbles, but it featured some very strong casting and offered a compelling picture of a court in thrall to an egotistical, unpredictable sun king. Unsurprisingly, I’ve got slightly carried away with the length of this post, so you may wish to furnish yourself with a cup of tea before starting. There are, however, some very pretty pictures.

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The School of Jealousy: Antonio Salieri (1778)

Salieri: The School of Jealousy

★★★★

(Bampton Classical Opera at St John’s Smith Square, 12 September 2017)

Full of wit, farce and playfulness, The School of Jealousy was an instant hit, becoming one of the best-loved operas in Europe within a decade of its premiere in 1778. It told a story that was immediately accessible: a jealous, bourgeois buffoon locks away his pretty wife, only to bring her to the attention of a philandering nobleman. It’s a tale of love, lust and forgiveness, scripted by the poet Caterino Mazzolà and tweaked here and there by the young Lorenzo da Ponte. Musically, it sparkles: vivacious, ironic and colourful, it shows that Salieri in his prime was already a master of the comic idiom that would become indelibly associated with a certain younger contemporary of his.

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Mitridate Re di Ponto: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1770)

michael-spyres-as-mitridate-c2a9-roh-photo-by-bill-cooper.jpg

★★★★

(Royal Opera House, 7 July 2017)

Mitridate, king of Pontus, is missing, presumed dead. His two sons, Farnace and Sifare, have returned from the battlefield to skulk around their father’s palace and engage in the traditional pastime of operatic royalty: viz. each scheming to beat the other to the throne. Farnace, billed as the ‘evil’ son, is considering an alliance with the wicked Romans. Sifare, the ‘good’ son, is deeply in love with his father’s intended bride, the beautiful princess Aspasia. Plots are well underway when – shock horror! – it turns out that Mitridate isn’t actually dead at all, but has allowed such rumours to spread in the hope of testing his sons’ loyalty. When he returns to Pontus, the scene is set for a right royal show-down. One of Mozart’s first operas, written when he was only fourteen, this has its issues – numerous issues – as a piece of work, but it’s presented in the Royal Opera House’s classic and extravagant production, with a really splendid cast.

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Apollo and Hyacinthus: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1767)

Mozart: Apollo et Hyacinthus

(Classical Opera at St John’s Smith Square, 12 June 2017)

When I was eleven, I was obsessed with ponies and still spent an unconscionable amount of time playing with dolls. When Mozart was eleven, he wrote his first opera. Such is life. In this concert, Classical Opera presented three pieces written by the precocious composer between 1766 and 1767, which predictably sounded as rich and sophisticated as many a work by any other mature composer. Staged simply and effectively, with some impressive performances from the crack team of singers, these pieces were the ‘Lambach’ Symphony in G major (K45a), the sombre Grabmusik (K42) and the little opera Apollo et Hyacinthus. As there were three different pieces, I’ve treated this as a recital, which is why I haven’t given it the usual star rating.

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Zefiro Torna: Les Talens Lyriques

Botticelli: The Birth of Venus

(St John’s Smith Square, 7 June 2017)

As part of their celebrations for the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth, the French ensemble Les Talens Lyriques were on stage in London for one night only, for a selection of madrigals and operatic scenes written by the great composer. I’d never seen them perform live, although I have many of their recordings, and was eager to see them at last under the baton of Christophe Rousset. The recital was made even more irresistible by the singers: two tenors whom I like very much: the Swiss Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, whom I’ve seen in several other roles, and the Swedish haute contre Anders J. Dahlin, who sings Dario in my much-loved recording of Vivaldi’s Incoronazione di Dario. My expectations were high and yet, remarkably, they were exceeded by this elegant concert which blended heartfelt grace with dramatic verve.

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In Search of Hipermestra

Stefano della Bella: Apollo

Glyndebourne’s current production of Francesco Cavalli’s Hipermestra brings an ancient tale of love and duty up to date, with a powerful contemporary setting. Being a historian, however, I always wonder what it would’ve been like to experience these operas as they were originally performed. What would we have seen if we’d been in the audience for Hipermestra’s premiere in 1658? Fortunately, we don’t have to leave it to the imagination. Extensive visual and written documentation records the costumes and sets. Even more excitingly, the theatre where the opera was first performed still exists and is still functioning. During a recent business trip to Florence, I took some time out to visit the Teatro della Pergola and its remarkable archives, in search of Hipermestra…

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Hipermestra: Francesco Cavalli (1658)

Cavalli: Hipermestra

★★★★½

(Glyndebourne, conducted by William Christie, 17 May 2017)

King Danao of Argos is troubled. His brother’s Egyptian troops have gathered on his border, forcing him to suggest a diplomatic match to avoid conflict. His fifty daughters will marry his brother’s fifty sons in a mass ceremony, cementing a peace treaty between the two nations. But Danao has given his daughters secret instructions. The Oracle at Delphi has warned him that one of his nephews will rob him of his life and kingdom. And so each of the fifty girls has been ordered to murder her husband on their wedding night. Each of them obeys. Except one: Hipermestra, who loves her new husband, her cousin Linceo, and urges him to escape. Her compassion will be rewarded by a tide of blood. In this thrilling premiere of an all-but-forgotten opera by Francesco Cavalli, Glyndebourne have updated an ancient story to a setting in the modern Middle East, giving it a punch that lingers long after the final curtain comes down.

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