14 December 2013

CD REVIEW: Johann Adolf Hasse – MARC’ANTONIO E CLEOPATRA (V. Genaux, F. Lombardi Mazzulli; deutsche harmonia mundi, dhm 8883721872)

Johann Adolf Hasse - MARC'ANTONIO E CLEOPATRA (deutsche harmonia mundi, dhm 8883721872)

JOHANN ADOLF HASSE (1699 – 1783): Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra—V. Genaux (Marc’Antonio), F. Lombardi Mazzulli (Cleopatra); Le Musiche Nove; Claudio Osele [Recorded in Villa San Fermo, Lonigo, Italy, 30 November – 4 December 2011; deutsche harmonia mundi dhm 8883721872; 2CD, 91:00; Available from Amazon, jpc, and major music retailers]

Opera is like any of the great cities of Italy.  In Florence, in Milan, in mighty Rome, there are the basilicas to which pilgrims trek in order to bow their heads before centuries-old reliquaries and the galleries in which sensitive viewers gaze in quiet awe upon the canvases familiar to every casual art student.  There are also narrow streets festooned with drying laundry that lead to quiet parish churches in which high altars by forgotten masters seem not so much depictions of heaven as borrowed pieces of it.  There are sleepy piazzas in which shy creations of Donatello hide themselves from lazy tourists.  In opera, too, there are these half-known alcoves, these places beyond common parlance where the musical languages of lost generations are still spoken.  Somewhere between the familiar operatic edifices of Händel and Vivaldi, there is a beautiful palace built of the music of Johann Adolf Hasse.  Neither forgotten nor embraced by the Baroque Revival of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, Hasse is a composer whose name resounds far more frequently in music lovers' ears than his music.  In the 18th Century, a number of the composers deemed by history to be among the greatest considered Hasse their better, and his operas were the favorites of Kings and Kaisers.  When his early serenata Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra was premièred in Naples in 1725, the title rôles were sung—in gloriously gender-bending fashion—by Vittoria Tesi and Farinelli, singers on the cusps of rock-star careers that would remain closely allied with the operas of Hasse.  Not even Hasse's marital link to Faustina Bordoni, one of the most famous singers of the 18th Century, has prompted anything greater than cursory interest in the composer's music among 21st-Century audiences, but both Hasse and his songbird consort have in mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux a powerfully persuasive advocate.  Nearly all singers have individual passions: for too many of them, these are the pursuits of fortune and celebrity.  For Ms. Genaux, the music of Hasse is not self-serving esoterica or a means of garnering fame as a singing sleuth: it is a splendid, living organism teeming with potential to engage the best efforts of insightful artists.  Uniting a team of like-minded musicians, this new recording of Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra offers a stimulating tour of one of the most brilliant backstreets of Baroque opera, guided by one of the genre's most unique and gifted practitioners.

Italian maestro Claudio Osele, a noted specialist in giving new life to under-appreciated music of the 17th and 18th Centuries, and Le Musiche Nove, the period-instrument ensemble that he founded in pursuit of this passion, have lent their talents to recording projects featuring such celebrated singers as Cecilia Bartoli, Diana Damrau, and Simone Kermes.  The historically-appropriate performance practice credentials of neither Maestro Osele nor his Orchestra were in question, but the indefatigable verve with which they perform Hasse’s score in this performance of Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra confirms them as the equals of Europe’s most accomplished Baroque stylists.  So powerful are the sounds that the players of Le Musiche Nove produce in the score’s most extroverted passages that it is difficult to believe that they number only fourteen.  Rejecting the fashion for increasing the orchestral accompaniment for a piece like Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra with additions of instrumental parts not indicated in the manuscript, Maestro Osele offers the score with precisely the complement of strings and basso continuo included in the sole surviving score in Hasse’s hand, a decision proved right in every moment of the performance.  Provided by Giuseppe Mulè on cello, Marco Pesci on theorbo and Baroque guitar, and Federica Bianchi on harpsichord, the continuo is realized with particular grace, chord progressions and cadences imaginatively shaped without the overwrought muddling that mars too many performances of Baroque vocal music.  Adopting the commonly-accepted Baroque diapason of A = 415 Hz, an apt compromise considering that Neapolitan pitch in 1725 may have been slightly lower but that pitch in Hasse’s native northern Germany may have a whole tone or more higher, Maestro Osele and Le Musiche Nove make beautiful sounds in execution of Hasse’s score.  Maestro Osele sets tempi that allow the unique qualities of each number in Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra to emerge without being unduly accentuated.  Thankfully, the era of treating Baroque repertory as music in need of apologetic equivocating is ended, and the gifted musicians of Le Musiche Nove astutely convey the same authority in the music of Hasse that the Wiener Philharmoniker players exhibit in Brahms or Mahler.

Composed for private performance before an audience of sophisticated—and, presumably, at least moderately music-loving—illuminati of Hapsburg Naples, Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra—its libretto by Francesco Ricciardi based upon Italian models derived from Plutarch rather than Shakespeare’s then-little-known Antony and Cleopatra, also broadly indebted to Plutarch—likely began life without the benefits of extravagant costumes or stage machinery.  The circumstances of the commissioning and first performance of Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra in an aristocratic residence rather than Naples’s Teatro San Bartolomeo afforded the young Hasse, only twenty-six years old at the time of the serenata’s première in September 1725 but already a celebrated tenor and composer, opportunities to explore the emotional elements of the drama more acutely than the conventions of Baroque opera typically allowed.  The desire to reveal the souls of the characters he set to music remained central to Hasse’s compositional endeavors throughout his career, finding greatest fruition after his marriage to Faustina Bordoni but also likely influenced whilst resident in Naples by his friendship with Alessandro Scarlatti, who died soon after the first performance of Hasse’s serenata.  Already in Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra, Hasse exercised an uncommonly keen talent for giving his characters deftly-portrayed dramatic profiles.  The effect of his work was sufficient to inspire further commissions from Naples’s prominent citizens and theatres and, eventually, to expand Hasse’s fame to all corners of Europe.  Only during the past decade has Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra received anything like the attention that its musical and dramatic distinctions merit, however.

This performance pairs the Marc’Antonio of American mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux with the Cleopatra of Italian soprano Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli.  It is unlikely that more perfect partnerships between voices and music could ever be achieved.  In comparison with the often long [when performed without cuts] operas of Händel and Vivaldi, neither singer has a great deal of music with which to contend: both Marc’Antonio and Cleopatra have four arias, and each of the serenata’s two parts ends with a duet, the second of which brings the expected salute to the glory of the reigning Hapsburgs.  [The modern listener can be forgiven for failing to recognize the mysterious ‘Carlo’ and ‘Elisabetta’ of whom Antony and Cleopatra sing in the final recitative as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI and his consort, Elisabeth Christine, the parents of Maria Theresa.]  There is comparatively little secco recitative: Hasse shrewdly allows his characters to express their deepest thoughts in concerted numbers.  Expressivity is an inalienable quality of Ms. Genaux’s singing, but few singers—especially those singing Baroque music—combine insightful dramatic instincts with absolute technical command with such aplomb.  Marc’Antonio is the more pensive and sincere of the characters, his thoughts and actions conflicted but unfailingly motivated by his love for Cleopatra, and Hasse’s music characterizes him accordingly.  His first aria, ‘Pur ch’io possa a te, ben mio,’ draws from Ms. Genaux a courtly but profound statement of love that would melt the iciest heart; any heart, that is, but that of the coolly calculating Cleopatra, whose response is telling: ‘Signor, la tua sciagura grave m’è più perché a me stessa io deggio rimproverar, che fui nella naval tenzone delle perdite tue prima cagione’ (‘My Lord, your misfortune affects me greatly, as I perceive clearly that I am the principal cause of your defeat in battle’).  Cleopatra answers Antony’s heartfelt sentiments with the aria ‘Morte col fiero aspetto,’ in which the impersonal sting of the Queen’s pride is felt in the brilliant sheen of Ms. Lombardi Mazzulli’s voice.  Ms. Genaux’s tonal warmth pays wonderful dividends throughout the performance, and the emotional impact of her singing is increased exponentially by the understated naturalness of her diction and phrasing.  Furthermore, Ms. Genaux’s delivery of bravura passages remains as dazzling as ever, and her virtuosity is echoed by Ms. Lombardi Mazzulli’s effortless negotiation of Cleopatra’s coloratura.  Ms. Genaux’s long-sustained tones in ‘Fra le pompe peregrine’ are arresting, and her breath control and crisp trills in the stunning ‘Là tra i mirti degl’Elisi’ are models of proper technique.  Though clearly relishing Cleopatra’s haughty elegance, superbly conveyed by Hasse’s music, and indulging in a few embellishments that more effectively show off her upper register than ornament the composer’s vocal lines, Ms. Lombardi Mazzulli rises to great heights of eloquence in ‘Quel candido armellino.’  There are no melodramatic asp strikes in Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra, but the tranquility with which Antony and Cleopatra resign themselves to union in death radiates from Hasse’s score and from Ms. Genaux’s and Ms. Lombardi Mazzulli’s singing.  Hasse ingeniously infused the drama of Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra into his music, and the sublime vocalism in this performance extracts every smile and tear from the composer’s succinct masterpiece.

The music of Hasse no longer slumbers in unmerited obscurity, but even the attention of a number of fine artists has not drawn the full extent of the composer’s genius out of the shadows.  Hasse would go on to compose some of the most acclaimed operas of the 18th Century, a handful of which are starting to enjoy modern revivals, but already in Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra the musical and dramatic skills that endeared Hasse to his contemporaries and to singers like Farinelli, who retained arias by Hasse in his arsenal of ‘insertion’ arias throughout his career and employed beloved arias from the composer’s Artaserse in his nightly recitals for Felipe V, were highly developed.  This recording succeeds in revealing all of the wistful charm of Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra and in doing so with unassailable spirit and stylistic accuracy.  Patches of darkness remain in 21st-Century audiences’ appreciations of Hasse’s music, but this recording of Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra bathes one of this remarkable composer’s most resplendent scores in authentically Italianate sunlight.