Like Handel had done some years earlier, Johann Adolf Hasse
left his native Germany in 1721 to gain some Italian polish,
He eventually settled in Naples and studied with Porpora and
Alessandro Scarlatti. In 1730 he moved to Dresden where he became
Kapellmeister, married one of Handel's divas and the two became
the power couple of late baroque opera.
During his Italian period Hasse produced seven operas, eight
intermezzi and the serenatas. His serenata Marc'Antonio e
Cleopatra was written for a Neapolitan banker in whose palace
it was first performed in 1725. As a genre the serenata lay
somewhere between the solo cantata and a full-length opera.
Typically baroque serenatas set a familiar love story and form
a sequence of short operatic scenes. Here the libretto is by
poet and impresario Francesco Ricciardi. It starts with Marc'Antonio's
defeat by Octavian, the two declare their love and rather than
submit to Rome, agree on suicide.
But there is an element in the original casting which sheds
a fascinating light on the difference between baroque attitudes
and ours. The original singers were the castrato Farinelli and
the contralto Victoria Tesi, but contrary to what we might expect
Farinelli sang Cleopatra and Tesi sang Marc'Antonio. Such cross-casting
was then common in Italy, as it helped emphasise the artificiality
of the operatic genre. But castrati did not sing travesty roles
in England, so we are less familiar with the idea.
On this recording from Ars Lyrica Houston, the two roles are
sung by women with Jamie Barton as Marc'Antonio and Ava Pine
The serenata opens with a sinfonia with each half being formed
from four arias and a duet. Each singer is allocated the same
number of arias, preserving perfect balance. But in another
respect there is a difference. The role of Marc'Antonio (originally
sung by Tesi) has a sequence of lyric, galant arias but Cleopatra
(sung by Farinelli) is given a sequence of wonderfully brilliant
arias. It is Cleopatra which is the show-piece role. Hasse became
renowned for delivering virtuoso arias which showed off and
flattered the original singers’ voices.
Pine has quite a rich voice, she is no slim-voiced canary, but
displays a lively sense of baroque style and is quite fearless
in her way with Hasse's virtuosic vocal lines. She makes a strong,
commanding queen. Barton has a Marilyn Horne-like voice and
a nice way with the lyrical lines which Hasse has written for
Marc'Antonio. Though there are moments when she sounds a little
too careful, she is suitably love-lorn.
The piece is quite short, lasting a fraction under 90 minutes.
But I did wonder whether the piece might have been fitted onto
a single CD. Conductor Matthew Dirst takes the recitatives at
an amazingly sedate pace, they are sedate and deliberate rather
than dramatic; you certainly wouldn't want to hear an entire
opera performed this way.
The serenata became quite famous in Hasse's lifetime, but this
seems to be its first complete recording, so we must be thankful
to Ars Lyrica Houston. It is an attractive and well made piece,
but it does not mine the real depths of the characters’ emotions
the way Handel could. Handel's Italian period produced such
striking gems as his cantata Lucrezia which explores
Lucrezia's emotional turmoil in depth; whereas Hasse seems to
have been mainly concerned to show off his singers in the best
light and perhaps flatter the audience.
Hasse's original accompaniment was for strings and continuo
but Ars Lyrica have added some woodwind (oboes, recorders, flute
and bassoon) to produce a rather effective piece. That said,
you do wonder whether Hasse's original slimmer version might
have been tighter and more dramatically incisive.
Under Matthew Dirst's capable direction Ars Lyrica and their
soloists give a lively performance of a charming work. It brought
fame to Hasse and is well worth encountering in this engaging