musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Classical scenas and opera arias

[I] "Berenice, che fai?"
Natalie Péreza, Chantal Santon-Jefferyb, soprano; Lea Desandre, mezzo-sopranoc
Opera Fuoco
Dir: David Stern
rec: Feb 6 - 13, 2017, Paris, Hôtel de L'Industrie
Aparté - AP165 (© 2017) (68'42")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johann Christian BACH (1735-1782): Catone in Utica, pasticcio (Warb G 2/18) ([III,2] Confusa, smarrita)a; Johann Adolf HASSE (1699-1783): Antigono, opera seria (sinfonia; scena di Berenice)c; Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809): Scena di Berenice (H XXIVa,10)c; Marianna MARTINES (1744-1812): Scena di Bereniceb; Antonio MAZZONI (1717-1785): Antigono, opera seria (Berenice, che fai - Non partir bell'idol mio, rec & aria)a; Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791): A Berenice - Sol nascente, rec & aria (KV 70 / 61c)b

[II] "Perfido!"
Sophie Bevan, soprano
The Mozartists
Dir: Ian Page
rec: Feb 15 - 19, 2016, London, Church of St. Augustine, Kilburn
Signum Classics - SIGCD485 (© 2017) (69'57")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ludwig VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827): Ah! perfido op. 65; No, non turbati - Ma tu tremi, o mio tesoro?, rec & aria (WoO 92a); Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809): Scena di Berenice (H XXIVa,10); Solo e pensoso (H XXIVb,20); Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791): Ah, lo previdi! - Ah, t'invola agl'occhi miei, rec & aria (KV 272); Basta, vincesti - Ah, non lasciarmi, no, rec & aria (KV 486a / 295a); Bella mia fiamma - Resta, o cara, rec & aria (KV 528); Oh, temerario Arbace - Per quel paterno amplesso, rec & aria (KV 79)

Joseph Haydn is not known primarily as an opera composer. However, two dramatic scenes from his pen are often performed: Arianna a Naxos and Scena di Berenice. The latter is taken from the opera libretto Antigono, written by Pietro Metastasio, which was set to music by many composers, including Hasse, Jommelli, Gluck and Paisiello. Haydn was not the only one to set the scena separately; others were Johann Christian Bach, Marianna Martines, Hummel and Neukomm. The programme devoted to this episode from the opera, performed by Opera Fuoco under the direction of David Stern, includes, alongside Haydn's setting, the version of Martinez, as well as the relevant extracts from the Antigono settings by Hasse and Antonio Mazzoni. This allows for a comparison of the different settings, which also document the stylistic developments in the course of the second half of the 18th century. This concerns, for instance, the treatment of the dramatic aspects, the virtuosity of the vocal parts as well as the role of the orchestra. If one compares, for example, Hasse with Mazzoni, a relatively unknown composer of operas, oratorios and sacred music from Bologna, one immediately notices how the latter treats the orchestra as an independent force, whose role contributes greatly to the expression of the protagonist's feelings.

Unfortunately, Johann Christian Bach's setting has been lost. As a replacement, an aria from the opera pasticcio Berenice is performed, whose affects are comparable to those of the Scena di Berenice. Mozart did not set the whole opera or the scena, but the recitative A Berenice and the following aria Sol nascente are very similar to it. Particularly interesting and highly dramatic is the setting of Marianna Martines, which she probably composed for herself. She was a remarkable figure. Her father was from Naples and had come to Vienna as gentiluomo to the papal nuncio. She was taken under the guidance of Metastasio, who was a friend of the family and lived in the same house. Marianna received her musical education from Haydn and Porpora, and developed into a fine singer and keyboard player who often accompanied herself. In 1773 she became the first female member of the Accademia Filarmonica of Bologna, a significant token of her reputation. Charles Burney met her and heard her play and sing; he was very impressed calling her "the most perfect lady singer I have ever heard".

A disc like this makes perfect sense, because it shows how a well-known text can be set to music in very different ways. The three singers make the best of it. They have the appropriate voices for this repertoire, as well as the necessary dramatic talent. From a stylistic point of view, two issues need to be mentioned. First, all three use more vibrato than is justified, but mostly it is rather limited. Sometimes the singers omit any vibrato, apparently in order to highlight a passage. In the time of the composers, the practice of singers was the other way around. Second, the top notes are usually sung with full force. That, too, was different at the time, in any case with the singing of the castrati, who usually sang the highest notes rather softer than the lower ones. How nice would it be, if singers would take this practice into account in their performances. Nevertheless, any lover of the vocal music from the classical period and especially of operas, should add this CD to his collection. One should also note the names of Martines (*) and Mazzoni; their respective oeuvre deserves to be further explored. I should not forget to add that the orchestra is top class and makes sure that the dramatic character of the various pieces comes off to the full.

Haydn's scena Berenice che fai is also the piece with which British soprano Sophie Bevan opens her recording with dramatic vocal works by the three great classical composers. Their contributions to the genre of opera and related genres, such as concert aria and scena, are very different. Mozart was a born opera composer whose theatrical instinct comes also to the fore in many instrumental works. Haydn's contribution to the genre of opera is substantial, but today only a few operas are performed now and then. Berenice che fai, but also Arianna a Naxos show that he was not devoid of theatrical skills. Especially interesting is that this recording includes a little known work, Solo e pensoso, which has the form of a sonnet (the text is from the pen of Petrarch) and therefore can not be set in the form of a dacapo aria. For that reason, this work is an exception in the programme.

Ms Bevan sings four concert arias by Mozart, with the introductory recitatives. The earliest is Per quel paterno aplesso, which he composed when he was only eight years old. Ah, non lasciarmi, no dates from 1778 and was composed in Mannheim for Dorothea Wendling. Ah, t'invola agl'occhi miei and Resta, o cara were written for Josefa Dussek, wife of the Bohemian composer Franz Xaver Dussek.

She was also the interpreter of Beethoven's scena Ah! perfido. This work is clearly inspired by Haydn's Berenice, che fai. It closes the programme and with that we come full circle. Although Beethoven's Fidelio is part of the standard repertoire of 19th-century opera, he was arguably the least 'natural' opera composer of the three. His concert aria Ma tu tremi is the least-known item in the programme, alongside Haydn's sonnet. It is notable that this piece was written after the far better-known Ah! perfido.

The mixture of some famous works and a couple of little-known pieces has resulted in a compelling programme. Each item can be considered a kind of pocket-size opera. Obviously, Mozart is the master; it is impressive how, in the concise form of a recitative and an aria, he is able to express the often fluctuating feelings of the protagonist. But the pieces by Haydn and Beethoven should also be taken seriously. Except the two unknown items, they are rightly part of the standard programme of singers.

Sophie Bevan is a fine interpreter with a good feeling for drama, which allows her to deliver convincing interpretations. Every now and then she uses too much vibrato, but fortunately she mostly keeps it in check. Especially beautiful are the first aria from Berenice che fai and the cavatina from Mozart's KV 272. The latter includes a beautiful obbligato piece for the oboe. The orchestra does everything right.

(*) Two recordings have been reviewed here: "Il primo amore" and "La Tempesta".

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Lea Desandre
Natalie Pérez
Chantal Santon Jeffery
Opera Fuoco
The Mozartists

CD Reviews