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Hasse: Antonio e Cleopatra / Ars Lyrica Houston

Hasse / Ars Lyrica Houston
Release Date: 08/31/2010 
Label:  Sono Luminus   Catalog #: 92115   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Johann Adolf Hasse
Performer:  Ava PineJamie Barton
Conductor:  Matthew Dirst
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ars Lyrica Houston
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

HASSE Marc Antonio e Cleopatra Matthew Dirst, cond; Jamie Barton ( Marc Antonio ); Ava Pine ( Cleopatra ); Ars Lyrica Houston DORIAN 92115 (2 CDs: 89:50 Text and Translation)

Later in life Hasse’s operas would be spoken of in the same breath as the poet Metastasio, whose librettos he frequently set, as though the two were one: a high-minded, classicizing Read more influence, portraying tragic subjects with dramatic incisiveness and restraint. But earlier in his career the composer was more varied in his operatic output, and less parochial in his attitude toward aesthetics. He wrote one-act comedies, and a serenata for the powerful Neapolitan councilor and financier Carlo Carmignano, whose country estate provided the stage for its 1725 premiere. The work in question was Marc Antonio e Cleopatra . It brought Hasse a degree of renown in wealthy Neapolitan circles, and a commission from the San Bartolomeo opera house for Il Sesostrate . That in turn blossomed into a lucrative match-up, with seven opera seria composed and produced in six years, as well as a number of comic intermezzo operas and a full-length opera buffa for other venues. Hasse was suddenly on the fast track to fame and contracts.

In structure the work is not unlike a number of other, similar serenatas and dramatic cantatas financed by the secular and sacred elite of the Italian States at the time. The plot was well known in learned circles, so that much exposition could be dispensed with. A small cast, and lack of multiple sets, meant that relatively little was required in the way of stage preparation. This was in Naples, of course, where a mix of privately supported and profit-based urban venues could be counted upon to support opera houses for full-scale works, using more extensive casts (and, pre-Metastasio, main singers could amount to as many as 10 per opera); complex, multilevel stage sets; and elaborate stage machinery. (In more rural European areas, the onus was on princely estates to fund big operas if their owners wanted to see them, as well as serenatas, so both Gödöll??s Royal Palace and Fert?d’s Esterházy Palace had their own extensive theaters and employment communities numbering in the hundreds.) Hasse, like Scarlatti, Handel, and many others before him, had a ready market for these smaller works.

Hasse was still writing in a vein we think of as predominantly Baroque in this opera, although around the same time he copied several arias from Scarlatti’s final opera, La Griselda , with the object of “modernizing it” through simplified harmonies. Marc Antonio e Cleopatra begins with a sinfonia consisting of a French overture, complete with over-dotted opening and fugal central section, and a minuet. The Baroque cast of the individual arias (and there are only two duets, one at the end of each act) is evident, with busy bass lines and elaborate vocal figuration, though counterpoint is less predominant than harmonic and thematic progression in determining the course of an aria. Dramatic suspensions that occur on a few occasions, as in Cleopatra’s “Un sol tuo sospiro,” point perhaps to Scarlatti’s influence. If the theatrical expression is conventional, and the act II final duet welcoming suicide almost a parody in its musically conventional expression of bliss, the individual arias often demonstrate energy and melodic distinction. We’re still a long way from Cleofide (1731), but it’s easy to understand why the Neapolitan artistic elite thought Hasse was someone to take a chance on.

The performances are good. Ava Pine has a finely focused lyric soprano with strong coloratura, though she fudges enunciation in some cases to procure evenness of tone. I’d prefer more lift in the simple line of “Quel candido armellino,” but “A Dio trono, impero a Dio” and “Morte col fiero aspetto” display a good emotional sense, and a voice well up to the extensive demands placed upon its agility. Jamie Barton has a contralto-flavored mezzo, with a good sense of phrasing (“Fra le pompe peregrine”). There appear to be some problems just around the register break, at least at the time of this recording, with occasional pitch issues that don’t appear anywhere else in the voice. The top seems pinched at times, as in “Pur chi’io possa a te,” but the overall sound is an attractive one. Matthew Dirst leads a disciplined, well-balanced performance whose pacing just occasionally seems overly tense: “A lone sigh from you, a loving glance with sweet pain came to my heart to heal my wounds,” Cleopatra sings in one aria, but the tempo of 156 bpm, a fast allegro , is too fast to project a joyful glow. The Ars Lyrica Houston is as fluent and poised here as it was in Scarlatti’s Euridice dall’Inferno (Naxos 8.570950).

Recommended, then. There’s a good deal of pleasure to be had both from the music and performances in Marc Antonio e Cleopatra . If I have any over-arching criticism at all for this release, it’s the short timings per CD. But the sense of a premiere recording tips the scales, especially when it’s done this well.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
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Works on This Recording

Antonio e Cleopatra by Johann Adolf Hasse
Performer:  Ava Pine (Soprano), Jamie Barton (Mezzo Soprano)
Conductor:  Matthew Dirst
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ars Lyrica Houston
Period: Classical 
Written: by 1725 

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