ADRIANO IN SIRIA (NAPLES, 1734)
OPERA IN THREE ACTS BY GIOVANNI BATTISTA PERGOLESI TO A LIBRETTO BY METASTASIO
[CONCERT PERFORMANCE SUNG IN ITALIAN]
CADOGAN HALL, SEPTEMBER 16, 2015
DAILY TELEGRAPH [ONLINE]
September 17, 2015
In his acceptance speech as newly elected leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn referred admiringly to “passion”, yet as 18th-century opera frequently illustrates, it is an emotion to be restrained.
The most famous librettist, Metastasio, often dealt with the tug-of-war between passion and reason, showing how noble, rational behaviour in the face of adversity can prevent tragedy, leading to catharsis for audience and protagonists alike.
So it is here, where the Roman Emperor Adriano (Hadrian) has conquered the Parthian King Osroa (Osroes) and fallen in love with his daughter Emirena, betrothed to the Parthian prince Farnaspe (Pharnaspes). To make matters worse, Adriano is betrothed to Sabina, a Roman noblewoman with whom his confidant Aquilio is in love.
After an emotional roller-coaster in which Osroa, in disguise, sets fire to the palace, and Aquilio's plots are undone, Adriano forgives the repentant conspirators, frees Osroes and Aquilio, accepts Sabina, and unites Emirena with Farnaspe.
The history may be distorted but the emotions are all too real, and Metastasio’s libretto was set by some 70 different composers between 1732 and 1828. Pergolesi's was the fourth, written to celebrate the Queen Mother's birthday in 1734 after the Kingdom of Naples had rid itself of the Austrian Habsburgs, but the brilliant composer died just two years later at age 26.
It is full of musical invention, with show-stopping arias that remained popular years after the composer's death, and is arguably closer to early Mozart than Handel. Star of this concert performance – the first in the UK – was soprano Erica Eloff in the trouser role of Farnaspe, showing marvellous expressiveness and terrific musical embellishments.
Her plaintive aria about an imprisoned nightingale brought a lovely conclusion to Act I, and the comparison of Farnaspe's emotions to the dark sea before a tempest was beautifully expressed at the end of Act II. Wonderful singing too from Augusta Hebbert as Sabina, showing nobility with a clear tone and vocal line, plus huge emotional energy in her Act II aria resenting Adriano’s deception.
The rest of the cast was on fine form, with Maria Ostroukhova showing vocal warmth as Emirena, counter-tenor Michael Taylor radiant power and emotion as Adriano, and tenor Gyula Rab well expressed fury as Osroa. The orchestral support under the baton of Leo Duarte was excellent, rounded off with a superbly rousing chorus praising Caesar's wisdom. If only more of our own leaders, like Germany's Angela Merkel, had time for opera.