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Johann Adolf HASSE (1699 - 1783): Marc'Antonio e Cleopatra

Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli (Cleopatra), soprano; Viviva Genaux (Marc'Antonio), mezzo-soprano
Le Musiche Nove
Dir: Claudio Osele

rec: Nov 30 - Dec 4, 2011, Lonigo, Villa San Fermo
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88883721872 (2 CDs) (© 2013) (1.31'00")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translation: E/D
Cover & track-list

Enrico Casazza, Isabella Longo, Elisa Bestetti, Luca Ranzato, Laura Scipioni, Ulrike Slowik, Gianpiero Zanocco, violin; Emanuele Marcante, Alessandro Lanaro, viola; Giuseppe Mulè, Claudia Poz, cello; Francesco Tomei, double bass; Marco Pesci, theorbo, guitar; Federica Bianchi, harpsichord

Johann Adolf Hasse was one of the leading opera composers in Europe from the 1730s until the 1760s. His operas were performed across Europe, often with his wife Faustina Bordoni in one of the leading roles. He was born in a family of musicians; his father was organist as many other members of this dynasty had been. But Johann Adolf followed a different path. He is said to have had a fine tenor voice and been a good actor, and after his studies in Hamburg he joined the opera. In 1719 he became a member of the chapel of the court in Brunswick. Here his first opera was performed, Antioco, from which only six arias have been preserved.

Shortly after that performance in 1721 he left the country for Italy. In 1722 he arrived in Naples where he stayed for about seven years and where he became a pupil of Alessandro Scarlatti. In 1725 he composed his first work here, the serenata which is the subject of the present disc. The serenata was one of the most popular forms of vocal music and written in large numbers. They were mostly composed for special occasions, such as weddings and birthdays of people from the upper echelons of society, often royalty or members of the aristocracy. The commission to compose such a piece reflected the status of the composer.

Marc'Antonio e Cleopatra was to be staged "on the country estate of the royal councillor Signor D. Carlo Carmignano in the summer of 1725" as is noted on the only known source. As Naples was under the rule of the Habsburg emperor the serenata ends with a song of praise for Charles VI and his wife Elisabeth Christine. The status of the singers who took the two roles attests to the importance of the occasion. The role of Cleopatra was sung by Carlo Broschi, later better known as Farinelli, who - although just 20 - was already famous. His opposing number was the mezzo-soprano Vittoria Tesi, who was 25 at the time, and was already known as far as Dresden.

The story is about Mark Antony and Cleopatra which Shakespeare chose as a subject for one of his plays. Let me first give a summary of the story of these two characters. "After Caesar's assassination, Cleopatra set her sights on the dashing Roman general Mark Antony. The two began an affair, resulting in twins in 40 B.C. Antony wed Cleopatra in 36 B.C., and appointed his new wife ruler of Egypt, Cyprus, Crete, and Cyria. This abuse of power so outraged the Roman Senate that they denounced him a traitor. After losing a major battle at sea, Antony and Cleopatra were forced to flee to Egypt in 31 B.C. In desperation, Cleopatra spread rumors of her own suicide. Antony, unaware of her plan, stabbed himself to death. When Cleopatra heard of this, she took her own life by inducing a poisonous snake to bite her" (

The story as told in the serenata is a little less prosaic. In the first half - there are no formal acts - the two characters deliberate their future in the wake of the defeat. Mark Antony declares his love for Cleopatra which means more to him than the throne of the empire. Cleopatra responds to his feelings but is mainly concerned that she may lose her freedom as a result of the victory of the Romans. She rather would like to die than be a slave and tries to convince Mark Antony that they should take their life together. After some hesitation he agrees.

The shift from the past to the present is made by Mark Antony in his recitative before the closing duet. "For Caesar my defeat should be the foundation of a united empire, the heads of his successors should also receive the laurels of Rome (...). Ultimately, in the course of the years under the heaven of Germania a new sun will rise, which from the domains of the Moors to the coast of the East will brighten the lands with its rays: it is this Charles, the superhuman, the great, who with his admirable deeds will overshadow all those from Greece and Rome (...)". Whereas in the duet which closes the first half - when Cleopatra hasn't won over Mar Antony yet - they sing different texts, in the closing duet they agree: "Beautiful, evenful age, you rejoice in your splendour and your great fortune. For from heaven, without any reservations, justice and mercy will come to you".

One will have gathered that this piece is not very dramatic. A serenata was clearly different from an opera. Its main aim was to honour the dedicatee. It should also entertain the audience and give the singers the opportunity to show off. In his music Hasse paid tribute to the qualities of the two singers which were to perform Marc'Antonio e Cleopatra, both in his characterisation of the respective roles as in the technical requirements of the arias. Cleopatra is the strongest character and has the most brilliant music to sing. The highlight - also from a dramatic angle - is the opening of the second half when she has decided that she is going to commit suicide. Hasse has created here a scena: the secco recitative turns into a recitativo accompagnato which is followed attacca by an aria: "Farewell, throne and kingdom, will I calmly say, I leave you and go to face death, to die in freedom". Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli is excellently cast in this role: she has a beautiful and agile voice with a wide range and as a result she has no problems with her demanding part. She pays much attention to the text, adds some stylish ornamentation and resists the temptation to rewrite her part in the dacapos. The same goes for Vivica Genaux who gives a good account of the rather hesitant Mark Antony. However, her voice has some sharp edges which are probably less appropriate for a relatively weak character like Mark Antony. I also don't like her incessant vibrato which has a damaging effect on the two duets. The recitatives are nicely done, in a mostly appropriate tempo.

This is not the first recording of this serenata. It was previously recorded by Matthew Dirst with his ensemble Ars Lyrica (Sono Luminus, 2010). I don't know that performance, and therefore I can't compare them. But I have read that Dirst added wind to the original scoring which is for strings and basso continuo. Osele has "followed to the letter", as he writes in the booklet, the scoring as notated in the surviving manuscript, and that seems to me just right.

Despite my disappointment about some aspects of Viviva Genaux's singing this disc is highly recommendable to anyone who likes 18th-century vocal music. This serenata proves once again that in his time Hasse was famous for good reason.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Vivica Genaux
Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli

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