Classical Opera Perform Haydn and Mysliveček Back

Since its inception in 2015, Classical Opera’s Mozart 250 series has aimed not only to contextualise the works of Mozart, but also to unearth repertoire seemingly jilted by the concert hall. Their snapshot survey of 1766 has been seized as an opportunity to place a particular emphasis on the unknown due to ‘the apparent dearth of major works’ in the year, conductor Ian Page tells us. This year, having already explored works by Jomelli, Guglielmi and Beck, their 2015/16 season came to an end with a collection of arias by Mysliveček, framed by two contrasting works by Haydn. Experiencing this obscure repertoire is a useful chance for us to compare music of the ‘great’ composers with that of their contemporaries, and may lead us to rethink our stark distinction between composers who have been written in or out of history, and why this might be. It is likely that we are more acquainted with this music than Mozart himself would have been, but it is essential to reconstruct the musical world that Mozart inhabited if we are aiming to better understand how and why his music prevails 250 years on.

The Czech composer Josef Mysliveček (1737-1781) was greatly admired by Mozart, and the two forged a friendship during the latter’s travels through Italy. Leopold Mozart writes of Mysliveček in 1770: ‘He is a man of honour and we have become very good friends’. ‘The divine bohemian’, as Mysliveček was to be known after his death, was hugely successful throughout Italy as a composer of opera seria, and we were treated to four bravura arias from his first opera ‘Semiramide’. The programme notes describe the plot as ‘remarkably tortuous’, and Metastasio’s libretto proved itself to be somewhat complex even with a preparatory grasp of more familiar settings of the story. Before the opera even begins, the Indian prince Scitalce has attempted to murder his lover Semiramide, believing her to be unfaithful through the deception of his rival Sibari. Semiramide subsequently marries the King of Assyria, Nino, after whose death she disguises herself as the heir to the throne; we are thrust into the middle of a high-tension setting of macho competition and lost love.

Robert Murray took the first aria as Ircano, one of the three suitors trying to win over the princess Tamiri, one of whom (the Indian prince Scitalce) rejects her for he is still in love with Semiramide. Murray’s tone was strong and his stage presence relaxed and inviting, and his da capo section was an impressive bravura display. Kitty Whately delivered Tamiri’s aria, a furious expression of rejection, with elegant phrasing and the appropriate strength of charisma to match. Being deeply moved by Scitalce’s rejection of Tamiri, Semiramide’s aria explored the pastoral topic through the use of flutes (Katy Bircher and Elizabeth Walker), gracefully supporting Rachel Kelly’s bright and elegant tones. Susanna Hurrell sang as Mirteo, the winner of Tamiri’s hand, and took the final celebratory aria that continued the use of the pastoral flutes, now more jubilant than pensive. The complicated back-story, compounded by the confined space of Wigmore Hall, afforded us little in the sense of setting, yet the excellent acoustics of the hall readily turned our focus on to lyricism rather than narrative. The four soloists of the evening were successful in bringing to light Mysliveček’s style with agility and candidness.

1766 was a turbulent year in the career trajectory of Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). After an uncertain period regarding his place within the Esterházy he eventually assumed the position of Kapellmeister, leaving him in charge of church music as well as instrumental and operatic music. As a result, few if any of Haydn’s works can be ascribed with any certainty to this period, except perhaps a short intermezzo in two acts, La canterina. The plot revolves around two swindlers, Gasparina (Hurrel) and Apollonia (Kelly), the latter disguised as the former’s mother. Together they conspire to dupe the vocal maestro Don Pelagio (Murray) and Don Ettore (Whately) into renouncing their wealth. The plot itself is undemanding, farcical, and a standard lighthearted buffa affair intended for the summer Esterhaza; I personally found little meaning that could be translated to us in present day contexts, much unlike the audience, who regularly broke out in hysterics at humour quite literally from another century. The performance was not as convincing as I feel it could have been, and I found it difficult to engage with any of the characters, but whether this is the purpose of opera buffa at all is another matter entirely. However, the musical caricatures that emerged throughout La canterina were a welcome example of Haydn’s notorious wit.

The programme notes speak of La canterina in the same vein as Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona (1733), an earlier short intermezzo whose dramatic musical contrasts conveyed the emotions of the characters so effectively that some have argued this musical invention led to the emerging notion of ‘absolute music’, music on its own terms. The opening piece, Haydn’s Symphony No.34 in D Minor (a lesser known symphony perhaps only due to its lack of an ascribed nickname), written just before Haydn’s supposed Sturm und Drang period, was a quintessential example of Haydn’s intellectual exploration of the symphony as an expressive art form in its own terms, one that can be used as a vehicle to convey the emotions without the aid of a libretto. The standard of Classical Opera’s period-instruments are not to be doubted and, under the steady hand of Ian Page, the small ensemble brought to light both the finesse and the fire of this underplayed Haydn symphony. The opening adagio created a brooding pathos that readily contrasted with the bursts of major tonality that began to unfold throughout the symphony, and the culmination of lightning-fast strings and lyrical wind players in the fast-paced finale proved to be an outstanding performance of technical and artistic fluency. Page and his ensemble maintained an undercurrent of poise and virtuosity that flowed throughout the evening, but their performance of Symphony No.34 was my personal highlight.

Classical Opera performed at Wigmore Hall on 19th September 2016.