Wednesday, December 23, 2009
"Antony & Cleopatra" on New Year's Eve
Just finished the program notes for Ars Lyrica's upcoming performance of Johann Adolph Hasse's "Marc'Antonio e Cleopatra," and thought I'd post them here for anyone who is interested in finding out more about this remarkable work before the program on New Year's Eve. Tickets are going fast, so get yours now by visiting Ars Lyrica
In 1721 a young German tenor by the name of Johann Adolph Hasse traveled to Italy to hone his craft and seek his fortune. His work at the Hamburg Opera and at the Brunswick court assured entrée into Italian musical circles, and he quickly found opportunities in Rome, Venice, and Florence, much as the youthful Handel had done just a few years earlier. Settling in Naples, he studied composition with Alessandro Scarlatti, the grey eminence of Italian opera and oratorio, and began to write seriously for the stage. By 1730 he produced at least seven operas, eight intermezzi, and three serenate, the most significant of which is Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra.
As a genre, the Italian serenata (or “serenade”) falls somewhere between solo cantata and full-length opera seria. Owing perhaps to the long tradition of lover’s serenades, the Baroque serenata typically sets a familiar love story and was often used as a kind of compositional gift for an important patron, though the dimensions and scoring of such works vary considerably. Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra was written for a Neapolitan banker, at whose palace the work was first performed in 1725 by two of the greatest singers of the age: castrato Carlo Broschi (aka Farinelli), who took the role of Cleopatra, and contralto Vittoria Tesi, who sang as Marc’Antonio. Though today such cross-casting seems bizarre, in Baroque opera gender-bending reinforced the artificial nature of the theatrical experience (naturalistic acting styles had not yet been invented, either).
The libretto, by poet and impresario Francesco Ricciardi, begins with Antony’s great military loss to Octavian’s superior forces. Rather than submit to Rome, he and Cleopatra jointly decide that they’ll be better off in the next world. Hasse’s score makes vivid their complex emotions in eight arias and two duets, the whole preceded by an introductory Sinfonia in two movements. Though the work is scored for just strings and continuo, in several movements we’ve added various woodwind colors (oboes, recorders, flute, and bassoon), which render even more colorful Hasse’s imaginative and supple ideas.
Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra likely had several performances in Naples and elsewhere and was mentioned by German theorist Johann Joachim Quantz (in 1755) as one of Hasse’s most successful works. It brought him considerable fame in Italy, where Hasse was henceforth known as “il Sassone” (the Saxon composer). The work likely resonated deeply with Neapolitans — who, like our famous lovers, faced the unpleasant prospect of domination by a foreign power. But unlike Antony and Cleopatra, who choose death over captivity, Naples had grown so accustomed to Hapsburg rule that even this serenata has an obligatory bow (in its final recitative) to Emperor Karl VI and his consort Elizabeth.
From 1730 onwards Hasse served as Kapellmeister to the Saxon court in Dresden and was widely admired for his superior understanding of the lyric style. His operas were among the first seen by the young Mozart, and though Gluck’s reforms threatened to put an end to Italian opera seria, Hasse continued to produce his works in Vienna, Venice, and other major cities until the early 1780s. He and his wife, the great soprano Faustina Bordoni, were perhaps the first “power couple” in operatic history!
© Matthew Dirst