Tuesday, May 24, 2022

St George’s Church, Hanover Square, London

Guest Reviewer, Curtis Rogers

Handel has long been acknowledged as one of music’s great survivors, as he adapted with chameleonic ease the changing fortunes and fashions of the different contexts in which he found himself throughout his musical life. The 1730s were a decade of particularly wide-ranging development as he transitioned from his prestigious operatic career (which had taken him from his native Germany to studies in Italy and then on to London) to single-handedly creating the enduring form of English oratorio, experimenting in various hybrid genres along the way, in order to keep his audiences entertained and rivetted.

One of the more obscure parts of his output are the pasticcio operas he created in that period. After monopolising the operatic market with his Royal Academy in the 1720s, the next decade saw the need to reinvent himself somewhat, particularly with the formation of a rival opera company in London. Those pasticcios (or patchwork operas, formed by assembling pre-existing arias) were a canny move on Handel’s part in that newly pressurised and competitive environment: not only did he satisfy his audience’s demand for the newer and increasingly fashionable Neapolitan operatic style (which the rival Opera of the Nobility also sought to promote by enlisting Nicola Porpora as musical director) but also, in drawing upon the existing music of other composers, he saved considerable time and effort in bringing to the stage a steady stream of new works alongside his original compositions.

For Caio Fabbricio (1733) Handel adapted an opera of the same name by his fellow-German and Italian-trained Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783), written the year before (for Rome). Arias from works by a few other composers, such as Leonardo Leo and Leonardo Vinci, were also inserted, giving audiences in London the opportunity to hear the latest developments in operatic writing from Italy, particularly in that new Neapolitan fashion. Those operas are virtually forgotten today, though some listeners may be familiar with the style from Pergolesi’s vocal works (both secular and sacred) including the very famous Stabat Mater. Compared with Handel’s denser, more contrapuntal textures, the Neapolitan style is marked by the more sustained and lyrical quality of the vocal melody, over a simpler instrumental accompaniment.

From the recently digitised conducting score of Caio Fabbricio, Bridget Cunningham has prepared a performing edition, enabling it to be given here for the first time in the modern era, with London Opera Company. Led by Cunningham from the harpsichord, a generally solid body of sound was created, but in true galant style tended to remain within a moderate range of tempos and dynamics rather than exhibiting the wider extremes of passions and temperaments found in the high Baroque form of opera seria. If the violins were occasionally a touch raw, the cello, bass and bassoon together provided a strong, rhythmic foundation in the lower part, coming more to the fore or less as occasion required within the limited opportunities for the creation of varying Affekt in the succession of arias. As the Overture is missing (except for its basso continuo line) a Concerto by Hasse was used – in the three-movement Italian sinfonia form, rather than the French overture typical of Handel’s original operas – exploiting the pair of horns also called upon in some of the vocal numbers and played warmly here. For only one of the arias were the almost-chuckling oboes heard.

Ironically only a single aria is given to the title character – probably because the creator of the role in 1733, Gustavus Waltz, was not in the best voice at the time of the premiere. Here Kieran Rayner sang with a firm, almost passionless (but still musically sonorous) authority as the incorruptible, austere Roman consul, called to establish peace after a war between the Romans and Turio (the leader of the Tarentines) who had summoned the wily Pirro (King of Epirus and Macedonia) to his aid. The latter is really the principal male role as it was created by the celebrated castrato Giovanni Carestini. Anna Harvey combined a steady, purposeful grasp of the music, expressing vehemence and determination (eloquently transcending the sometimes-restrained Neapolitan nature of the music) with appropriately elegant control of the vocal line.

Having been promised in marriage to Pirro, Hannah Poulsom’s Bircenna evinced a somewhat brittle, enraged veneer, in one of the few minor-key arias, and then calm sincerity later on as she sought reconciliation with the King. Pirro’s feelings are turned towards Fabbricio’s daughter Sestia (who becomes the King’s prisoner) – sung by Ildiko Allen with a certain alluring levity and charm initially but expanded into more overt passion subsequently as she contended with those unwelcome attentions and the apparent treachery of her lover, Volusio. That part was originally taken by another prominent castrato, Carlo Scalzi; the coloratura of the music provided for him was executed with a hard, crystalline directness by Anna Gorbachyova-Ogilvie, constituting the commanding musical centrepiece in each of the Acts.

Thalie Knights gave a robust interpretation as the Tarentine leader, Turio, if a touch overladen with vibrato in her second aria, whilst Phoebe Haines achieved notable colour and style in the single, didactic aria for Cinea, Pirro’s ambassador. With a fairly undifferentiated stream of arias, and only a perfunctory final coro, the accomplished cast made a lively, compelling case for this unusual work. If not a masterpiece, it’s a fascinating glimpse of the shifts in opera style during the middle of the eighteenth-century.

Handel / Hasse

Caio Fabbriccio, HWVA9 – Pasticcio opera in three Acts to a libretto by Apostolo Zeno revised by Nicolò Coluzzi [sung in Italian]

Pirro – Anna Harvey

Sestia – Ildiko Allen

Caio Fabbricio – Kieran Rayner

Volusio – Anna Gorbachyova-Ogilvie

Turio – Thalie Knights

Bircenna – Hannah Poulsom

Cinea – Phoebe Haines

London Early Opera

Bridget Cunningham (harpsichord)