Cher Public

The most dangerous game

While the fervor for Handel continues, works by other important 18th century opera composers have had a harder time gaining attention. One relatively neglected figure is Johann Adolf Hasse, but the invaluable and intrepid early-opera pioneer Newell Jenkins daringly presented one of the composer’s greatest works to New York way back in 1971. “Trove Thursday” presents a recording of that rare L’Olimpiade featuring particularly exciting performances by Joan Caplan and Rita Shane in the two leading castrato roles. 

Born in Bergedorf in 1699, Hasse composed almost no music to German texts; like many of his contemporaries he wrote works in Italian and Latin leaving an oeuvre containing over 60 operas and a good deal of sacred music. Most of his greatest theater works were created during his long residency in Dresden (where L’Olimpiade premiered in 1756) although many others were first done in Italy, primarily in Naples, with some later ones in Vienna.

L’Olimpiade is perhaps the most celebrated libretto by Pietro Metastasio; Caldara set the text first in 1734 followed by more than 60 other composers into the early 19th century. Several years ago the Venice Baroque Orchestra recorded an intriguing if uneven pasticcio made up of selections from sixteen different settings of L’Olimpiade

including Hasse’s whose version is firmly in the high baroque opera seria tradition but also shows early intimations of the evolving classical style. A ravishing aria sung by Ann Monoyios from his late Piramo e Tisbe featuring sumptuous writing for the horns beautifully illustrates this mélange of musical styles.

Hasse’s music has recently been embraced by a number of contemporary singers. Several years ago Valer Sabadus released a bewitching collection, and Vivica Genaux has long been an advocate of the composer including a number of his works on her Handel-Hasse recital CD.

Joyce DiDonato includes on her exciting “Drama Queens” collection just a single Hasse aria from Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra (a work recorded complete by both Genaux and Jamie Barton). A while ago Max Emanuel Cencic recorded an entire CD of arias,as well as the opera Siroe, re di Persia in a somewhat controversial edition. A stage production of Siroe is being revived in May at the Wiesbaden Festival featuring many of those involved in the Decca recording.

There aren’t many other complete Hasse opera seria available but my very first review for Parterre Box nearly six years ago was of the CD reissue of a marvelous Cleofide. Despite its stage-noises and sometimes less than optimal sound, a dramatic live Artaserse is also recommendable and available too on DVD.

Hasse was married for more than 50 years to the celebrated soprano Faustina Bordoni who appeared in many of his works. They wed in 1730 after her London residency where her memorable collaborations with Handel presented her alongside another of the great sopranos of the day, Francesca Cuzzoni. Much was made of their famous rivalry which was richly satirized in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera.

Jenkins’s performance here features much lively if occasionally uneven singing—particularly wan is Met veteran Helen Vanni. However, it showcases a bold way of performing baroque opera that is often eschewed these days. The stratospheric ornaments added by Shane are no doubt anachronistic but thrilling nonetheless.

I’ve always been taken with the Argene of Venezuelan mezzo Morella Muñoz, an artist about whom I know virtually nothing. The fine but little-known countertenor Daniel Collins excels as both Alcandro and Aristea, and is rewarded with one of the score’s highlights “Siam navi all’ondi algenti” presented in an oddly truncated form.

The Clistene is American tenor Richard Conrad whose claim to lasting fame must be the remarkable “The Age of Bel Canto” recording he made with Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne.

As Clistene, his rather insubstantial voice demonstrates remarkable agility. But for me the glory of this performance remains Caplan’s striking Megacle. Her passionate and commanding portrayal makes me want to hear more but I’ve only ever been able to locate her Nurse in the 1961 NBC Opera telecast of Boris Godunov and a live Dido and Aeneas from Dallas in which her fearsome Sorceress torments poor Tatiana Troyanos and Jon Vickers!

Hasse: L’Olimpiade
Clarion Concerts
Alice Tully Hall
New York City
16 March 1971

Aristea: Helen Vanni
Magacle: Joan Caplan
Licida: Rita Shane
Argene: Morella Munoz
Alcandro & Aminta: Daniel Collins
Clistene: Richard Conrad

Conductor: Newell Jenkins

As always, this week’s “Trove Thursday” offering can be downloaded via the audio-player included on this page. Just click on the icon of a square with an arrow pointing downward and the resulting mp3 file will appear in your download directory.

In addition, this week’s visit to the Olympics, last week’s Antonacci-fest and more than 60 other “Trove Thursday” podcasts are available from iTunes (for free!) or via any RSS reader.

  • Rosina Leckermaul

    Back in my youth I saw a City Opera DON GIOVANNI with Rita Shane as a particularly demented Donna Elvira. Sills was Donna Anna with Treigle and Gramm as Don G and Leporello. A memorable performance.