Few composers in Western music have passed through such extremes of fame and neglect as Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783). At his mid-18th-century apogee, he was regarded throughout Europe as the supreme master of opera seria, whose graceful bel canto melodies perfectly complemented the elevated neo-classical verses of his librettist Metastasio. Yet, a few sacred pieces aside, his work was virtually forgotten within years of his death. Even in our own revivalist century, his operas have remained relatively rarely staged compared with his older contemporary, Handel, or his younger rival, Gluck.
So how could that lively outfit The Early Opera Company justify lavishing time and attention on his earliest complete work? For that matter, Marc'Antonio e Cleopatra, first performed in Naples in 1725, is not even an opera, but a so-called serenata, or cantata in someone's honour. Setting a text of Francesco Ricciardi and scored for just two voices, strings and continuo, the piece follows, through a series of alternating arias and duets, the shifting emotions of the protagonists after their flight from the battle of Actium, and their final resolve to die rather than submit to the coming triumph of Octavian. This, however, they ultimately see as leading to the even greater triumph of the Emperor Karl VI, ruler of Naples in 1725!
No doubt it helped Hasse that the Cleopatra of the first performance was none other than the 19-year-old castrato Carlo Broschi, soon to be celebrated all over Europe under the nickname Farinelli, and that his Mark Antony was the equally eminent contralto Vittoria Tesi. But it is also evident - even with today's performers - that, having passed through the hands of Alessandro Scarlatti, the 25-year old Hasse had nothing left to learn as regards variety of vocal melody or lively instrumental writing. He was even preparedto risk some quite striking harmonic and temporal surprises where sentiment or situation allowed.
Cleopatra's arias of fatalism and defiance are generally the more florid, and were deftly and energetically negotiated in this performance by the young Scottish soprano Mhairi Lawson, while the sonorous Welsh contralto Hilary Summers sounded the elegiac depths in Mark Antony's more yielding numbers. Christian Curnyn directed crisply from the harpsichord, and the six players of his little band palpably enjoyed the give and take of Hasse's accompaniments.
It was no wonder that, by the end, a surprisingly full Wigmore Hall was enthused by a sense of real discovery. If the resources can be found, then maybe The Early Opera Company should hazard a Hasse opera proper.