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The rise of classical opera

[I] Christoph Willibald VON GLUCK (1714 - 1787): "Opera Arias"
Daniel Behle, tenor
Armonia Atenea
Dir: George Petrou
rec: July 4 - 9, 2013, Athens, Megaron/The Athen Concerts Hall (Dimitris Mitropoulos Hall)
Decca - 478 6758 (© 2014) (64'07")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Antigono (1756) (Quercia annosa sull'erte pendici); Ezio (1750) (Se povero il ruscello); Ipermestra (1744) (Non hai cor per un'impresa); Iphigénie en Aulide (1774) (Cruelle, non, jamais); La contessa de' numi (1749) (Qual ira intempestiva - Oggi per me non sudi, rec & aria); La rencontre imprévue (1764) (Je chérirai, jusqu' au trépas); Le cinesi (1754) (Son lungi e non mi brami); Orphée et Eurydice (1774) (J'ai perdu mon Eurydice); Semiramide riconosciuta (1748) (Bel piacer saria d'un core; Io veggo in lontananza)

[II] "Che puro ciel - The rise of classical opera"
Bejun Mehta, alto
RIAS Kammerchora; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Dir: René Jacobs
rec: April 2013, Berlin, Teldex Studio
Harmonia mundi - HMC 902172 (© 2013) (69'50")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Johann Christian BACH (1735-1782): Artaserse (Warb G 1) (1760) (No, che non ha la sorte - Vo solcando un mar crudele, rec & aria); Christoph Willibald VON GLUCK (1714-1787): Ezio (1763) (Pensa a serbarmi; Se il fulmine sospendi); Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) (Che puro ciel! - Vieni a' regni del riposo, aria & chorus)a; Johann Adolph HASSE (1699-1783): Il trionfo di Clelia (1762) (Dei di Roma, ah perdonate!); Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791): Ascanio in Alba (KV 111) (1771) (Perché tacer degg'io? - Cara, lontano ancora, rec & aria; Ah di sì nobil alma); Mitridate, rè di Ponto (KV 87/74a) (1770) (Vadasi - Già dagli occhi il velo è tolto, rec & aria); Tommaso TRAETTA (1727-1779): Antigona (1772) (Ah, se lo vedi piangere; Ah, sì, da te dipende); Ifigenia in Tauride (1763) (Dormi Oreste!)a

This year the birth of Christoph Willibald von Gluck is commemorated, but it would be an exaggeration to say that he is given a lot of attention. This is probably due to the fact that he had to share the stage with two other composers of his own time: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (born in 1714) and Jean-Philippe Rameau (who died in 1764). The latter is mainly known for his operas, and so is Gluck. Considering the number of live performances and recordings of Rameau operas Gluck seems to have lost the competition. That is a little unfair as he played a crucial role in the development of the genre. His operas document the transition from the baroque opera seria to the opera of the classical era.

The two discs reviewed here pay attention to his role in this development, but as far as the repertoire is concerned the first is a bit of a missed opportunity. It is ironic that the liner-notes describe at length how Gluck broke away from the opera as was common in the time he received his musical education. But the programme comprises largely arias from operas which are still firmly rooted in tradition, and all of them have a dacapo, one of the forms which was increasingly considered unnatural. We are told that the famous librettist Pietro Metastasio was rather conservative and that from the mid-1750s onwards Gluck did not set a single libretto by him. However, most arias on this disc are from the pen of Metastasio. I would have liked the author of the liner-notes to write about the music performed here.

That said, not that many operas from Gluck's earlier years are part of the standard repertoire of opera companies. The programme opens with an aria from Antigono - searching the internet I could not find a complete recording. The same goes for the second opera represented here, with two arias, Semiramide riconosciuta. La contesa de' numi has also not been recorded complete. This is called a festa teatrale and was written at the occasion of the birth of the Danish Crown Prince Christian (later King Christian VII) in 1749. It falls into the category of the serenata rather than opera.

George Petrou has turned Armonia Atenea into an excellent ensemble which plays brilliantly throughout here. I am less impressed by Daniel Behle's singing. He avoids bad habits such as a wide vibrato, and he seems to have a good feeling for opera, although that is hard to assess on the basis of an aria disc. But in forte passages he sings with full power which I find unnatural. In general his treatment of dynamics is rather one-dimensional. I prefer a more differentiated approach, in the interest of an optimum communication of the text. In the French items his singing less idiomatic than in the Italian arias. In some arias he adds very long cadenzas. Is this a way to demonstrate how 'unnatural' the old opera was which Gluck wanted to break away from?

The Gluck disc is especially interesting in regard to repertoire as it shows that the early operas by Gluck don't deserve to be neglected. The same goes for the second disc which includes extracts from operas which are not that familiar. That is certainly the case with the operas by Traetta who is not well represented in the catalogue, despite his importance in the development of opera in the 18th century. It is mostly Gluck who is given the credit for the reformation of opera, but Traetta was probably the first who broke away from the traditional pattern, alongside his fellow Italian Nicolò Jommelli.

One of the new aspects of opera was the writing of episodes in which various forms alternate, such as (accompanied) recitative, aria and chorus. These later developed into large-scale scenes which became a fixed part of classical opera. Early examples can be found in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice and in this programme in Dormi Oreste! from Traetta's Ifigenia in Tauride (Vienna, 1763). His Antigona (St Petersburg, 1772) shows the direct influence of Gluck; it is one of the few operas from his pen which have been recorded complete (Christophe Rousset, 2001).

The second item on this disc is a recitative and aria from Ascanio in Alba, a festa teatrale by Mozart (Milan, 1771). The recitative is a recitativo accompagnato which is almost as long as the ensuing aria. Accompanied recitatives appear in operas of the early 18th century, but not on a regular basis. That is a later development which seems in line with Metastasio's aesthetic ideals, as Denis Morrier suggests in his liner-notes to the Harmonia mundi disc. From that perspective it is questionable whether Metastasio is done full justice by calling him "profoundly conservative" as in the liner-notes to the Decca recording.

Mozart was strongly inspired by the oeuvre of Johann Christian Bach whom he had met in London on his concert tour with his father Leopold and sister Nannerl in 1764/65. The youngest son of Johann Sebastian went to Italy in 1755 and although he was mainly active as an organist he showed great interest in opera.Artaserse was his first, which had its premiere in 1760. The dramatic accompanied recitative is followed by an aria which is clearly different from what was common in the baroque era. It is important to note that the libretto is from the pen of that same Metastasio. Bach's influence on Mozart comes to the fore in Mitridate, re di Ponto (Milan, 1770) and Ascanio in Alba.

Traetta's operas don't appear often in the schedules of opera theatres. They share that fate with the operas of Johann Christian Bach, although in recent years there is more interest in his works for the stage, and several of them have been released on disc. Even the early stage works by Mozart are not that often performed and recorded. That is regrettable: this disc ends with a splendid aria from Mitridate which is also one of its highlights. It is brilliantly sung by Bejun Mehta, but he is equally convincing in the other items. I would have liked a little less vibrato, but on the whole it didn't bother me too much, because he has a very beautiful voice and is an intelligent and stylish singer who is remarkably versatile. The more extraverted arias come off just as well as the more lyrical pieces. And how nice is it to hear someone who is able to sing top notes without screaming.

The orchestra's importance and size in theatre music grows in the course of the 18th century. That comes to the fore here, and as the Akademie für Alte Musik is one of the best in the business we can be sure that every aspect of the orchestral scores is explored. The RIAS Kammerchor is of the same level in the vocal department; the dramatic chorus in Traetta's Ifigenia in Tauride is impressively performed.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Daniel Behle
Bejun Mehta
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin

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