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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L’Incoronazione di Poppea: Claudio Monteverdi (1643)

Monteverdi: L'Incoronazione di Poppea

★★★½

(Hampstead Garden Opera at Jackson’s Lane Theatre, 12-21 May 2017)

This spring, Hampstead Garden Opera are trying something new: their first Italian opera staged in the original language rather than English translation. The opera in question is Poppea, a perennial favourite of mine. Who could resist this blend of scheming, sexual abandon, murder and imperial arrogance? Certainly not me. Presented on a stripped-back set, this production focuses the attention firmly on the two women, Ottavia and Poppea, competing for the heart of Rome’s indolent, decadent emperor. With sterling support from Musica Poetica, under the baton of Oliver John Ruthven, and a number of exciting voices to add to my watchlist, it was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon out.

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The Four Seasons: Laurel Corona

★★★½

When two young sisters are abandoned on the doorstep of the Pietà in Venice in 1695, they enter the care of an extraordinary institution: part foundling hospital, part secular convent, and part conservatorio. The girls of the Pietà learn to love God through the medium of music, whether by playing an instrument or by singing in the weekly Masses, which draw admiring crowds to the chapel beyond the grille that prevents any of the performers being seen. And the soloists of the Pietà become stars, their talents as well-known as any opera singer’s, even though they must remain screened away. Of these two abandoned sisters, one, the playful and exuberant Chiaretta, will turn out to have a voice that wins her legions of admirers. The other, Maddalena, looks in vain for an instrument that sparks the inner core of her being. But then she discovers the violin, at around the time that the Pietà hires a young priest to help with giving lessons: a virtuoso violinist and budding composer with flaming red hair, named Antonio Vivaldi.

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Lawrence Zazzo: Weeping Philosophers

Lawrence Zazzo

(BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert, at the Wigmore Hall, 1 May 2017)

I’ve been waiting for two-and-a-half years to see Lawrence Zazzo in the flesh. In the first flush of my Baroque obsession, back in October 2014, I bought his album A Royal Trio and fell in love with his rendition of Handel’s Va tacito e nascosto. Ever since, I’ve longed to see him live and finally got my wish in this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert at the Wigmore Hall. Languishing in the realms of the early Baroque, this recital presented a cornucopia of lute-songs and cantatas by Caccini, Frescobaldi, Strozzi and Durante. Zazzo was accompanied by three gifted musicians: Silas Wollston on organ and harpsichord; Daniele Caminiti on archlute and baroque guitar; and Jonathan Rees on bass viol and viola da gamba. By heaven, it was worth the wait.

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Joseph and his Brethren: Georg Frideric Handel (1743)

Malm: Joseph and his Brothers

★★★★

(London Handel Orchestra and Singers at St George’s Hanover Square, 20 April 2017)

Andrew Lloyd Webber wasn’t the first to realise that a good musical could be made from the story of Joseph in Egypt. 224 years before Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat was premiered, Handel chose the same subject for the second of two oratorios performed in his 1743 season (the first, a month before Joseph, was Semele). With a libretto by the radical clergyman James Miller, adapted in part from an earlier work by Apostolo Zeno, Handel’s oratorio throws us straight into the action, midway through the story. We first meet Joseph in prison in Egypt, and the tale follows his rise to power, his love for the beautiful Asenath, and his eventual reconciliation with his brothers. This was my final outing for this year’s Handel Festival and it proved a great conclusion, overseen by the ever-admirable Laurence Cummings with the London Handel Orchestra and Singers.

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