One of the things that I’ve found most interesting during the course of WDBX Opera Overnight is the chance to get to know some really interesting pieces of music written by composers who, for one reason or another, have become forgotten over time. Sometimes this happens because the material is mediocre, but sometimes it happens because of circumstances beyond the composer’s control. Oftentimes the material is perfectly good, yet the composer gets caught up in a time of transition, when the changing tastes of a fickle public leave him behind. Such a thing happened to Johann Sebastian Bach, whose works were ignored by the listening public for almost a hundred years.
It was with this thought that we started tonight’s WDBX Opera Overnight with a 2011 Grammy nominated recording of a 1725 work by Johann Adolf Hasse. Marc Antony and Cleopatra is actually referred to as a serenata, defined at the time as a large-scale work with a minimal amount of staging, intermediate between a cantata and an opera, and often performed outdoors, which would allow for the use of certain louder instruments (i.e. trumpets, horns and drums). The work was popular enough that it secured for Hasse a commission to write an opera for the Holy Roman Court (ruled at the time by Charles VI).
The libretto was written by Pietro Antonio Domenico Trapassi, usually known by his pseudonym of Metastasio, the premiere librettest of his day and one of the primary writers of opera seria libretti. Metastasio is said to have worked so closely with Hasse that, at one point late in his career, Hasse was given first shot at all of Metastasio’s texts
One of the more interesting things about Johann Hasse is the fact that he was admired by both Bach, and years later by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Johann Forkel, a noted early Bach biographer (he corresponded with C.P.E. and Wilhelm Friedemann Bach), writes:
“In Dresden, at the time that Hasse was maestro di capella, the orchestra and opera were quite brilliant and excellent. Bach had, even in his earlier years, many acquaintances there, all of whom honoured him. Also Hasse, with his wife, the celebrated Faustina, had come often to Leipzig and admired his great talents. He was therefore always received in an especially respectful manner at Dresden, and often went there to hear the opera. His eldest son usually accompanied him. A few days before he left, he would say in joke, Friedemann, shall we not go again to hear the lovely little Dresden songs?’. As innocent as this joke is in itself, I am convinced that Bach would not have said it to anybody except his son, who, at that time, already knew what is great in art and what is pretty and pleasant”
Later, in 1765, a 9 year old Mozart wrote as a dedication for his Opus 3 the following:
“Let me live, and one day I will offer to her [the queen ] a gift worthy of her and of you [ the Genius of Music]; because with your help, I will equal the glory of all the great men of my country, I will become as immortal as Handel and Hasse, and my name will be as famous as that of [ Johann Christian ] Bach.”
So, then, if Hasse was so well-regarded, how did he get relegated to the forgotten music file? During the 1760s, as composers such as Christoph Gluck brought about stylistic changes that moved tastes away from the opera seria style that Hasse wrote in, Hasse represented a sort of conservative old guard. Charles Burney, the noted music historian, explained it thusly:
Party runs as high among poets, musicians and their adherents, at Vienna as elsewhere. Metastasio and Hasse, may be said, to be at the head of one of the principal sects; and Calsabigi and Gluck of another. The first, regarding all innovations as quackery, adhere to the ancient form of the musical drama, in which the poet and musician claim equal attention from an audience; the bard in the recitatives and narrative parts; and the composer in the airs, duos and choruses. The second party depend more on theatrical effects, propriety of character, simplicity of diction, and of musical execution, than on, what they style flowery description, superfluous similes, sententious and cold morality, on one side, with tiresome symphonies, and long divisions, on the other.
Of course, something similar happened with the music of Bach. Of course, the advantage Bach had was that not only did he write music for performance, but also music for instruction. Even when his music wasn’t being performed, Bach’s music was still influential, with Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms all learning their lessons from the master’s works. Hasse, on the other hand, wrote music meant to be performed, and when it wasn’t being performed, it became forgotten.
Tonight’s recording was recorded in 2010 by the Ars Lyrica Houston, with Matthew Dirst, conducting from the harpsichord, and features Jamie Barton, mezzo-soprano, as Marc Antony, and Ava Pine, soprano, as Cleopatra.
Our second opera of the evening is Mozart’s Idomeneo (full title: Idomeneo, re di Creta ossia Ilia e Idamante; translated – King of Crete, or, Ilia and Idamante), K 366. The libretto was written by Giambattista Varesco from a French text by Antoine Danchet, which had been used for a similarly titled opera by André Campra in 1712. Mozart and Varesco were commissioned by Karl Theodor, Elector of Bavaria, to write an opera for a court carnival in 1780, and the Elector may have chosen the subject (as was common with these sorts of commissions). The libretto clearly draws inspiration from the above-mentioned Metasasio, and as such acts as a return to the opera seria form that had been championed by Hasse, and which had recently fallen out of popularity (a fact that dovetails with our discussion of Mozart’s appreciation of Hasse). It was premiered on 29 January 1781 in Munich, with the 25 year old Mozart conducting, and achieved considerable success. This success began a chain of events which led to Mozart’s relocation from Salzburg to Vienna.
Tonight’s recording, from 2001, features Ian Bostridge, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (a most excellent mezzo-soprano, who sadly passed away a few years ago from breast cancer; several of her recordings have won posthumous Grammy awards), Lisa Milne, Barbara Frittoli, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Paul Charles Clarke, and John Relyea. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Dunedin Consort (an excellent early-music organization), along with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, are conducted by Sir Charles MacKerras.