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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Giulio Cesare: George Frideric Handel (1724)

Handel: Giulio Cesare

★★★★

(English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire, 7 October 2017)

2018 is shaping up to be the Year of Cesare. Three different productions of Handel’s Giulio Cesare are on my radar, each within a manageable distance of London. With this in mind, I wanted to belatedly post my thoughts on the forerunner to this embarrassment of riches: English Touring Opera’s ambitious two-part production, which descended on the Hackney Empire back in October for a weekend of intrigue, desire, conquest and general skulduggery. Visually splendid, with a dazzling Cleopatra, it was weakened only by the eccentric splitting of the opera. But I’ll come back to that in a moment. For now, rally your legions, let the sand sink into your sandals, and imagine yourself back in Alexandria in 48 BC…

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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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La Clemenza di Tito: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1791)

La Clemenza di Tito

★★★★ ½

(Glyndebourne, 31 July 2017)

As the overture plays, we watch two boys running through a wheat-field on grainy old film: the older one dark and responsible; the younger, blond and cherubic. The older boy teaches his friend how to use a catapult fashioned from a v-shaped stick, aiming at an old bottle, but the little one isn’t content until he spots a magpie perched in a tree. His aim is too true: the magpie falls. The spot of blood on its breast is the only hint of colour as the music comes to an end and gathers itself ready for Act I. This strangely haunting little film was our introduction to Glyndebourne’s Clemenza di Tito: a fantastic production which places renewed emphasis on the troubled relationship between the emperor Titus and his boyhood friend.

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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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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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