Planet Hugill

September 18, 2015

Dramatically engaging performance of an unjustly neglected Pergolesi opera seria

Pergolesi is now best known for his Stabat Mater and his comic operas. But these comic operas often started out life as interludes between the acts of a longer opera seria, yet Pergolesi's four opere serie seem to have been forgotten. On Wednesday 16 September 2015 at the Cadogan Hall, Opera Settecento (artistic director Miranda Jackson) gave the first UK performance of Pergolesi's opera Adriano in Siria, a setting of Metastasio's libretto (also set by JC Bach as performed by Classical Opera, see my review) which premiered in Naples in 1734 (two years before Pergolesi's death. Leo Duarte conducted a strong and highly international cast with Michael Taylor as Adriano, Maria Ostroukhova as Emirena, Erica Eloff as Farnaspe, Augusta Hebbert as Sabina, Gyula Rab as Osroa, Cenk Karaferya as Aquilio. Leo Duarte conducted the Orchestra of Opera Settecento playing on period instruments.

Metastasio's libretto (written in 1732) was set by a remarkable number of people. Pergolesi''s version premiered at the Teatro San Bartolomeo in Naples in 1734 as part of the birthday celebrations for the Queen of Naples, Elisabeth Farnese. At the premiere, Pergolesi's comic intermezzo Livietta e Tracollo played between the acts. The role of Farnaspe was sung by the castrato Caffarelli, and with the exception of Osroa (a tenor role) the remaining characters were all played by women. Though all labelled soprano roles, they in fact vary enormously in fach, and Opera Settecento's casting reflected this.

South-African soprano Erica Eloff sang Farnaspe, Canadian counter-tenor Michael Taylor sang Adriano (the sort of low soprano role accessible to a high counter-tenor), Augusta Hebbert sang Sabina (a real soprano role), Russian mezzo-soprano Mara Ostroukhova sang Emirena (effectively a mezzo-soprano role), with Turkish/American counter-tenor Cenk Karaferya as Aquilio. Hungarian tenor Gyula Rab completed the cast as Osroa.

Leo Duarte, Maria Ostroukhova, Erica Eloff

Leo Duarte, Maria Ostroukhova, Erica Eloff

The plot is a typical Metastasio mix of aristocrats behaving badly and politics. Having captured Syria, Emperor Hadrian (Adriano) has fallen in love with Emirena, daughter of the defeated Syrian King, Osroa. Emirena is betrothed to, and loved by Farnaspe. Osroa is at court in disguise, bent on revenge. Aquilio, in love with Adriano's betrothed Sabina, sets in motion various machinations, complicated by Osroa’s attempt to assassinate Adriano.

Pergolesi's version of the libretto is edited down, he reduced the number of arias by 7, some scenes proceed with a remarkable pace unfettered by arias and a number of the characters had their exit arias removed. Pergolesi did not live long enough to make real innovations to the opera seria form, but he clearly did not set Metastasio’s libretto uncritically. His arias are not structurally innovative, he plays none of the games with the da capo form which Handel did later in his career. But within this, Pergolesi brings an appealing melodic sense, combined with sense of the musical drama and affekt.

Oboist Daniel Lanthier

Oboist Daniel Lanthier

The performance, though a concert performance, was notable for the sense of vibrancy and drama which the singers brought to the piece. The recitative had a good feeling both of pace and inner drama with a real sense of interaction. Pergolesi had the ability to writing the sort of vibrant, toe-tapping arias which Vivaldi did but for me, unlike Vivaldi's opere serie, Pergolesi's music seemed to be very much part of the drama. The result lasted some three and quarter hours including two intervals (it was discreetly cut, especially in the long first act) and would seem eminently stageable.

Erica Eloff was superb as Farnaspe, a role designed to show off the bravura technique of the castrato Caffarelli (for whom Handel wrote Ariodante). Farnaspe is the noble, tragic and long-suffering hero of the piece and Eloff not only sang with brilliant bravura skill, but made him expressively moving without been annoyingly idiotic (as some opera seria heroes can be). She got to sing the arias which closed both Acts One and Two, and the long (very long) aria which closed Act One was a superbly notable moment as she expressively duetted with the solo oboe. Her voice had a lovely freedom to it and the bravura moments were carried off with devastating aplomb.

The much put-upon Emirena was sung with tragically expressive dignity by Maria Ostroukhova who found a lovely variety of colours in her voice. She has a voice which will develop into an interestingly dramatic one, and she brought out the implicit drama in Emirena's music as well as singing with a lovely technical facility. She and Eloff as the lovers developed a nice rapport.

Michael Taylor brought out the rather self-absorbed, self-satisfied nature of Adriano's character which made his outrageous behaviour work, and he sang with great charm and immediacy. He has a bright counter-tenor voice, with a nice evenness and sweetness over the whole range. I am not always convinced by men singing such high roles, feeling that sometimes that expressive range of tone-colours is compromised, but here such was the great personal charm of his performance that Taylor just about had me convinced. His put-upon and long suffering betrothed Sabina was finely sung by Augusta Hebbert, in a real high soprano role. She brought charm and poise to the the role, and combined technical ability with a nice beauty of tone. Her second aria in act two was particularly notable for its beauty and technical skill.

Osroa is the monomaniac obsessive in the cast (this version of the libretto allows him no pause for reflection) and Gyula Rab brought this out brilliantly in a series of bravura arias, his Act Two aria being particularly notable with its fine horn parts (played by Anneke Scott and Martin Lawrence). Cenk Keraferya played the small but important role of Aquilio, making his one aria count whilst evidently battling illness (so his other aria was cut).

Led by Guy Button the orchestra gave a finely expressive account of the opera, clearly enjoying Pergolesi's lively and varied orchestration (I am delighted to report that the horns cropped up a few times during the evening). Leo Duarte (who also plays the oboe), conducted and paced the piece with fluency whilst giving space to the singers. This was an account of a long-ish opera seria which never palled, and with Pergolesi's music rendered with poise and grace.

Robert Hugill