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Stand Up And Be Conti’d

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 25, 2014 at 5:54 pm

Review – L’Issipile (Wigmore Hall, Wednesday 22 January 2014)

Issipile – Lucy Crowe
Eurinome – Diana Montague
Rodope – Rebecca Bottone
Toante – John Mark Ainsley
Learco – Flavio Ferri-Benedetti
Giasone – Lawrence Zazzo

La Nuova Musica
David Bates (Director)

Generally unknown, Francesco Bartolomeno Conti is the latest composer to be ‘rediscovered’ and we are fortunately that L’Issipile is seeing the light of day once again. It is one of two operas he completed in the year of his death and is rich with musical invention, contains clearly etched characters and has a keen sense of dramatic momentum.

Plaudits must go to Flavio Ferri-Benedetti for bringing this opera to a modern audience. His academic research and evident passion should be congratulated.

Interestingly this libretto – the second Metastasio wrote specifically for Vienna – didn’t enjoy the success of his other works. Apparently the ‘bloody’ subject matter wasn’t popular with the 1732 Carnival audience. But I am not sure that is the only reason. Other operas of the period featured both suicides and murders – think Mitridate Eupatore (1707), Tamerlano (1731) and even later in Vienna Les Danaiïdes (1784) for example – and the quality of the music in my opinion outweighs any perceived weakness in the libretto.

I agree that perhaps it wasn’t ideally suitable to the Carnival season but perhaps Conti’s untimely death contributed to it not being revived again except for once in Hamburg five years later and also because ultimately the plot itself isn’t ‘typically’ Metastasian.

Issipile might be the ‘monarch’ but she isn’t the Enlightened despot more commonly associated with that leading role. Rather her emotional journey is more erratic and emotionally wrought. The villain is neither vanquished or saved by ‘reason’ or magnanimity but takes his own life and therefore ultimately the “lieto fine” – the return of balance and order – is somewhat diminished and doesn’t counterbalance the massacre at the beginning.

For these reasons perhaps it didn’t make comfortable listening for the aristocratic audience.

Yet, Conti etched out convincing characters from among the Metastasian characters-as-ciphers who more normally represent elevated principles or undeniably haughty emotions – duty, filial love, honour for example.

This is particularly true of Eurinome and Rodope. The former’s accompanied recitative and aria at the start of Act II was on a par with similar scenes in Handel and Conti’s other contemporaries. But I would also argue that Rodope’s emotional arc was the most complete. Her first two arias – beautifully crafted with some unexpected harmonic shifts – made clear her (misplaced) affection for Learco. And with his final rejection, her final simile aria was one of sharply defined emotion – anger and defiance.

In contrast – and perhaps deliberately by Conti – the music for the traditional characters of Toante, Issipile and Giasone was more ‘stock in trade’ as if reinforcing their more constricted emotions. That is not to say that the music was any less notable. Issipile’s simile arias were technically magnificent. And both Toante and Giasone – both their second arias respectively – were lessons in pre-Classical simplicity.

The arias for Learco were similarly well crafted and full of swagger. I particularly enjoyed the cello obbligato of the second aria for example.

And throughout Conti made effective use of accompanied recitative – not only at the beginning of the second act but also in the closing scenes.

If the music was of a high standard, then the music making was – for the most part – magnificent.

In the title role Lucy Crowe demonstrated an unerring sense of style, combined with flawless technique. Her bright and incredibly agile soprano – bursting with spirit and fire – not only negotiated the great expanses of coloratura but in her final aria of the first act – reminiscent of Gluck– she coloured her voice to express the anguish Issipile faced.

Personally however Rebecca Bottone – Rodope ‘enceinte’ – stole the show. Also in possession of a piercingly bright and lithe soprano, she expressed Rodope’s emotional journey through some of the most beautiful singing I have heard in a long time. Non che sai was the highlight of the evening.

Diana Montague as Eurinome shoed why she is a singer of both distinction and great ability. Joining the ensemble at late notice her performance was a tour de force of emotion and musicianship. It was also a pleasure to see John Mark Ainsley – whose ENO Orfeo remains with me to this day – in the role of Toante. A darker tenor than some would normally expect in a role such as this, he elegantly and smoothly managed the tricky coloratura and da capo ornamentations with grace.

And of course, Lawrence Zazzo was – both musically and dramatically – an impressive Giasone. His final aria – so skillfully performed – demonstrates why he remains in such demand as ever. I look forward to his forthcoming disc with La Nuova Musica.

Ultimately however I did wonder if the role of Learco should have been awarded to a more accomplished singer? There was no denying the enthusiasm Ferri-Benedetti brought to the role but personally his vocal technique felt just a little unfinished. The coloratura wasn’t as clean, even or defined as it should have been and there were problems of both intonation and breath control. And I have to admit that his “pantomime villainy” somewhat undermined Metatastio’s lofty sense of drama and led the audience to laugh at inopportune moments.

Supporting the singers, David Bates and La Nuova Musica were an incredible ensemble. A feisty ensemble, they clearly enjoyed performing Conti’s music. Bates drew some exquisite colours and timbres from the ensemble and also maintained the dramatic momentum throughout the recitatives.

Without a doubt, L’Issipile is an opera worthy of revival – the quality of the music and the high standard and enthusiasm of performance was extraordinary and memorable.

This revival – two hundred and fifty years after its premiere – deserved the ovation it received.

A recording please.

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  1. Interesting view 😉

  2. […] two singers Curnyn had assembled an equally strong cast. John Mark Ainsley, most recently seen in L’Issipile, and Richard Burkhard as Grimoaldo and Garibaldo provided the perfect counterbalance to the hero […]

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