Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Barry Brenesal
Fanfare, January 2011

Later in life Hasse’s operas would be spoken of in the same breath as the poet Metastasio, whose librettos he frequently set, as though the two were one: a high-minded, classicizing influence, portraying tragic subjects with dramatic incisiveness and restraint. But earlier in his career the composer was more varied in his operatic output, and less parochial in his attitude toward aesthetics. He wrote one-act comedies, and a serenata for the powerful Neapolitan councilor and financier Carlo Carmignano, whose country estate provided the stage for its 1725 premiere. The work in question was Marc Antonio e Cleopatra. It brought Hasse a degree of renown in wealthy Neapolitan circles, and a commission from the San Bartolomeo opera house for Il Sesostrate. That in turn blossomed into a lucrative match-up, with seven opera seria composed and produced in six years, as well as a number of comic intermezzo operas and a full-length opera buffa for other venues. Hasse was suddenly on the fast track to fame and contracts.

In structure the work is not unlike a number of other, similar serenatas and dramatic cantatas financed by the secular and sacred elite of the Italian States at the time. The plot was well known in learned circles, so that much exposition could be dispensed with. A small cast, and lack of multiple sets, meant that relatively little was required in the way of stage preparation. This was in Naples, of course, where a mix of privately supported and profit-based urban venues could be counted upon to support opera houses for full-scale works, using more extensive casts (and, pre-Metastasio, main singers could amount to as many as 10 per opera); complex, multilevel stage sets; and elaborate stage machinery. (In more rural European areas, the onus was on princely estates to fund big operas if their owners wanted to see them, as well as serenatas, so both Gödöllő’s Royal Palace and Fertőd’s Esterházy Palace had their own extensive theaters and employment communities numbering in the hundreds.) Hasse, like Scarlatti, Handel, and many others before him, had a ready market for these smaller works.

Hasse was still writing in a vein we think of as predominantly Baroque in this opera, although around the same time he copied several arias from Scarlatti’s final opera, La Griselda, with the object of “modernizing it” through simplified harmonies. Marc Antonio e Cleopatra begins with a sinfonia consisting of a French overture, complete with over-dotted opening and fugal central section, and a minuet. The Baroque cast of the individual arias (and there are only two duets, one at the end of each act) is evident, with busy bass lines and elaborate vocal figuration, though counterpoint is less predominant than harmonic and thematic progression in determining the course of an aria. Dramatic suspensions that occur on a few occasions, as in Cleopatra’s “Un sol tuo sospiro,” point perhaps to Scarlatti’s influence. If the theatrical expression is conventional, and the act II final duet welcoming suicide almost a parody in its musically conventional expression of bliss, the individual arias often demonstrate energy and melodic distinction. We’re still a long way from Cleofide (1731), but it’s easy to understand why the Neapolitan artistic elite thought Hasse was someone to take a chance on.

The performances are good. Ava Pine has a finely focused lyric soprano with strong coloratura, though she fudges enunciation in some cases to procure evenness of tone. I’d prefer more lift in the simple line of “Quel candido armellino,” but “A Dio trono, impero a Dio” and “Morte col fiero aspetto” display a good emotional sense, and a voice well up to the extensive demands placed upon its agility. Jamie Barton has a contralto-flavored mezzo, with a good sense of phrasing (“Fra le pompe peregrine”). There appear to be some problems just around the register break, at least at the time of this recording, with occasional pitch issues that don’t appear anywhere else in the voice. The top seems pinched at times, as in “Pur chi’io possa a te,” but the overall sound is an attractive one. Matthew Dirst leads a disciplined, well-balanced performance whose pacing just occasionally seems overly tense: “A lone sigh from you, a loving glance with sweet pain came to my heart to heal my wounds,” Cleopatra sings in one aria, but the tempo of 156 bpm, a fast allegro, is too fast to project a joyful glow. The Ars Lyrica Houston is as fluent and poised here as it was in Scarlatti’s Euridice dall’Inferno (Naxos 8.570950).

Recommended, then. There’s a good deal of pleasure to be had both from the music and performances in Marc Antonio e Cleopatra. If I have any over-arching criticism at all for this release, it’s the short timings per CD. But the sense of a premiere recording tips the scales, especially when it’s done this well.

Bertil van Boer
Fanfare, January 2011

The year was 1725 and Naples was musically in a state of flux. The scion of Neapolitan opera, Alessandro Scarlatti, had just passed away, and the foreign darling of the stage, Handel, had long departed for London and, pretty much at the height of his success there, was occasionally poaching important Italian singers for his own opera company. To be sure, the conservatories were beginning to churn out local replacements, and composers such as Nicola Porpora were still writing actively, but what the city needed was a new celebrity, someone who could replace Handel as a new idol from the outside. The choice was a German, Johann Adolf Hasse, who like his colleague Handel had worked at the Hamburg Opera and was now resident studying composition under Porpora. Although he had composed several smaller works mainly for the church, Hasse’s career needed an important inauguration, a work that would demonstrate his competence and at the same time appeal to audiences as the next Neapolitan idol. The risk at one of the theaters in town was perhaps too great for Hasse, so the appropriate choice was a serenata, a festive work with fewer characters that could be semi-staged (e.g. with minimal sets, perhaps only a few backdrops).

Marc Antonio e Cleopatra fit the bill perfectly. It was not costly to mount, so the Neapolitan banker commissioning the work was not ruined financially, but Hasse could persuade the leading singers of the day, the castrato Farinelli and alto Vittoria Tesi, to appear together, offering them their own show, as it were. To make matters more interesting, the roles were reversed; Farinelli played Cleopatra, while Tesi did Marc Anthony. This was not really a matter of “gender-bending,” as the notes state, but rather a means of working with their voices and performance preferences. Farinelli had a flexible and powerful soprano, for which the expostulations in the text by Francesco Ricciardi was particularly well suited, while the calmer, more ethereal male role allowed Tesi’s well-developed sense of lyricism to shine. Audiences of the time cared not a whit about such cross-dressing, focusing almost entirely on the nuances in the text and the musical display.

The serenata itself is remarkably static in terms of action. It takes place after the Battle of Actium where they were stomped by Octavian, later Caesar Augustus. The focus therefore is on their bewildering reactions to this state of affairs, a sort of emotional exploration of “what do we do now?” Antony tries to ameliorate his defeat by stating in a poignant aria, “Pur ch’io possa a te,” that he would rather have her than all of Rome. She reacts, first with rage (“Morte con fiero aspetto,” a wonderful rage aria), then with resignation, and finally with acceptance. The second act is almost all about how they will face defeat in death, Cleopatra noting that she joyously offers herself up (“Quel candido armellino,” in which the allusion is to a snow-white ermine confronting a hunter) and Antony offering the solace that in Elysium they will continue their passion, perhaps forgetting that in mythology those dwelling there have to drink from the river Lethe. Not surprisingly, it ends with a nod to the new Hapsburg rulers and a statement that justice and mercy will descend upon them and the city.

The text is remarkably well written, poetically rich in metaphors but not stereotyped. This allowed Hasse to combine the needs of his singers with the musical delineations of the various emotions. The result is, for the most part, quite effective. For example, in Cleopatra’s aria in the second act in which she says farewell to her dreams of empire, Hasse produces a forceful string accompaniment to her (his?) somewhat restrained coloratura, as if she is defiant and resolute. This is not the portrait in music of a resigned queen, but rather one who proudly chooses honor over capture. In the final recitative, Hasse cautiously introduces the accompagnato with abrupt string chords, allowing certain portions of the text to be emphasized. His only flaw as a composer, if flaw it really is, comes in the duet that ends the first act. Here the interaction of the two voices is sometimes a bit awkward, as if he were reluctant to pair such superstars, and thus there is more than a modicum of solo line. Things do fare better in the final duet, where the parallel thirds make for a sonorous conclusion. If this is indicative of just the first foray into the world of Italian opera for Hasse, then it fully justifies his inheriting the mantle of “Il caro Sassone” once borne by Handel.

About the performance, one must note that conductor/harpsichordist Matthew Dirst keeps things lively. It is not the breakneck pace one used to find in this period music, but the tempos are all nicely set for both the text and mood of the portions. The playing of the Ars Lyrica Houston is crisp and clean, and the intonation solid. Soprano Ava Pine has the unenviable task of replicating the beauty and depth of the great Farinelli as Cleopatra. She does a very nice job of it, adding enough ornamentation to enhance the vocal display and nicely phrasing even the portions of coloratura in the furore arias. Jamie Barton’s Marc Antonio is her equal in every way. I find her interpretations quite subtle, with nice nuances in the slower, more lyrical part Hasse created. All in all, this is a fine recording and if you are a fan of early 18th-century opera, this should be in your collection.

Charles H Parsons
American Record Guide, January 2011

This world premiere recording by the forces of Ars Lyrica Houston is most welcome. It has been rescored with added recorders, oboes, flute, and bassoon. That brightens up the music considerably. It sounds authentic too. Not only do we hear an abundance of lovely baroque tunes and style, but the performance is exquisite. The orchestra is delightfully acidic in color, and the clean playing adds a welcome bounce to the “festivities”.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

© Dr Brian D. Stewart
Opera Today, December 2010

Johann Adolph Hasse (1699–1783) was arguably the most successful opera composer of the 18th century. Together with his favourite librettist, Pietro Metastasio, Hasse defined the genre of opera seria for an entire generation.

The greatest of his more than sixty stage works were performed in all the major musical centres of Europe and dozens of his arias were the mainstay repertoire of the leading singers of the day. Celebrated above all for his melodic gift and the supreme elegance of his vocal writing, Hasse was held by the contemporary English music critic and historian Charles Burney to be ‘superior to all other lyric composers’. One measure of Hasse’s popularity was the enormous salary he received as court opera composer in Dresden; together with his wife, the famous prima donna Faustina Bordoni, Hasse earned the staggering sum of six thousand Reichsthaler annually—sixty times the amount paid to Johann Sebastian Bach for his services as Thomaskantor in Leipzig.

Called ‘il divino Sassone’ by his Italian admirers, Hasse was in fact not a Saxon but a native of North Germany. Born in the village of Bergedorf near Hamburg, the composer began his musical career in 1718 as a tenor at Hamburg’s Gänsemarkt opera—an important station for many prominent German opera composers, including Händel, Keiser, Mattheson and Telemann. After a short engagement the following year at the court in Braunschweig, Hasse journeyed to Italy, where he settled in Naples and studied with Porpora and Alessandro Scarlatti. One of Hasse’s first Italian works, the present serenata Antonio e Cleopatra, was composed in 1725 and was followed by a series of opera commissions for the Neapolitan court. His fame grew quickly over the next several years, culminating in the success of Artaserse at Venice during the Carnival season in 1730, the composer’s first collaboration with Metastasio and the opera which launched his international career. The following year, Hasse and his new bride Faustina were engaged in Dresden, where they remained on and off until the beginning of the Seven Years War in 1756, with sojourns in Venice, Vienna, Warsaw and Paris. Following the war, which ruined the Saxon court both financially and artistically, Hasse moved to Vienna in 1764 before retiring to Venice with Faustina in 1773.

Hasse’s music is historically significant as a perfect embodiment of the stile galant, which, though it was the principal style for at least half of the 18th century, has been sadly misunderstood by a music historiography centred on the supposed dichotomy of ‘baroque’ and ‘classical’. Fixated on the far-from-mainstream J.S. Bach and Mozart, generations of musicologists have explained away central figures like Telemann, Hasse, C.P.E. Bach and J.C. Bach as ‘post-baroque’ or ‘pre-classical’. Only since the 1970s have scholars begun to undertake a serious examination of the style which dominated Europe for decades.

In light of the traditional view of the 18th century as the age of Bach and Mozart, it is not surprising that mid-century opera composers such as Hasse or Carl Heinrich Graun—who was regarded as the former’s near-equal by contemporary critics—remained largely forgotten during the so-called ‘early music’ revival in the latter half of the twentieth century. Another reason their music has remained locked away in the archives is the inherent difficulty of opera seria itself as a genre. With the notable exception of Händel, no composer of opera seria has gained acceptance into the repertoire today, and even Händel’s operas are routinely subjected to absurd attempts to make the genre ‘understandable’ or ‘relevant’ to modern audiences. Apart from aesthetic considerations, the sheer difficulty of singing this music represents a further barrier, as the style simultaneously requires purity of tone, great nuance in expression and consummate virtuosity. It is not a coincidence that one of Hasse’s favourite singers was the celebrated castrato Farinelli, whose appearance in a 1734 performance of Artaserse in London was described (long after the fact) by Charles Burney: ‘The first note he sung was taken with such delicacy, swelled by minute degrees to such an amazing volume, and afterwards diminished in the same manner to a mere point, that it was applauded for full five minutes. After this he set off with such brilliancy and rapidity of execution, that it was difficult for the violins of those days to keep pace with him.’

All of the above-mentioned factors, taken together with the music industry’s narrow-minded focus on ‘commercially viable’ composers, have meant that Hasse’s music has heretofore been rarely heard on stage and in recordings. Even the three-hundredth anniversary of his birth in 1999 did little to change this. It is typical that more of the composer’s (historically insignificant) instrumental music has been recorded than have his operas. The only full-length Hasse opera on CD is still William Christie’s pioneering 1986 recording of Cleofide (Capriccio 10193/96), with Emma Kirkby reprising the title-role composed for Faustina Bordoni (very highly recommended if one can find a used copy).

Under the circumstances, any new recording of dramatic music by Hasse is a welcome addition to the composer’s meagre discography, and is automatically a must-have for enthusiasts of opera seria. It was therefore with great expectation that I noted the recent release of the 1725 serenata (Marc’) Antonio e Cleopatra (Dorian Sono Luminus DSL-92115), a two-act ‘mini opera’ featuring only the two title characters. Antonio e Cleopatra is interesting not only because it was one of Hasse’s first significant works, but also since it was composed for Farinelli himself (Cleopatra), together with the Florentine contralto Vittoria Tesi (Antonio). While the former is widely regarded to have been one of the greatest singers of all time, contemporary accounts suggest that Vittoria Tesi (1700–1775) was at best inconsistent. Although she received many honours and enjoyed the patronage of Maria Theresia, Metastasio once called her a ‘grandissima nullità’, and Pierre Ange Goudar wrote in 1773 that Tesi had been ‘perhaps the first actress who recited well while singing badly’.

That Hasse knew his singers’ abilities well is immediately evident in the disposition of the eight arias in Antonio e Cleopatra: Farinelli sings the virtuosic music, while Tesi receives only cantabile arias. In the lively duets which close each act, Hasse restrains Farinelli’s virtuosity while increasing his demands on Signora Tesi. These duets also serve to illustrate one reason why lovers in opera seria were usually both cast as high voices: the close part-writing and frequent use of parallel thirds and sixths underscores the intimacy shared by the main characters. Though all of it is attractive, the best music in Antonio e Cleopatra is to be found in the cantabile arias, where we most clearly hear the elegant turns of phrase which made Hasse famous. The arias ‘Fra le pompe peregrine’ and ‘Là tra i mirti degl’Elisi’ are superb examples of the composer’s graceful lyricism: using the simplest of means, he strings together many small gestures to weave a fine melodic filigree. This is the very essence of the stile galant.

Unfortunately, the present recording fails to deliver in precisely that element which is so essential to opera seria: excellent singing. The two soloists, Ava Pine (Cleopatra) and Jamie Barton (Antonio), are inadequate to the task. They do not display the most rudimentary grasp of the subtleties required by the stile galant, and their conservatory-trained ‘operatic’ voices, plagued by incessant vibrato and a portamento approach to the higher octaves, are entirely unsuitable to this music. Take for example the wonderful aria ‘Pur ch’io possa a te’ (Antonio): the ritornello begins with great promise, but then Ms Barton spoils the effect by plodding through the notes one-by-one without the slightest sense that she is singing 18th-century music. We cannot wait for the aria to end—what a shame! As sung by Ms Pine, Farinelli’s arias hardly fare any better. In the bravura ‘A Dio trono, impero a Dio’ (Cleopatra), for example, the soprano negotiates the coloratura passages reasonably well, but her voice is overtaxed by the highest notes and her indiscriminately-applied vibrato is sometimes wider than the intervals being sung.

The orchestra, Ars Lyrica Houston, turns in more skilful performances than the vocalists. Its director, prize-winning harpsichordist and organist Matthew Dirst, has a good grasp of the style, and the playing is competent, if not outstanding. Dirst’s decision to include flutes, recorders and oboes to double the strings is both historically defensible and aesthetically appropriate. That a period-instrument ensemble from Texas should undertake to record Hasse is in itself notable and praiseworthy.

Antonio e Cleopatra has been nominated for a Grammy Award in the category ‘Best Opera Recording’. Given its flaws, ‘Most Important Opera Recording’ might be more appropriate. Nevertheless, the nomination is significant because it shows that perhaps Hasse could indeed become a ‘commercially viable’ composer. Perhaps a singer of Philippe Jaroussky’s calibre can be persuaded to take up Hasse’s cause as he has done recently for Johann Christian Bach (‘La Dolce Fiamma’ on Virgin Classics).

Despite its shortcomings, this recording is recommendable for the simple fact that we will probably not hear another version of this splendid music. If one can hear past the vocal performances, the beauty of Hasse’s music cannot fail to captivate listeners today as it did nearly three centuries ago.

Robert Hugill
MusicWeb International, December 2010

Like Handel had done some years earlier, Johann Adolf Hasse left his native Germany in 1721 to gain some Italian polish, He eventually settled in Naples and studied with Porpora and Alessandro Scarlatti. In 1730 he moved to Dresden where he became Kapellmeister, married one of Handel’s divas and the two became the power couple of late baroque opera.

During his Italian period Hasse produced seven operas, eight intermezzi and the serenatas. His serenata Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra was written for a Neapolitan banker in whose palace it was first performed in 1725. As a genre the serenata lay somewhere between the solo cantata and a full-length opera. Typically baroque serenatas set a familiar love story and form a sequence of short operatic scenes. Here the libretto is by poet and impresario Francesco Ricciardi. It starts with Marc’Antonio’s defeat by Octavian, the two declare their love and rather than submit to Rome, agree on suicide.

But there is an element in the original casting which sheds a fascinating light on the difference between baroque attitudes and ours. The original singers were the castrato Farinelli and the contralto Victoria Tesi, but contrary to what we might expect Farinelli sang Cleopatra and Tesi sang Marc’Antonio. Such cross-casting was then common in Italy, as it helped emphasise the artificiality of the operatic genre. But castrati did not sing travesty roles in England, so we are less familiar with the idea.

On this recording from Ars Lyrica Houston, the two roles are sung by women with Jamie Barton as Marc’Antonio and Ava Pine as Cleopatra.

The serenata opens with a sinfonia with each half being formed from four arias and a duet. Each singer is allocated the same number of arias, preserving perfect balance. But in another respect there is a difference. The role of Marc’Antonio (originally sung by Tesi) has a sequence of lyric, galant arias but Cleopatra (sung by Farinelli) is given a sequence of wonderfully brilliant arias. It is Cleopatra which is the show-piece role. Hasse became renowned for delivering virtuoso arias which showed off and flattered the original singers’ voices.

Pine has quite a rich voice, she is no slim-voiced canary, but displays a lively sense of baroque style and is quite fearless in her way with Hasse’s virtuosic vocal lines. She makes a strong, commanding queen. Barton has a Marilyn Horne-like voice and a nice way with the lyrical lines which Hasse has written for Marc’Antonio. Though there are moments when she sounds a little too careful, she is suitably love-lorn.

The piece is quite short, lasting a fraction under 90 minutes. But I did wonder whether the piece might have been fitted onto a single CD. Conductor Matthew Dirst takes the recitatives at an amazingly sedate pace, they are sedate and deliberate rather than dramatic; you certainly wouldn’t want to hear an entire opera performed this way.

The serenata became quite famous in Hasse’s lifetime, but this seems to be its first complete recording, so we must be thankful to Ars Lyrica Houston. It is an attractive and well made piece, but it does not mine the real depths of the characters’ emotions the way Handel could. Handel’s Italian period produced such striking gems as his cantata Lucrezia which explores Lucrezia’s emotional turmoil in depth; whereas Hasse seems to have been mainly concerned to show off his singers in the best light and perhaps flatter the audience.

Hasse’s original accompaniment was for strings and continuo but Ars Lyrica have added some woodwind (oboes, recorders, flute and bassoon) to produce a rather effective piece. That said, you do wonder whether Hasse’s original slimmer version might have been tighter and more dramatically incisive.

Under Matthew Dirst’s capable direction Ars Lyrica and their soloists give a lively performance of a charming work. It brought fame to Hasse and is well worth encountering in this engaging performance.

John Terauds
Toronto Star, September 2010

One couldn’t ask for a finer world-premiere recording of this 1725 operatic dialogue between Cleopatra and her lover, Marc Antony. German composer Johann Adolf Hasse’s gorgeous score glows under Matthew Dirst’s direction. The singers on this two-CD set are a pleasure, too: soprano Ava Pine as Cleopatra and mezzo Jamie Barton (Emilia in the Canada Opera Company’s recent production of Verdi’s Otello) as her lover.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group