American opera companies are concentrating their efforts on new operas (often with a politically correct dimension) like never before. Whether this is good or bad will depend on one’s perspective, but practitioners and lovers of Baroque opera or other earlier segments of the repertoire will feel slighted. The situation could result in a boost to smaller, niche-oriented companies eager to supply an alternative, but major opera companies should not be relieved of their obligation to present a well-balanced repertoire.
During the 2010s, Lyric Opera of Chicago presented two significant productions of operas by Handel, Rinaldo in 2012 and Ariodante in 2019. Since the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, however, the company’s Baroque offerings have been nil, nor have any been announced for the future. Fortunately, another Chicago-based outfit, Haymarket Opera Company, which since its founding in 2010 has specialized in Baroque stagings, has helped to fill the void.
Last month, Haymarket performed a great service by presenting a work of Johann Adolf Hasse (1699–1783), one of the most successful and accomplished composers of Italian opera seria. Trained in Naples like many of his Italian contemporaries, the German composer is counted as a member, if only an honorary one, of the Neapolitan school that dominated European opera (except in France). Hasse became especially identified with the master librettist of opera seria Pietro Metastasio and was often the first to set his libretti. This was especially true toward the end of Hasse’s long career.
Someday, perhaps, Haymarket Opera will produce a full-blown dramma per musica (Metastasio’s term) by Hasse, but on this occasion the company selected Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra (1725), a serenata from his early Neapolitan years for only two characters (rather than six or seven) that lasts only about ninety minutes (rather than three or more hours, not counting intermissions). Opera companies are chronically strapped for cash, and smaller ones like Haymarket have even less of it. Yet Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra proved well worth doing and, given its modest scope, fell nicely within the company’s artistic grasp. The one downside to the choice is that Marc’Antonio has already been commercially recorded twice, so this was a missed opportunity to bring a different Hasse work to light.
Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra has a strange aspect. Despite writing for only two singers, the piece’s obscure librettist, Francesco Ricciardi, assigned himself the task of fashioning a work that, to the greatest extent possible, looks and behaves like an opera seria, complete with a plot, recitatives (including some accompanied by the orchestra), multiple da capo arias for each singer, and even a pair of duets. Ricciardi’s powers of ingenuity were put to the test by this challenge, but he brought it off with élan. Moreover, there is nothing paltry about Hasse’s music—little wonder, since it was conceived for the legendary castrato known as Farinelli (then only twenty) and the renowned contralto Vittoria Tesi. Ricciardi doubled as an impresario, and he also wrote the libretto for another early Hasse opera, Semele, which was revived last year in London.
“Gender-bending” is how Haymarket Opera described the casting of Hasse’s original production, in which, contrary to expectations, Tesi sang Antony and Farinelli sang Cleopatra. Haymarket preserved this element of cross-casting in its version. Aficionados of Baroque opera will know of precedents for such casting, but, in any case, it can’t be overlooked that Cleopatra is the more interesting of the characters. Why did it go to Farinelli? Perhaps it was thought to be the better vehicle for exploiting his dramatic skills. Or maybe the castrato’s high range was deemed more appropriate for a female character.
As the opera begins, Antony recounts his defeat at the Battle of Actium,in which he was allied with Cleopatra. But he shrugs this failure off by asserting that Cleopatra’s love is a greater treasure for him than a kingdom and thereafter becomes essentially passive. Cleopatra, meanwhile, professes her love for Antony as well but is beset by other concerns, such as power, honor, and, especially, her desire to avoid being paraded as a war trophy in Rome.
Each of the opera’s two acts consists of a pair of arias for both Antony and Cleopatra and a concluding duet. Hasse proves himself an expert at musical characterization. Antony’s arias have tuneful grace and charm, often enlivened by gentle syncopations and melodic extensions that reflect his content but passive state. In purely musical terms, these arias make for highly satisfying listening. Lauren Decker sang them with a contralto voice of depth, richness, and steadiness. Cleopatra’s arias are the more dramatic. Two are in minor keys and the others pulsate with agitation. Ultimately, she determines the fate of herself and her lover, a fate to which Antony finally acquiesces: suicide. Her final aria involves an unusual metaphor in which an ermine, to avoid besmirching his white coat, accepts death by surrendering to his hunter; the white coat stands for Cleopatra’s honor. The countertenor, Kangmin Justin Kim, sang Cleopatra with spirit and an appealingly bright, even feminine, sound, apart from some moments of edginess.
The stylish production by Haymarket’s general director, Chase Hopkins, resisted the temptation to give the “gender-bending” casting some kind of politically correct overtone, and Hopkins treated the action perceptively and sympathetically. Opulent sets designed by Wendy Waszut-Barrett and costumes designed by Stephanie Cluggish emphasized rich colors and gave the proceedings a convincingly Middle Eastern look. Hopkins expanded the cast with three extras, a decision which, in the spirit of the work, added to its grandeur. One played a Roman soldier while the other two played ladies-in-waiting. At the opera’s conclusion, Hopper had the ladies-in-waiting administer the poison to Antony and Cleopatra before consuming it themselves. This accumulation of bodies added to the performance’s realism but cut against the optimistic tone of the final duet, which Hasse originally wrote to honor Emperor Charles VI. Craig Trompeter conducted the Haymarket’s excellent orchestra of twelve string and continuo players knowledgeably and with assurance.