Friday, November 25, 2022

Favorites of 2022: Live and streamed performances

Jasmine Johnson as Andromaca in Leonardo Vinci's Astinatte. Photo credit: Valentina Sadiul. Image source: OperaWire

Favorite live and streamed performances seen in the past 12 months, in reverse chronological order by date of performance:


Ars Minerva: Astianatte
ODC Theater, San Francisco, seen October 23, 2022

Jasmine Johnson as Andromaca and Anthony Polakoff as Astianatte. Photo credit: Valentina Sadiul. Image source: San Francisco Classical Voice

Leonardo Vinci's Astianatte (1725) is packed with high drama: in the aftermath of the Trojan War, the victorious Greeks begin to squabble among themselves while the captive Trojan widow Andromaca (Jasmine Johnson) desperately tries to save her son Astianatte (Anthony Polakoff) from execution. Meanwhile, there's a long-simmering love triangle between the Greeks Pirro (Deborah Martinez Rosengaus), Oreste (Nikola Printz), and Ermione (Aura Veruni), who was once in love with Oreste but is now betrothed to Pirro.

Vinci wrote Astianatte for four of the greatest singers in the world. Any company seeking to revive it needs four superlative singers, a requirement that Céline Ricci's Ars Minerva decidedly fulfilled. Musically this was also Ars Minerva's largest-scale production to date, with 14-piece period-instrument chamber orchestra conducted by Matthew Dirst accompanying the singers. The staging was enhanced by Marina Polakoff's sculptural costumes, Ricci's clever direction, Entropy's scene-setting projections and Delayne Medoff's evocative lighting. Ars Minerva surpasses itself with every production.

For more information and full credits, please see the post "Ars Minerva: Astianatte."

American Bach Soloists: Belshazzar
Herbst Theater, San Francisco, seen July 30, 2022

Maya Kherani, Belshazzar's mother Nitocris in American Bach Soloists' performance of Handel's Belshazzar. Image source:

ABS Artistic Director Jeffrey Thomas assembled an excellent cast for a concert performance of Handel's rarely-performed oratorio. During the feast of the Babylonian god Sesach mysterious writing appears on the wall: "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin." The Babylonian king Belshazzar (tenor Matthew Hill) calls his wise men, but none can decipher the meaning. Only the Jewish prophet Daniel (the rich-voiced mezzo-soprano Sarah Coit) can interpret the words, and the news is not good for Belshazzar. Belshazzar's mother Nitocris (pure-toned soprano Maya Kherani) urges him not to offend the god of Daniel, but Belshazzar scorns her. Meanwhile, as the Babylonians eat and drink, a Persian army under Cyrus (countertenor Eric Jurenas) has diverted the Euphrates and enters the city using the now-dry riverbed.

The libretto was written by Charles Jennens, who most famously compiled the libretto of Messiah. In his classic book Handel's Dramatic Oratorios and Masques (Oxford University Press, 1959), Winton Dean calls the three months during the summer of 1744 in which Handel simultaneously composed Belshazzar and Hercules "the peak of Handel's creative life"—quite an assertion for a writer who is well aware that between January and April 1735 Handel premiered Ariodante and Alcina (my votes for Handel's peak three months, but then who am I?). Thomas and his first-rate cast made a compelling case for Belshazzar as one of the pinnacles of Handel's musical achievement.

For more information and full credits, please see the American Bach Soloists program.

Honorable mention:

San Francisco Opera: Eugene Onegin, Dialogues of the Carmelites, and Orpheus and Eurydice

General Director Matthew Shilvock's programming for this centennial SF Opera season has been remarkably daring: of the eight operas in the fall and summer season, two are receiving their world premieres in 2022 (John Adams' Anthony and Cleopatra and Gabriela Lena Frank's Frida y Diego). Of the remaining operas, Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin was last performed at SF Opera in 2004, Richard Strauss's Die Frau Ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow) in 1989, Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites in 1982, and Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice not since its SF Opera premiere in 1959. Even the two more recently performed operas (Verdi's La Traviata, last performed in 2017, and Puccini's Madama Butterfly, last performed in 2016) are being given new productions.

We attended three of the fall operas in the War Memorial Opera House. Each featured excellent singers, some known to us and some new; a striking (if occasionally problematic) production design; and the glorious SF Opera Orchestra in the pit. So why aren't these performances firmly among my favorites?

Evgenia Muraveva as Tatiana Larina in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin at SF Opera. Photo credit: Cory Weaver. Image source: Opera Today

Eugene Onegin was presented in the Robert Carsen production, which surrounds center stage with fallen autumn leaves and frames the action as the memory of the devastated Onegin. It's generally effective; least so, perhaps, in the Letter Scene, which has Tatiana rolling around in dead leaves to express ecstasy about her blossoming first love. (I know: how pathetically literal of me.) But the main problem is that this production (now 25 years old) was filmed in 2007 with a well-nigh ideal Onegin in Dmitri Hvorostovsky and the glamorous Tatiana of Renée Fleming. Comparisons are impossible to avoid, and at SF Opera on September 25 both Gordon Bintner's Onegin and Evgenia Muraveva's Tatiana lacked vocal charisma. Their final confrontation, which should be emotionally wrenching, never caught dramatic fire. When singers in secondary roles such as Aigul Akhmetshina as Tatiana's sister Olga and Evan Leroy Johnson as Onegin's friend Lensky outshine the principals, something is seriously amiss.

For more information about the opera, including the parallels between the story and Tchaikovsky's life, please see the post "Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin - The Letter."

Michaela Schuster as the Prioress Madame de Croissy and Heidi Stober as the novice Blanche de la Force in Francis Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites at SF Opera. Photo credit: Cory Weaver. Image source: Air Mail

Dialogues of the Carmelites, seen October 30, portrays the Martyrs of Compiègne, 16 women of the Carmelite religious order who were executed by guillotine in July 1794. The opera had its U.S. premiere at SF Opera in 1957 in English translation. As the title implies, Poulenc's music is largely conversational and follows the rhythms of speech. Song is used at the very end, as the women intone the "Salve Regina" and one by one are silenced by the guillotine. It's a powerful scene. Unfortunately in Olivier Py's production it verges on kitsch, as from our vantage point in the dress circle each of the white-clad women in turn descended off the back of the stage and then, with outstretched arms, appeared to float away into the starry sky (like angels? Please tell me I'm wrong).

Py made some other odd directorial choices, such as regularly shining spotlights into the faces of the audience. The Prioress's death scene midway through the opera is staged on a bed placed upright, as though we were looking down on her (and, of course, as though she is being crucified). It's a visually arresting image, but it makes the characters witnessing her torment seem as though they are standing perpendicularly on the walls or lying on the floor. (I know: how pathetically literal of me.)

For more information and full credits, please see the San Francisco Opera press release.

Jakub Jósef Orlinski as Orpheus in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice at SF Opera. Photo credit: Cory Weaver. Image source: San Francisco Chronicle

Orpheus and Eurydice, seen November 20, was performed in Gluck's 1762 Italian version. Gluck never anticipated, though, that when the curtain rose Orpheus would enact the frenzy of grief by performing jaw-droppingly athletic breakdancing moves. Countertenor Jakub Jósef Orlinski also trained as a dancer, and seeing him do flips, spinning handstands, windmills, swipes, and backspins was astonishing. (My partner thought that we were watching an SF Opera dancer, until he started singing. Don't ask me how he managed not to be completely out of breath.)

The stage was a vast circle, with Alexander V. Nichols' projections of brain images delineating Orpheus' journey through the underworld to recover Eurydice. The projections were quite vivid, but changed so frequently that I found them distracting—at times it was like watching a psychedelic light show. And director Matthew Ozawa ignored the implications of one of Nichols' most striking images: when the stage apparently split apart at the moment of Euridice's second death, Ozawa had Euridice lying suspended over the newly-opened abyss and Orpheus kneeling next to her in empty space, instead of having them separated on either side of the chasm. (I know: how pathetically literal of me.)

But staging miscalculations aside, Orlinski's voice got a bit lost in the vast War Memorial Opera House, built for Verdi and Puccini rather than 18th-century operas (the Burgtheater in Vienna, where Gluck's opera had its first performance, is one-third the size of the War Memorial). Although both Meigul Zhang's Euridice and Nicole Heaston's Amore were outstanding, Orpheus must carry the opera. His voice, of course, is supposed to be so irresistible that it can "placate the Furies, monsters, and pitiless Death." This isn't just a matter of volume, and the beauty of Orlinski's voice would probably have been more apparent in a suitably-sized theater (hello, Glyndebourne).

Still, Matthew Shilvock's adventurous programming choices are welcomed; I'm looking forward to the 2023-24 season announcement in January. For more information and full credits for Orpheus and Eurydice please see the San Francisco Opera press release.


Glyndebourne Encore: Les Mamelles de Tirésias

Elsa Benoit as Therèse and Régis Mengus as the Husband in Poulenc's Les Mamelles de Tirésias. Laurent Pelly, direction and costume design (in collaboration with Jean-Jacques Delmotte), Caroline Ginet, set design. Photo credit: Bill Cooper. Image source: Glyndebourne

In Aristophanes' Lysistrata women go on a sex strike to force men to end war. In Poulenc's Les Mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresias, 1947), put-upon wife Thèrese goes the women of ancient Greece one better: she changes gender entirely. Discarding her breasts (which then, as huge pink balloons, float over the proceedings) and becoming Tirésias, she flees her importunate Husband. Left wifeless, he dons a corset and answers the call of the State for procreation by inventing an elaborate machine to produce 40,049 babies.

Members of the Glyndebourne Chorus in Poulenc's Les Mamelles de Tirésias. Photo credit: Bill Cooper. Image source: The Guardian

Laurent Pelly's production of Poulenc's adaptation of Guillaume Apollinaire's surrealist farce keeps the brilliant visual ideas coming so fast you'll want to rewatch the opera to be sure you catch them all. No matter—you'll want to rewatch the opera anyway for sheer pleasure.

For more information and full credits please see Glyndebourne Encore.

Boston Baroque: Amadigi di Gaula

Anthony Roth Costanzo as Amadis of Gaul. Image source: Boston Baroque.

Handel's 11th opera, Amadigi di Gaula, unusually has only four main characters; also unusually, half of them lie dead by the end of the opera. The sorceress Melissa (Amanda Forsythe) has abducted Oriana (Camilla Ortiz); Oriana's lover Amadigi (Anthony Roth Costanzo) attempts to rescue her with the aid of Dardano (Daniella Mack), who comes to realize that he and Amadigi are rivals for Oriana's affections. (The original cast featured the castrato Nicolini as Amadigi, the soprano Anastasia Robinson as Oriana, and alto Diana Vico as Dardano.) Amadigi's relatively small scale and straightforward story made it a perfect choice for Boston Baroque's semi-staging directed by Louisa Muller, and the cast assembled by music director Martin Pearlman would be the envy of any opera house.

For more information, please see Boston Baroque.

Honorable mention:

Glyndebourne Encore: Alcina

Jane Archibald as Alcina at Glyndebourne. Photo credit: Tristram Kenton. Image source: Glyndebourne

Perhaps inspired by all the cross-dressing in Baroque opera, director Francesco Micheli set Handel's Alcina in a 1960s nightclub, its own kind of enchanted island. The sorceress Alcina (Jane Archibald) is the owner/headliner, assisted by Morgana (Soraya Mafi). Ruggiero (Samantha Hankey) is a besotted customer whose fiancée Bradamante (Beth Taylor), in male disguise as "Ricciardo," attempts to bring him back to his former life and prior commitments (meanwhile causing Morgana, who is attracted to this handsome stranger, some erotic confusion).

The nightclub setting allows set designer Edoardo Sanchi and costume designer Alessio Rosati to give free range to their imaginations, as seen in Alcina's "shipwreck" number above. But as a metaphor for Alcina's magic island it also lowers the stakes. The opera is no longer a fierce contest between good and, well, less good, or a devastating depiction of the inexorable loss of love. Instead it becomes a parable of the "tragedy of development," in Marshall Berman's term, as (spoiler alert!) property developers close Alcina's nightclub in order to build more faceless high-rise offices. The cast is very good, but without a sense that life and death issues are at stake some urgency is lost.

For more information, please see Glyndebourne Encore.

Biggest disappointment:

Glyndebourne Encore: La Bohème

Yaritza Véliz as Mimì and Sehoon Moon as Rodolfo in Puccini's La Bohème at Glyndebourne. Floris Visser, direction, Dieuweke Van Reij, set design. Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith. Image source: Glyndebourne

Or, as my partner and I refer to it, "La Bohème in an alley." We made it about halfway through Act I before the multiple absurdities and heavy-handed symbolism of Floris Visser's direction—literally, La Bohème in a grave-like alley, with a silent actor looking on representing, yes, Death—drove us to put on a DVD of the 1965 La Scala production directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starring the young Mirella Freni as a touchingly vulnerable Mimì. (And before you sneer at our hidebound traditionalism, we also like Baz Luhrman's "Paris in the 50's" production for Opera Australia and are intrigued by Yuval Sharon's "backwards Bohème" for Boston Lyric Opera.) No fault of the young cast, who gamely gave it their best. This is the first new production of La Bohème at Glyndebourne in two decades, but let us hope that this will be its only Festival run.

For more information, please see Glyndebourne Encore.


Boston Early Music Festival: Vox Luminis

Vox Luminis; director Lionel Meunier second from left. Image source:

Vox Luminis, led by director Lionel Meunier, performed a program of sacred music from Monteverdi's Selva morale e spirituale (The Moral and Spiritual Forest) with astonishing precision, blend, and beauty. This concert will be available to watch until December 2, 2022. For more information, please see

Boston Early Music Festival: Philippe Jaroussky

Philippe Jaroussky and Le Concert de la Loge at the Royaumont Abbey.

In place of the live BEMF concert offering of Baroque opera arias performed by Jaroussky and his Ensemble Artaserse, the virtual program was a recorded performance of sacred music by Vivaldi, Pergolesi and Scarlatti recorded at the Royaumont Abbey in 2020. Ravishing music ravishingly performed by Jaroussky and Le Concert de la Loge. For more information, please see

Other Favorites of 2022:

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Favorites of 2022: Recordings

As we approach the end of the year it's time once again for me to choose my favorites, starting with recordings first heard in the past twelve months. The order within each category is roughly chronological by period of composition.


Hispania & Japan: Dialogues. Montserrat Figueras (soprano), Prabhu Edouard (tabla), Ken Zuckerman (sarod), Yukio Tanaka (voice, biwa), Masaka Hirao (viola da gamba tenor), Hiroyuki Koinuma (shinobue, nokan), Ichiro Seki (shakuhachi); La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Hesperion XXI, Jordi Savall, direction. Alia Vox AVSA9883 (recorded 2006-2007; released 2011).

Cover of Hispania & Japan

Image source: Presto Music

The impetus for this recording is "to create a true dialogue between the spiritual music of Japan and the Hispanic world at the time of St. Francis Xavier's arrival in Japan" in 1549. Some of the tracks are 16th-century liturgical music performed by Hesperion XXI and La Capella Reial de Catalunya, while others are traditional Japanese pieces performed by the Japanese musicians. There are also improvisations on the plainchant "O Gloriosa Domina" by (separately) the Japanese and European musicians. In commemoration of the time St. Francis spent in India before and after his sojourn in Japan, Montserrat Figueras performs the devotional villancico "Senhora del Mundo" (Sovereign Lady of the World) accompanied by sarod and tabla. It is all utterly mesmerizing, and recommended even if you share my general skepticism of fusion projects.

Improvisation on "O Glorioso Domina" by Ichiro Seki (shakuhachi):

Salve Regina: Leo, Pergolesi, Porpora. Federica Napoletani (soprano); Ensemble Imaginaire, Cristina Corrieri, conductor. Brilliant Classics 96092 (recorded 2018; released 2020).

Cover of Salve Regina

Image source: Presto Music

Nicola Porpora (born 1686), Leonardo Leo (born 1694), and Giovanni Pergolesi (born 1710) were all composers who received their early training in Naples. Each composed both operas and sacred music, and operatic style is sometimes apparent in these settings of Salve Regina. This Marian hymn is sung during services in the six months between Pentecost and Advent; because it was so frequently performed, composers (including these three) often produced multiple versions. The settings are stylistically varied, and so there is no flagging of interest despite each version setting the same text. In addition, two of the settings (Porpora's and Pergolesi's) are world premiere recordings. Federica Napoletani has a lovely soprano, and, together with Ensemble Imaginaire, elegantly meets the technical and interpretive challenges of these works.

The first movement of Nicola Porpora's Salve regina in G Major:

Pardessus de Viole: Barrière, Caix D'Hervelois, Boismortier, Dollé. Mélisande Corriveau (pardessus de viole), Eric Milnes (clavecin). ATMA Classique ACD2 2729 (recorded 2015; released 2016).

Cover of Pardessus de Viole

Image source: Presto Music

The pardessus de viole is the smallest and highest-pitched viola da gamba; its name means "higher than the treble viol." It was developed in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and was considered more seemly for women to play because it was held upright on the lap rather than gripped between the legs. Its range overlapped with that of the violin, but the playing position of the violin (tucked underneath the chin) was thought to be inelegant for women; in 1748 Michel Corrette wrote that "ladies shall play the pardessus with five strings and never the violin, as the position involved in playing the violin in no way suits them." The pardessus thus became known as "le violon des femmes," or women's violin, although men also played it.

La joyeuse de pardessus de viol by Jean-Baptiste Perronneau, mid-18th century. Image source: Musica Picta on Tumblr

Composers responded to the fashion for the pardessus de viole by writing pieces specifically for the instrument, both for amateurs at varying levels of skill and for professional musicians. On this disc Mélisande Corriveau has selected works by four French composers for performance on a sweet-toned instrument dating from 1710 held in the Hart House Collection of the University of Toronto. Corriveau plays these virtuoso pieces not only with astonishing technical assurance but also with pleasing expressiveness. Eric Milnes provides discreet harpsichord accompaniment, but the focus, as it should be, is firmly on Corriveau. A wonderful way to discover a repertory that was new to us.

A Night in London. Sandrine Piau (soprano), Lucille Richardot (mezzo-soprano); Pulcinella, Ophélie Gaillard, cello and direction. Aparté AP274 (recorded 2021; released 2022).

Cover of A Night in London

Image source: Presto Music

Cellist Ophélie Gaillard's album presents music that might have been encountered over the course of a single adventurous evening in London during the 1700s. As our imaginary listener moves from coffee house to concert hall to opera house to tavern, we hear music ranging from James Oswald's "She's Sweetest When She's Naked" to concert music by Avison, Geminiani, Porpora, Hasse, and Cirri, to an aria from Handel's Alcina, before ending with Oswald's "The Bottom of the Punch Bowl." From the cello, Gaillard directs the period-instrument chamber orchestra Pulcinella in the concerted pieces. While the music probably covers too wide temporal range (1720s to the 1760s) to have been plausibly encountered in a single evening, much of it was new to me and it is all impeccably performed by Gaillard, Pulcinella, and their guest vocalists.

James Oswald's "She's Sweetest When She's Naked" (solo version):

Mr. Abel's Fine Airs. Susanne Heinrich (viola da gamba). Hyperion CDA67628 (recorded 2006; released 2007).

Cover of Mr Abels Fine Airs

Image source: Presto Music

The music historian Charles Burney (father of Jane Austen's favorite novelist Fanny Burney) attended many of Carl Friedrich Abel's London concerts, and wrote, "His performance on the viol da gamba was in every particular complete and perfect. He had a hand which no difficulties could embarrass; a taste the most refined and delicate; and a judgment so correct and certain, as never to let a single note escape him without meaning." On this recording Heinrich performs Abel's Sonata in G major, together with 20 relatively brief pieces for solo viola da gamba from a manuscript of Abel's works once owned by the painter Thomas Gainsborough, later purchased by the financier Joseph Drexel, and now held by the New York Public Library. Her approach is beautifully measured, reflective, and inward. There is another wonderful recording of 29 of the pieces from the Drexel Manuscript by Paolo Pandolfo in which he plays them in a more extroverted and exuberant style, but Heinrich's is the recording we found ourselves returning to more often. For my full-length post on Carl Abel, please see "Exuberance and profound sweetness."

Listen to extracts from the album (Hyperion Records)


Maria Teresa Agnesi: Arias from the opera Sofonisba. Elena De Simone (mezzo-soprano); Ensemble Il Mosaico. Tactus TC 720102 (recorded 2019; released 2021).

Cover of Arias from Sofonisba

Image source: Presto Music

From my full-length post "African Queen: Sofonisba" (slightly edited): Maria Teresa Agnesi was born in 1720 to a wealthy merchant family in Milan, a city which was then a part of the Austrian Habsburg Empire. There were two exceptionally gifted daughters in the family: Maria Teresa in music and her older sister Maria Gaetana in mathematics and philosophy. Their father held regular gatherings in their home during which Maria Gaetana would give talks and debate with learned men, and Maria Teresa would perform. An admiring account from 1739, when Maria Teresa was 18, reports that she played harpsichord pieces by Rameau and accompanied herself as she sang arias of her own composition.

Maria Teresa Agnesi, artist and date unknown. La Scala Museum. Image source: Pinterest

A decade or so later she composed La Sofonisba, an opera seria about the (possibly mythological) African queen. Betrothed to the Eastern Numidian prince Massinissa, Sofonisba is instead forced by her father to marry Siface (Syphax), the Western Numidian king with whom Hasdrubal wishes to make an anti-Roman alliance. Stung by Sofonisba's marriage to his rival, Massinissa revolts against Siface and joins forces with the Roman general Scipio. Together they defeat Hasdrubal and Siface in battle, taking as prisoners both Siface and his wife. Ultimately, rejecting her husband, abandoned by the man she loves, and facing dishonor, Sofonisba consumes poison and dies.

No printed libretto for the opera survives, and so the poet is unknown. The work exists in a single copy: the presentation score that was sent to Vienna for the name-day of the Empress Maria Theresa, 15 October (also the name-day of the composer). The score is not dated, but it is likely to have been completed in the late 1740s; it is dedicated to the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I, Maria Theresa's husband, who was elevated to that office in 1745. There are no performance markings in the presentation score, but it would not have been used in an actual production (copies would have been made). However, the absence of any performance parts, printed libretto, or record of a production makes it seem unlikely that the opera was ever performed.

Title page of La Sofonisba by Maria Teresa Agnesi. Image source: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

We might speculate that one reason for a lack of performance could be the apparently odd choice of a subject for a celebration of the Empress's name-day. After all, Sofonisba is forced to marry a man she doesn't love, is militarily defeated, held captive, and commits suicide. But Sofonisba's choice of death rather than dishonor places her in the company of other noble women from antiquity who were extolled for their courage, such as Dido and Cleopatra.

Like Dido and Cleopatra, Sofonisba ruled in North Africa. And this, along with the role's low vocal range, suggests that the opera may have been intended as a vehicle for the contralto Vittoria Tesi Tramontini, the first Black prima donna, who by the late 1740s was living in Vienna.

Tesi, the daughter of an African servant at the Medici court in Florence, was known as "La Moretta," the Dark One (she was also known as "La Fiorentina"—The Florentine—and "La Tesi"). Born in 1700, she first appeared onstage in 1716. Over the course of her four-decade career she appeared in theaters throughout Italy, Austria and Germany with colleagues such as mezzo-soprano Margherita Durastanti and the castrati Farinelli, Senesino and Caffarelli.

On the album Arie dall'opera Sofonisba the mezzo-soprano Elena De Simone, accompanied by the ensemble Il Mosaico, performs seven arias from Agnesi's Sofonisba, plus its Licenza, or celebratory epilogue in honor of Maria Theresa; De Simone also edited the performance score. As a listening experience the album is highly recommendable: De Simone has a rich, low voice that easily encompasses the wide vocal and emotional range of Sofonisba's arias, and Il Mosaico offers excellent support (and the natural trumpets used in two of the arias have a nicely pungent tone). The record would be valuable alone for showcasing the under-celebrated work of Agnesi and Tesi, but the high quality of the performances means that it will recommend itself to all lovers of Baroque opera.

Elena De Simone. Image source:

Sofonisba's aria "Dubbia ancor" from Act I, Scene 2:

Gioachino Rossini: Early Operas: La cambiale di matrimonio (The marriage contract, 1810); La scala di seta (The silk ladder, 1812); L'occasione fa il ladro (Opportunity makes the thief, 1812); Il signor Bruschino (1813); Il barbiere di Siviglia (The barber of Seville, 1816). Monica Bacelli, Cecilia Bartoli, Alessandro Corbelli, Carlos Feller, David Kuebler, and others; Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Gabriele Ferro (Il barbiere di Siviglia) and Gianluigi Gelmetti; staged by Michael Hampe and directed for video by Claus Viller. EuroArts/Schwetzingen SWR Festspiele (recorded 1988-1992; re-released 2022); 5 DVDs.

Cover of Rossini Early Operas

Image source: Euroarts

A shocking confession: when I went to see the January 2004 San Francisco Opera production of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) featuring Matthew Polenzani as Count Almaviva/Lindoro, Thomas Hampson as Figaro, and Joyce DiDonato as Rosina, I left at intermission (to the astonishment of my standing-room mates). I wasn't dissatisfied. Quite the opposite: I was thoroughly satisfied, but I had reached my Rossini saturation point.

My tastes definitely skew toward Baroque and Classical opera; for me, Rossini marks the boundary between operas I'm passionate about and those that (with a few exceptions) I can live without. Rossini is not Mozart. [1]

So this collection of Rossini's early comedies (written when he was between the ages of 18 and 24) seems designed to appeal to me. Only Il barbiere has a second act; all the others are one-acts that clock in at around 90 minutes—the perfect amount of Rossini, as far as I'm concerned. The characters are somewhat stock, as are the situations, and Rossini often falls back on patter songs to draw laughs (works on me every time. . .for 90 minutes). But all the operas succeed admirably as breezy entertainments that don't overstay their welcome. And each is staged in a straightforward (but effective) way by Michael Hampe in the Rococo jewel box Schwetzingen Palace Theatre.

Schwetzingen Palace Theatre. Image source:

Despite its expansion into a second act, Il barbiere di Siviglia is a key attraction of this set because it features a 21-year-old Cecilia Bartoli in one of her first starring roles as Rosina, a young woman held as a virtual prisoner by her elderly, lecherous guardian. But each opera is cast with exceptional character singers who know how to bring out all the comedy (and even some pathos) without relying too heavily on schtick.

Rosina's Act I aria "Una voce poco fa" ("A voice heard a moment ago." Apologies for the poor video resolution and audio quality; the new DVDs are much better):

Honorable mention:

John Frederick Lampe: The Dragon of Wantley (1737). Mary Bevan (soprano, Margery), Catherine Carby (mezzo-soprano, Mauxalinda), Mark Wilde (tenor, Moore of Moore Hall), John Savournin (bass, Gaffer Gubbins/The Dragon); The Brook Street Band, John Andrews, conductor. Resonus RES10304 (recorded 2021; released 2022).

Cover of The Dragon of Wantley

Image source: Presto Music

Some music historians claim that John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728) doomed Italian opera in London. However, in the decade after The Beggar's Opera ended its lengthy initial run Handel produced some of his greatest works, including Partenope (1730), Orlando (1733), Ariodante (1735), Alcina (1735), and Serse (1738). 

A more plausible culprit is John Frederick Lampe's The Dragon of Wantley (1737). Lampe was a bassoonist in Handel's orchestra and had thoroughly absorbed Handel's style. From its martial overture to its sung recitative, da capo arias and fugal choruses, The Dragon of Wantley parodied the conventions of opera seria with music that was "as grand and pompous as possible" (according to librettist Henry Carey's preface).

Carey's libretto was based on an old comic ballad published by Thomas D’Urfey in Pills to Purge Melancholy (1699). The ballad tells the story of a dragon that terrorizes South Yorkshire until a knight (Moore of Moore Hall), clad in spiked armour, kills it by kicking its behind (literally), its only vulnerable spot.

"Moore fighting with ye Dragon." From Bickham's Musical Entertainer, Vol. II, C. Corbett, London, 1740, p. 32. Digitized by University of Western Ontario - University of Toronto Libraries. Image source: Internet Archive

Carey added the characters of Gaffer Gubbin (a gaffer is a rustic old man), his daughter Margery, and Margery's rival for Moore's affections, Mauxalinda (a maux is a slattern).

The dragon satirizes the corpulent Sir Robert Walpole, whose Whig government had proposed increasing taxes on wine and tobacco and recently succeeded in raising the tax on gin (riots resulted). Gubbin sings, "What wretched havoc does this Dragon make! / He sticks at nothing for his Belly's sake / Feeding but makes his Appetite the stronger / He'll eat us all if he bides here much longer!"

Margery leads the townspeople to Moore Hall to demand that Moore vanquish the dragon. He agrees if she'll give him a kiss, exciting the jealousy of his mistress Mauxalinda; the two women trade insults in a duet that pokes fun at Handel's Rival Queens Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni.

"Moore Coaxing Mauxalinda." From Bickham's Musical Entertainer, Vol. II, C. Corbett, London, 1740, p. 12. Digitized by University of Western Ontario - University of Toronto Libraries. Image source: Internet Archive

Finally, after donning his armour Moore is ready to sally forth and battle the beast. "But first I'll drink, to make me strong and mighty / Six Quarts of Ale, and one of Aqua Vitae." Thus fortified, he delivers his fatal kick, wins the love of Margery, and becomes the subject of a "Roratorio" (anticipating John Cage's Roaratorio by 240 years). 

"Moores Engagement to Margery." From Bickham's Musical Entertainer, Vol. II, C. Corbett, London, 1740, p. 8. Digitized by University of Western Ontario - University of Toronto Libraries. Image source: Internet Archive

The Dragon of Wantley was a huge hit, running for 69 performances after its move in the fall of 1737 from the Little Theatre in the Haymarket to Covent Garden. This spelled disaster for Handel's opera season. Despite the presence of Caffarelli and La Francesina in the casts, both of his new operas for the 1737-1738 season failed: Faramondo ran for eight performances, and Serse only five. Over the next three seasons Handel would write only two more Italian operas (which together would only muster as many performances as Serse) before ceasing opera composition entirely.

Despite being the principal target of The Dragon of Wantley's parody, however, Handel praised Lampe's music. Lord Wentworth recorded, "I like it vastly & the music is excessive pretty, & tho' tis a burlesque on the opera's, yet Mr Handel owns he thinks the tunes very well compos'd."

The comedy is generated not only by the farcical action but by the contrast between the text and the elevated music. The excellent ensemble cast on this first professional recording deliver their lines with perfectly straight faces, and The Brook Band under conductor John Andrews gives a spirited performance. This just misses being a favorite in part because it has a tenor hero and in part because I'm not sure how often I'll need to hear it: farce works best with a laughing audience surrounding you. But applause to all concerned for helping to resurrect a significant work in English operatic history. If you're a fan of Handel's operas you'll want to give The Dragon of Wantley a listen.

The conclusion of Act II: "Fill the mighty Flagon / Then I'll kill this monstrous Dragon":


Smoke & Oakum. The Longest Johns: Jonathan "JD" Darley (vocals, guitar), Dave Robinson (vocals, tin whistle), Robbie Sattin (vocals, harmonium, organ, harmonica) and Andy Yates (vocals, banjo). Decca 3876697 (released 2021).

Cover of Smoke & Oakum

Image source:

After singing sea shanties in close harmony for a decade in their home port of Bristol and around the UK, The Longest Johns had a fluke internet hit with "The Wellerman." That brought them a deal with Decca and (I'm guessing) some support for a North American tour, which gave us a chance to see them earlier this month half a world away from Bristol at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. It was a great show, even though for most of the set the band was down a man: Robbie Sattin couldn't get a visa in time. (He participated virtually in several of the songs and some of the between-numbers patter.) The band's mixture of traditional and original work songs invites singing along, and the enthusiastic audience did so with every tune.

From Smoke & Oakum, the Longest Johns' a capella arrangement of Ed Pickford's "The Workers Song":

Other Favorites of 2022:

  1. On Exotic & Irrational Entertainment I have written posts on more than 60 operas. More than 40 of them were composed in the two centuries between 1600 and 1799, while only 10 were composed in the 1800s.

    For the record, the operas I've written about that premiered in the 1800s are: Of these, only three—La Traviata, Aida, and Puccini's La Bohème—are among the "12 chestnuts" that are the core repertory of mainstream opera houses.

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Ars Minerva: Astianatte

Jasmine Johnson as Andromaca in Leonardo Vinci's Astinatte, produced by Ars Minerva at ODC Theater, San Francisco, October 21-23, 2022. Photo credit: Valentina Sadiul. Image source: OperaWire

Leonardo Vinci's 1725 opera Astianatte (Astyanax) is packed with high drama. Antonio Salvi's libretto, adapted from Racine's tragedy Andromaque (1667), is set in the immediate aftermath of the Trojan war. Andromaca (Andromache) and her young son Astianatte have been abducted by the victorious Greeks. They are held captive by Pirro (Pyrrhus), the son of the Greek hero Achilles; Achilles slew the Trojan warrior Hector, Andromaca's husband and Astianatte's father.

Pirro is betrothed to Ermione (Hermione), but wants Andromaca instead. Ermione's former lover Oreste (Orestes) arrives with a message for Pirro from Ermione's father Menelaus: kill Astianatte to prevent him from growing up to take revenge against the Greeks. The only way Andromaca can protect Astianatte is to marry Pirro, the son of her husband's killer and a man she hates.

Jasmine Johnson as Andromaca and Anthony Polakoff as Astianatte. Photo credit: Valentina Sadiul. Image source: San Francisco Classical Voice

Meanwhile, although Oreste is still in love with Ermione, he must also deliver Menelaus' demand that Pirro wed her immediately or return her to Sparta. Backing up Menelaus' ultimatums, of course, is the threat of war. Ermione, stung that Pirro prefers an enslaved Trojan widow to a daughter of Helen, demands that Oreste revenge the slight against her honor.

Nikola Printz as Oreste and Aura Veruni as Ermione. Photo credit: Valentina Sadiul.

Vinci wrote Astianatte for four of the greatest singers in the world: the soprano castrato Farinelli (Oreste), contralto Diana Vico (Pirro), soprano Anna Maria Strada (Ermione), and contralto Vittoria Tesi (Andromaca), the first Black prima donna. Astianatte is a silent role, making this perhaps the only opera named after a character that doesn't sing. Any company seeking to revive it needs four superlative singers—a requirement that Ars Minerva decidedly fulfilled, thanks to Céline Ricci's ability to attract first-rate vocal talent to her projects.

Jasmine Johnson brought to the role of Andromaca a regal stage presence, fierce dramatic conviction, and an astonishing voice with a strikingly wide range. All her abilities were showcased in her great scenes, including her furious rejection of the importunate Pirro in Act I and her farewell to her son Astianatte that opens Act II. Johnson's thrilling descents into her deep lower register added dramatic bite to her exchanges, but along with powerful feeling she also sang with great beauty.

As Pirro, Deborah Martinez Rosengaus surmounted the daunting vocal challenges of the role with apparent ease, and managed to elicit sympathy for the character despite his willingness to murder Astianatte (the execution is thwarted at the last moment).

Deborah Martinez Rosengaus as Pirro, Anthony Polakoff as Astinatte, and Aura Veruni as Ermione. Photo credit: Valentina Sadiul. Image source: San Francisco Classical Voice

Nikola Printz brought swaggering, Elvis-like energy, the athleticism of an aerialist, and a powerful voice to the volatile Oreste. Portraying perhaps the least sympathetic character, the vengeful Ermione, Aura Veruni's strong performance and attractive voice helped us perceive the wounded nobility of the Greek princess, who is, after all, being used by her father as a sexual pawn in a game of political power. Jayne Diliberto and Daphné Touchais made the most of their opportunities in the supporting roles of Clearte (Pirro's loyal confidant) and Pilade (Oreste's ally). Astianatte was performed movingly by Anthony Polakoff.

The vocalists were richly supported by a 14-piece period instrument orchestra led by conductor Matthew Dirst and concertmaster Cynthia Keiko Black. 18th-century operas have an false reputation as a unvarying succession of da capo arias. In Astianatte Vinci's arias are often relatively short, tuneful, and flexible, as is seen in Andromaca's first-act aria in which her sorrowful addresses to her son are interrupted by her angry asides to Pirro.

Entropy's projections and Delayne Medoff's lighting design effectively suggested the different spaces of the opera (interiors, a garden, a temple, and the port with Pirro's ships aflame).

Projection by Entropy and lighting by Delayne Medoff for the Temple of Juno. Image source: @Celine_Ricci

Marina Polakoff's stunning sculptural costume designs were gradually revealed by Céline Ricci's clever staging, which introduced the characters in a dressing room and over the course of the opera revealed them donning in full both their elaborate costumes and their complex characters.

Astianatte was the most ambitious staging yet by Ars Minerva, which surpasses itself with every production. I'm eager to see what the company will do next.

Update 25 November 2022: Astianatte was named as one of my Favorites of 2022: Live and streamed performances