Pinchgut Opera, Sydney
Johann Adolf Hasse’s Artaserse
Conducted by Erin Helyard with the Orchestra of the Antipodes
Stage director: Chas Rader-Shieber; designer: Charles Davis
Cast: Andrew Goodwin (Artaserse, son of Serse (Xerxes), king of Persia), Vivica Genaux (Mandane, Serse’s daughter), David Hansen (Arbace), Carlo Vistoli (Artabano, Arbace’s father), Emily Edmonds (Semira), Russell Harcourt (Megabise)
City Recital Hall, Sydney
Wednesday 5 December, 7 pm
Though exposure to pre-Mozart opera, even of Gluck, has been infrequent in New Zealand, a great deal of 17th and 18th century opera has become main-stream in the Northern Hemisphere. There is hardly a composer of that period, acclaimed in his (or her) lifetime and then forgotten for 200 years, whose music has not been brushed off in recent years and played in a way that echoes the way it probably sounded at the time. Music by composers whose names appeared nowhere but in music history books is now widely played, and can probably be watched on YouTube. In Europe, especially, much can be heard in concert halls and opera houses, as part of the normal repertoire.
It is revelatory to look at an opera guide of the early 20th century, such as early editions of Kobbé’s Complete Opera Book, to find not a single reference to Handel, let alone Monteverdi, Lully or Rameau, Vivaldi, Jommelli, etc.
The re-emergence of Hasse and Metastasio
Hasse was 14 years Handel’s junior and 14 years older than Gluck; but till 20 years ago the name Hasse was known only to scholars.
However, the name is not unknown in New Zealand. I first encountered him through a friendship with Massey University’s Professor Donald Bewley who was an authority on the great 18th century librettist, Metastasio (born in 1698, the year before Hasse), who wrote the libretto of Artaserse. Hasse in fact set almost all his libretti, some two or three times. Metastasio was the most prolific and most frequently set librettist of the century, and perhaps throughout opera history. Mozart cut his teeth, in fact, on Metastasio’s libretti: Il re pastore, Il betulia liberate, Lucia Silla and his penultimate opera, La clemenza di Tito.
Wikipedia writes that over 90 settings of the piece are known, and it names, as well as Hasse: Vinci, Graun, Chiarini, Gluck, Galuppi, J C Bach, Terradellas, Mysliveček, and it was translated into English for Thomas Arne. It was the only surviving opera by the most gifted English composer in the 18th century, holding the stage well into the 19th century, and it too has been successfully revived recently.
The January/February 1998 issue of New Zealand Opera News, which I edited for 16 years, carried an article by Bewley about Metastasio, to mark his 300th anniversary, referring to his researches (‘Metastasio – 300th anniversary’). Bewley’s publications include a discography, an index of the addressees of Metastasio’s correspondence, including many to his friend Hasse.
Hasse’s Tercentenary marked in New Zealand
More to the point, I wrote an article in the May 1999 issue of New Zealand Opera News entitled ‘An Important tercentenary’, marking the 300th anniversary of Hasse’s birth. It remarked that Hasse’s was undoubtedly the biggest opera name of the baroque age ‘remaining to be disinterred after the Handels, Rameaus, Charpentiers, Caldaras and Campras’. (I might have added Alessandro Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Vinci, Galuppi and Jommelli among many others).
Even more surprising: in November 1999, Otago University’s Department of Music produced Hasse’s one-act opera L’Artigiano Gentiluomo or Larinda e Vanesio, the libretto directly related to Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme which became Lully’s comédie-ballet of the same name, later incorporated into Strauss’s curious but delightful concoction Ariadne auf Naxos.
(No one mentions the fact that ‘Hasse’ is close to the German verb Hassen – to hate, and Der Hass – hate. If that was a personal characteristic it was clearly as asset for a highly productive and successful career, mainly as court opera composer in the Saxon court at Dresden, till it and the court library were destroyed by Frederick the Great’s bombardment in the Seven Year War in 1760.)
Hasse wrote about 70 operas and was regarded as one of the best opera composers of the time though, like almost all his contemporaries, he had disappeared from the stage by the end of the century.
Bach occasionally visited Dresden to attend the opera, no doubt often works by Hasse.
Artaserse: the story
The story is set in ancient Persia, apparently during the reigns of Xerxes (Serse in Italian) and Darius.
Some writers seem to assume the Persian kings are those who led the wars against Athens: Darius I, who was defeated at Marathon in 490 BCE and Xerxes who was defeated at the battle of Salamis in 480 BCE. But the names are chronologically the other way round in the opera, and I wonder if the Metastasio story is based on events a century and a half later. Darius III ruled Persia from 336 to 330. His two predecessors, Artaxerxes and Arses, were poisoned by a eunuch at the court; and Darius III lived to be defeated by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE. Elements conform somewhat to the Metastasio account. Whatever the provenance, Metastasio’s genius has created a fascinating psychological study of human responses to devious and evil machinations by powerful people.
The opera story begins when King Xerxes (Serse) of Persia banishes Arbace, for being in love with his daughter, Mandane. Arbace’s father, the ambitious and ruthless Artabano (costumed as an army officer), responds by assassinating the king and convinces his heir, Artaserse (in formal evening dress, often sporting a wide blue sash) that his brother Darius was responsible (neither kings Serse nor Darius appear in the opera). So Artabano disposes of Darius too, and gives the murder weapon to Arbace to hide, but Arbace is found with the bloody sword before he can do so. Arbace’s dilemma is to avoid execution for a murder committed by his father, and both try to evade the consequences; the father actually advocates his son’s death! Interesting times. Mandane (costumed with stunning elegance) is torn between loyalty to her family and her beloved.
There’s a subplot whose omission, one feels, might not damage the story, though it presents a sort of parallel situation in which Arbace’s sister Semira is promised to an unscrupulous general, Megabise, to ensure his loyalty. That one is solved by Megabise’s murder near the end.
Suspense lasts till the very end: it hangs on whether or not a poisoned drink is shared between Artaserse and Arbace. Artabano confesses the truth at the last minute and the goodies survive.
The performance and the cast
As so often, the strengths of this production lay with the excellence of singing and orchestral playing – exquisite with the Orchestra of the Antipodes, conducted with conspicuous elan and Baroque feeling by Erin Helyard at the harpsichord with colourful, even sparkling, use of Baroque instruments, energetic and virtuosic. He created a constant sense of total commitment to every aspect of the music and its interpretation. Now my fifth encounter with Helyard’s musical direction in Pinchgut productions, I am increasingly overwhelmed by his total involvement in the performance.
One is not attracted by Baroque opera on account of realistic or probable stories. What you do get, and this rediscovery of Hasse and the Dresden Court and its opera is an excellent case, is an opera furnished with lively, attractive music and, thanks to Metastasio and other writers whose stories might look improbable to us, but which held the stage by portraying larger-than-life human emotions that are theatrically arresting. In the same way that unbelievable tales such as Verdi’s Il Trovatore and La forza del destino, clothed in great music and vividly portrayed emotions, do work.
Though there were certain oddities in movement and behaviour between characters, the effect was of scrupulous attention to visual detail and, for the most part, interaction between characters. For the clarity, general coherence and credibility of the activities on stage, credit rests with stage director Chas Rader-Shieber.
One extraordinary feature of the work is the use of three counter-tenors: both father and son, Artabano (Carlo Vistoli) and Arbace (David Hanson), and the crooked general Megabise (Russell Harcourt). (But that’s nothing: Leonardo Vinci’s Artaserse was recorded by Concerto Köln for Virgin Classics and then staged by Opéra Nancy in 2013, employing five countertenors and one tenor!). Though at first it’s not easy to distinguish one from another, it was interesting that their individuality of tone and colour increased as the story unfolded.
Both female roles are mezzos: Vivica Genaux sings Mandane and Emily Edmonds, Semira. Only the title role, Artaserse, is sung by a normal tenor, Andrew Goodwin.
Distinguished American mezzo Vivica Genaux (described by one critic as “by far the greatest sensation that Pinchgut Opera has brought to Australia”) was cast with great success as Mandane. Her many-coloured voice is full of variety and her singing was rich in genuine emotion; she was a true centre of attention. David Hanson sang Arbace, the role that Farinelli famously commanded, with impressive virtuosity along with lifelike acting and stage presence that almost matched that of Genaux.
Carlo Vistoli sang his father, Artabano, with sometimes chilling force but also enough tonal beauty to depict the character as somewhat more than a mere ruthless brute.
Though it could be considered inappropriate casting, Russell Harcourt as the scheming Megabise, revealed a voice of tonal flexibility and beauty.
The title role is not exactly central in the opera. As the only normal tenor, Andrew Goodwin commanded the stage as Artaserse with elegant, flexible singing and regal distinction. Emily Edmonds as Semira, though second to Genaux, was well cast in a role that demanded, not great strength, but expressiveness and sensitivity.
The stage design by Charles Davis was ‘interesting’, not attempting any sort of historical authenticity. It was an elegant palace chamber, with plum coloured damask wall coverings, dominated by a huge painting of King Serse. But there’s a fallen chandelier on the floor, that suggested a decaying empire.
Costumes mixed opulent elegance for the women, with a variety of formal aristocratic dress and military uniforms carefully defined as to rank, for the men.
I have to quote and agree with a reviewer who described this production as “a major milestone in the Pinchgut story, not just entertaining but, to some extent at least, educating their audience and, it is to be hoped, bringing them further into an understanding of Baroque opera”.