Johann Adolf Hasse: Marc'Antonio e Cleopatra
Mhairi Lawson (Cleopatra), Hilary Summers (Marc'Antonio)
Christian Curnyn (harpsichord/music director)
Early Opera Company Orchestra
Marc'Antonio e Cleopatra was probably the first work of Johann Adolf Hasse to be performed in public. Hasse, like Handel, went to Italy to learn to be a composer, but stayed there after his breakthrough in Naples in 1725 with this work. It is called a serenata, which means that it ought to be a pastoral bit of nothing with a few tears thrown in, but, with its historical setting and depiction of sexual crisis, it is more like a dramatic cantata. Hasse generally wrote music less muscular but more ingratiatingly melodic than Handel: on first hearing Marc'Antonio e Cleopatra seems to have as much in common with the rather mechanical bravura of Riccardo Broschi as with either Handel's Neapolitan serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo or his contemporary operas, although there are obvious points of comparison with Giulio Cesare, which had its first revival in London in the year Marc'Antonio was composed. But then Hasse wrote the role of Cleopatra (sic) for Broschi's kid brother.
The casting of Farinelli as the queen and of the contralto Vittoria Tesi as the archetypical uomo effeminato Marc'Antonio is perhaps a joke about the conventions of Italian opera, which had room both for castrati as luscious heroines and contraltos, as immature heroes, though not usually in the same work. Or perhaps it is a commentary on the complexities of gender roles in the tale of the lovers defeated by the macho Octavian: neither of them has any balls, but while he followers her slavishly, she has an exotic hauteur that verges on regal pride. Or again, perhaps it is simple Neapolitan naughtiness, which is never far from the surface of the putatively tragic scene of shared suicide, which changes gear in the final recitative to celebrate the rise of Rome and, as a result, the rule of the current emperor and empress, who are presents as paragons in complete contrast to the characters who praise them.
The Early Opera Company has been busy this year with Handel (touring with a co-production of Ariodante and a staging of Susanna, but Marc'Antonio slotted in nicely for one night only at the Wigmore Hall, one of the few venues in London that has both the intimacy and the savoir faire for such court entertainments. There was a hint of under-rehearsed danger in the performance of both the small orchestra (two violins, viola, cello, bass and theorbo) and of the singers, who were obviously tied to their copies, but everybody knew exactly what they were doing, and the result was quite exciting. Hilary Summers, who looks a lot like Elvis in a silk tuxedo, swaggered magnificently and drooped pathetically. The music exposed a basic woofiness of her voice in passages where the only objective was beautiful sound (Hasse was already half way to bel canto), but she can really sing. Mhairi Lawson (cleavage and spectacles) had the vocal and personal glamour for Cleopatra, as well as the coloratura. She wasn't quite the castrating bitch of tradition, but she made Cleopatra's simile aria as she accepts death ("To preserve its beautiful whiteness, the ermine surrenders joyfully to the hunter") both sexy and moving.