In this Olympic year, it is perhaps appropriate that we should be presented with a few performances of possibly one of the most popular librettos of all time: Pietro Metastastio’s L’Olimpiade. More than 60 baroque and classical composers used the libretto as the text for their own operatic and instrumental creations, including Antonio Vivaldi. Last night, instead of the more famous Vivaldi opera, we were presented with a "pasticcio" of the works of 16 composers: Leo, Hasse, Galuppi, Sarti, Mysliveček, Paisiello, Pérez, Vivaldi, Gassmann, Caldara, Traetta, Jommelli, Cherubini, Pergolesi, Piccinni, Jommelli and Cimarosa.
The pasticcio is the brainchild of Joseph Fifer, manager of the Venice Baroque Orchestra (VBO) – the players at last night’s performance. In 2001, the VBO performed the modern day premiere of Cimarosa’s L’Olimpiade, followed in 2006 by the premiere of Galuppi’s version. It was “during research for the Galuppi staging,” Fifer says, that he became “aware that dozens of composers had set the same story.” This led to discussions between Fifer and director of the VBO, Andrea Marcon, “about creating a pasticcio performance and recording project.” After searching the archives of Milan, Florence, Naples, Venice, Paris, Lisbon, Berlin, New York, and Washington DC, and online music resources, the final tapestry of arias by 16 composers was woven together.
The result was a CD, released on the Naïve recording label (also responsible for the groundbreaking Vivaldi Edition project), and a series of concerts in Europe, starting in London. A preview of some of the arias on the recording can be seen in the video below.
The role of Megacle was taken by mezzo-soprano Romina Basso. We were treated to Basso’s excellent coloratura work in the first aria, Hasse’s “Superbo di me stesso.” Particularly nice was her dark tone on the low, descending phrase “come mi sta nel cor,” and her truly Olympian ornamentation in the da capo. The orchestra was a little loud, however, and slightly obscured her chest register in this aria. Not so in the fiery second act aria “L’amico dov’è?” by Cherubini, which Basso stormed through with passion, excellent diction and consummate phrasing. Her inspired modulation of the dynamics wound up the tension, earning her an extended applause. Her final aria, “Lo seguitai felice,” was a Basso tour-de-force, with exciting coloratura, fluid movement throughout the range, and breathtaking beauty of tone.
Two of the three arias for contralto Delphine Galou – taking the role of Licida – were composed by Baldassare Galuppi. His version of the opera premiered in Milan, and was regarded as his most successful opera seria. The first aria, “Quel destrier, che all’albergo è vicino,” showed off Galou’s rich, velvety timbre sound, while in her last aria, “Gemo in un punto, e fremo,” her forceful delivery and intuitive delivery of the text was striking: and what a strong low Ab at the end of the B section! The most astounding performance, however, was her beautifully tender, stripped-down version of Vivaldi’s “Mentre dormi” – a haunting and definitive rendition. I look forward to hearing her interpretation of the role of Bradamante in Handel’s Alcina at Versailles next month.
I was looking forward to hearing the aria by Josef Mysliveček “Del destin non vi lagnate,” performed be tenor Jeremy Ovenden. What I was not prepared for, however, was the ringing F#4 (G in Baroque pitch) at the start of the piece. In fact, I would say that Ovenden was the surprise of the evening. His pianissimo notes in the head register on the phrase “ma regnate”were delightful, and his phrasing and tone throughout the aria marked him as a rising star. Well done to him also for continuing un-phased as part of the ceiling fell down! He handled the difficult “So ch’è fanciullo Amore” by Jommelli expertly, and excelled in the final aria of the opera, “Non so donde viene” by Cimarosa, with its nearly two octave ascending leap.
Luanda Siqueira took on the role of Argene, originally performed by Karina Gauvin on the Naïve recording. She was composed throughout, and performed well, particularly in Pergolesi’s fiendish “No, la speranza,” displaying a solid and flexible range over two octaves. "Oh care selve, oh cara" by Sarti had some beautifully lyric moments, with Siqueria providing some very tasteful ornamentation. Her coloratura during Traetta's "Che non mi disse un dì!" was precice, though it was freer and more playful in her final aria, Perez's "Fiamma ignota nell’alma mi scende."
The love interest of both Licida and Megacle, the Princess Aristea, was sung by Ruth Rosique, who threw herself into her character with determination, reaping exciting results, particularly in the fierce offering from Leonardo Leo, “Tu me da me divide”. Her duet with Romina Basso, “Nei giorni tuoi felici,” was convincing, with Rosique and Basso interacting well. Caldara's "Grandi, e ver, son le tue pene" is vocally taxing, but Rosique managed to make it her own. Paisello's "Tu di saper procura" and Piccinni's "Caro, son tua cosi" allowed Rosique to showcase the softer side of her voice to great effect.
The role of Aminta was taken by counter-tenor Nicholas Spanos, who also doubled up as a bass in the choruses: the final two of which, both by Hasse, were superb. Bassoonist Stefano Meloni deserves special mention for his virtuosic playing during Spanos' first aria, “Siam navi all’onde algenti,” which was a furious tempest of an aria. Markellos Chryssicos at the Harpsichord was also worthy of note. Chryssicos had previously taken the role of conductor on the CD recording.
It was an enjoyable evening, particularly for those wishing to look deeper into the world of those Baroque composers. Indeed, Joseph Fifer stated objectives were: “to help introduce important work by several lesser-known composers, and to encourage others to continue exploring the enormous body of eighteenth-century Italian opera.”
This production shows that these objectives have been met, admirably.
It's been a busy week for concerts here at Show Me Something Interesting: a concert production of Mozart's opera "Die Entführung aus dem Serail" at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and a performance of Vivaldi's "Nisi Dominus" and Pergolesi's "Stabat Mater" at the Barbican - I'll be reviewing the Barbican concert later this week.
The production of "Die Entführung" at the Queen Elizabeth Hall was rather different to the other performances I have seen. Firstly, the speaking role of Pasha Selim was replaced with by "narrator", in the person of actor Simon Butteriss. His role was performed in English, much in the same way as a performance of "Cosi Fan Tutti" I had heard a couple of years previous St Paul's church in Covent Garden.
Having the narration in English made the production much more engaging and easier to understand, and for me worked better than the original "singspiel" format. The lack of understanding between the European and Ottoman worldviews put forward in the original libretto is brought up-to-date by a series of references to modern Euro-Turkic and Euro-Islamic points of tension, while the revelation of the Pasha's enlightened attitude and the subsequent fostering of goodwill from all characters (except Osmin!) is treated intelligently and avoids the danger of saccharin feyness.
The role of Konstanze is famously hard, requiring excellent support, full integration of the head and chest voices, the ability to sing both emotive lyric passages and dynamic coloratura, and a vocal range stretching from low B to high D. Susan Gritton has all of this. Her portrayal was thoughtful and honest, with a magnificent performance of "Marten Allen Arten" stunning the audience. Her navigation of the various structures of this show-stopping aria was at all times controlled, yet passionate, and she sang masterfully the most difficult passage, moving by step down from high D to low B, only to jump right back up to high C, followed by a pianissimo high C with crescendo to fortissimo! Not an aria for the faint of heart.
The French-Canadian tenor Frédéric Antoun proved to be a fascinating discovery in the role of Belmonte, Konstanze's faithful lover and would-be rescuer. In possession of a beautiful lyric voice, Antoun's characterisation fitted perfectly the ardent yet innocent persona of a Mozartian lead tenor, such as Tamino from Die Zauberflote. Most exciting however was his power and added darkness in the more "dramatic" moments of the role - neither forced nor overplayed. The opening aria "Hier soll ich dich denn sehen" showed us that we were in for a treat, and the tender yet passionate "Konstanze! Dich Wiederzusehen...O Wie Ängstlich" was mesmerising. Definitely a tenor to watch, and one with an interesting career ahead.
The English woman who causes so much trouble and consternation for poor Osmin is Blonde, the servant of Konstanze. While written for a much lighter voice, the role is no easy earner. Requiring a range of low Ab to high E (!), any soubrette coloratura coming to the role needs complete command over her instrument and complete confidence in her abilities. Malin Christensson performed admirably in the role, with the difficult first aria "Durch Zärtlichkeit" admirably performed, though the first of the high E's was a little screeched. The duet with Osmin "Ich gehe, doch rate ich dir" following straight after "Durch Zärtlichkeit" drops down to the other extreme of the range with Christensson dropping to a low Ab mimicking Osmins low Eb. Her aria "Welche Wonne, welche Lust" was performed perfectly, and with exactly the right amount of oomph required.
The role of Pedrillo has one of my favourite arias for tenor: "Frisch zum Kampfe! Frisch zum Streite!" With two long, fortissimo high G's, a throw-away high B, and three punchy high A's at the end, it's not an aria for the weak and feeble. Tilman Lichdi was more than up for the challenge, powering out those tricky high notes, and adding a dramatic and humorous interpretation to the proceedings. Lichdi also excelled in his duet and trio with Osmin (and Belmonte), and in the ensembles, but the biggest suprise came with his serenade "In Mohrenland gefangen war” which was beautifully lyrical and tenderly performed, but still with classic the Lichdi sense of humour.
Alastair Miles was a last minute replacement in the role of Osmin, so it was completely understandable that he sang from the score during the concert. What was amazing though was the amount of contact and interaction with the audience and the other performers - much more than one would expect from a last minute replacement. His characterisation of Osmin was impeccable: comic, brutish, childish and lecherous. Miles is becoming a bit of a favourite here at Show Me Something Interesting: have a look at my review of Niobe, Regina di Tebe for a review of his performance as Poliferno.
His ability to soften the head voice in the aria "Wer ein Liebchen hat gefunden" made the dives down to the low G all the more lascivious. His first duet, with Belmonte, Verwünscht seist du samt deinem Liede!" had Miles in true bass territory with a low Eb and a low E which were both audible and unstrained. His aria "Solche hergelaufne Laffen", his rant against Pedrillo, was suitably vicious, and the oriental ending to the aria was fast and punchy. His performance in the duets and trio with the tenors and with Blonde (where he again hit an Eb) had great comic timing and acting, again suprising given he was a last minute replacement.
The tour de force for any Osmin though is the final aria "O, wie will ich triumphieren", full of low F's, three low E's and two low D's, one lasting quite a long time, with some high parts, especially toward the end. Miles performed admirably, though the last low D was very quiet. Having performed this myself though for my GCSE exams, I give full credit to Miles for performing this at all at short notice.