Another of Pietro Metastasio’s more popular libretti, Demetrio was first set in 1731 with music by Antonio Caldara. It was set more than fifty times thereafter, not including re-settings by the same composers, the last being that of Baltasar Saldoni, a now equally-forgotten Spanish composer, in 1840. Those who have had classical voice training and have made use of Nicola Vaccai’s Practical Vocal Method (1832) may well recognise some of the texts, too: the words to no fewer than three arias (‘Manca sollecita’, ‘Semplicetta tortorella’, and the B-section of ‘Più liete immagini’) were used to accompany his vocalises.
The version presented here is that of Johann Adolph Hasse, written for Dresden in 1740. Besides this version, Hasse produced four settings of this libretto during his career: one for Venice in 1732, one under the title Cleonice for Vienna in 1734, one again for Venice in 1737, and one there yet again in 1747. Hasse’s fame as a composer throughout his lengthy career (ending with Il Ruggiero in 1770) was founded on a knack for charming, expressive, and natural melodies, as well as his connections with the soprano Faustina Bordoni, whom he married, and Metastasio himself, who entrusted the first settings of his new libretti to Hasse following Antigono in 1743. In many respects, Hasse belongs to two distinct musical worlds, that of the rapidly disappearing High Baroque of Bach and Handel, and a nascent classicism which would peak at the end of the century. Hasse’s operas, particularly those of the first half of the century, thus present a flexible approach, incorporating elements of both styles as needed: a happy fusion indeed.
The plot is as follows: Cleonice, queen of Seleucia, must decide who to marry. As the opera opens, her options are her beloved, Alceste, the foster son of Fenicio; a Seleucian noble, Olinto, Fenicio’s natural son; or somebody else entirely. This would appear to be a straightforward decision, were it not that Alceste, prior to his fostering, had been a shepherd. For Cleonice to condescend to Alceste’s rank is an untenable solution among the nobles of Seleucia. Unbeknownst to everyone but Fenicio, and later Mitrane, another noble, Alceste is in fact Demetrio, the legitimate heir to the kingdom of Seleucia, the throne of which Cleonice’s father had usurped prior to the opera beginning. Through a long series of vacillations, scheming, and confessions of other concealed loves, Cleonice eventually decides that Fenicio is to be her consort. Fenicio in turn decides that it is now a good time to reveal to everyone Alceste’s true identity, and the opera ends, if not on a truly happy note, with Olinto swearing fealty to his new king, and Alceste/Demetrio and Cleonice technically free to marry.
Though a concert performance, the opera was given minimal staging, which I think was a good artistic choice, giving the audience a better idea of the dramatic possibilities of the text. While superficially it ticks all the boxes of a conventional Metastasian opera seria – featuring conflicts between love and duty, scheming courtiers, hidden loves, hidden identities, ornate da capo arias and aria texts mining a well-worn panoply of metaphorical comparisons – it seems to me that Demetrio is at the same time gently mocking its own genre. Besides a number of parallels with, and inversions of, the tropes of Metastasio’s earlier Didone abbandonata (e.g. Didone’s claim that she is queen and lover here seen by Cleonice as an impossibility in her own situation; Alceste/Demetrio’s return to Crete after facing a storm at sea) there are other instances which seem to betray a more self-aware, metaliterary approach to its subject matter, such as Olinto, surely channelling Metastasio’s own poetic voice, attempting to stop Alceste speaking of the perils of his ocean journey, a move made more ironic by the fact that nautical metaphors abound in this particular opera. There also appears to be a rejection of the typical Arcadian ideal, chiefly represented by the fact that Olinto, overtly, and Cleonice, more obliquely, both believe that a shepherd cannot and will not make a decent king, if he even becomes king at all. The choice thus to play up the comic aspects of the texts I think was also a good choice.
Musically, for me, there were several arias that stood out: two of Fenicio’s arias, ‘Ogni procella infida’ in Act I, and that closing Act II, ‘Disperato in mare turbato’, almost certainly a reworking of ‘Fra l’orror della tempesta’ from Siroè, which has been widely recorded; Cleonice’s ‘Manca sollecita’, a suitably agitated, declamatory piece featuring solo flutes, where Hasse has taken the lieve fiato in the text quite literally; both of Mitrane’s arias in Act I and II displayed an expansive, dignified and noble character; and, perhaps most interesting of all, Olinto’s ‘Non fidi al mar che freme’ in Act II, with extensive solo horn passages. As a companion piece to Alceste’s Act I aria, ‘Scherzo il nocchier talora’, it seemed to me that this rousing aria had an accompaniment in which Hasse provided a greater level of orchestral interest and independence. It is a pity that it was let down by uncertain intonation from the horns (granted, the part lies very high), singing that was a bit rough around the edges, and an audience member loudly blowing their nose!
I very much enjoyed Rupert Charlesworth as Fenicio: his tenor is clear, confident and sensitive to the nuances of the text. Augusta Hebbert, too, in her role as Mitrane, showed clear enjoyment of her arias, and her supple soprano is very well suited to this repertoire. Ciara Hendrick’s mezzo was only really allowed to flower at the end of her Act I aria ‘Vorrei da lacci sciogliere’, being otherwise consigned to moderation and restraint in her other arias, but when it did, it revealed a most pleasing tone indeed. Erica Eloff as Cleonice also felicitously combined good acting and solid singing, though I missed her usual drive and purposeful approach to coloratura passages, and there were occasional parts of the recitative where I picked up misplaced emphases in the Italian.
Michael Taylor’s Alceste/Demetrio I often felt was too much like his interpretation of last year’s Adriano (Pergolesi, Adriano in Siria, Opera Settecento, also reviewed here), which is to say showing a bit too much swagger for the supposedly good and moderate shepherd Metastasio makes him out to be. This was especially apparent, for example, in his first aria, ‘Scherza il nocchier’, where he warns Olinto of the perils of overconfidence. The text describes a ship’s helmsman who is at first dismissive of the danger of the sea, but when confronted with a storm, is struck with paralysing fear. Given the presentation of Alceste as it stands, I would have expected a more sententious and ‘philosophical’ tone rather than the haughtiness I detected on the night.
Overall, Ray Chenez brought a well-judged sense of character to his portrayal of Olinto, and the choice to perhaps sometimes overstate his fawning cravenness worked to his advantage. The vocal range Hasse writes for the character is very large – as, in fact, are several other roles in the opera – and the singer is pushed to extremes on both ends of the spectrum. Here I felt that his voice tended to shrillness in the upper registers and on the whole could be more modulated.
The orchestra, led by Leo Duarte, was sensitive to the often rhetorical shape of the arias and generally showed a tight cohesion, aside from occasional ‘wooliness’ brought about by having both first and second violins in unison for large stretches of the opera. The continuo section delivered as well by providing an elegant polish to the arias, being richly furnished with two harpsichords and theorbo and supported by a strong bass of cellos, double basses and bassoon.
As always it is a pleasure to see that unknown pieces are being revived, and Hasse, perhaps presently more visible than most other neglected eighteenth-century composers, is a good entry point for those uninitiated into opera seria beyond Handel: it is simply a question of whether these rediscoveries are going to be returned to the library shelf to gather dust once again, or whether they will make their way – in whatever form – into the standard repertoire. In Demetrio we find a rather high number of attractive arias that showcase the best of what Hasse has to offer, as well as a curious text that merits greater attention in and of itself, so I hope it receives it! Overall Opera Settecento has provided a good evening’s entertainment, and it is only with initiatives like theirs that the gaps between the two giants of Handel and Mozart will begin to be filled once again.
Demetrio was performed at Cadogan Hall on 21st September 2016. Opera Settecento plans to continue with the present arrangement of a Handel pasticcio at the London Handel Festival in the spring, this time Ormisda of 1730, and another opera seria in the autumn (as yet undecided).