No composer was more famous in his day than Johann Adolph Hasse. The 18th century was a time of great musical celebrities and the accumulation of unprecedented musical fortunes, and Hasse was among the most celebrated and wealthy.
Like Handel before him, Hasse left his native Germany to learn the art and spectacle of musical theatre in its birthplace of Italy, where he quickly donned the latest musical fashion, the so-called galant style, with the assuredness of someone trying on a new jacket who knows in advance it will fit him perfectly. A gifted tenor who had initially pursued a stage career in Germany, Hasse was an expert at playing to the expressive and virtuosic strengths of the singers he would go on to compose for. His ability to write simple, compelling melodies, while imbuing his music with thrilling, yet graceful energy vaulted him to the top tier of composers in Naples, the capital city of opera. While it was his musical skill that set him on his upward trajectory towards fame, Hasse’s celebrity was further stoked by his 1730 marriage to the leading lady of the 18th-century stage, Faustina Bordoni, a star in Italy, England, and Germany even before she returned there as Hasse’s wife in 1731. The Hasse-Bordoni union could be likened to a modern day film director marrying the star of his Academy Award-winning movie.
Yet there is nothing more fickle than celebrity. Hasse’s musical stature remained robust over his long life; he wrote his last opera in early 1770s Vienna when he was seventy-two years old. But disillusioned with the latest trends in musical theater, he spent his last decade in Venice. After Hasse’s death in 1783 interest in his music went into steep decline: his mastery of the fashionable turned against him when fashion itself moved on, as it by definition must. Nowadays Hasse is perhaps best remembered as a friend of Bach, who is said to have admired his music, and was in the audience for the 1731 Dresden premiere of Cleofide, the opera that marked Hasse’s triumphant return, along with his still more famous wife, to Germany. (Hasse’s sprawling and vivid 1731 music drama is available on a spirited, if occasionally uneven, recording from 1995.) Now Bach’s legacy has eclipsed that of his illustrious colleague, though even Bach’s enduring posthumous reputation will never match the glitter of Hasse’s fame during his own lifetime.
Before his Italian sojourn, Hasse had composed operas for the Brunswick court, but it was in Italy that he imbibed the newest musical trends. Three years after his arrival there he made his first big impression on the operatic powers-that-be with the serenata Marc’Antonio é Cleopatra, performed in 1725 at the residence of a wealthy Neapolitan banker. Essentially small-scales operas, generally performed without costumes and scenery, serenatas were ideal for lavish private entertainments often held at night under artificial lights. Rather than a large cast of many singers, this genre typically involved only two roles, and in the case of Hasse’s Antony and Cleopatra these were taken by two of the greatest stars of the day, both castrati: the contralto Vittoria Tesi sang the part of Antony, and the twenty-year-old Farinelli, who would go on to become the star of the century, was Cleopatra. Male singers often took female roles, especially at the outset of their careers.
To get a sense of the ambience and allure of this backyard blockbuster, think pool party in the Los Angeles Hills, or better at Hearst Castle, with the biggest musical stars singing in the latest musical style before that lavish colonnade decorated with reliefs of Roman Senators. The waves of the Pacific off San Simeon stand in for the choppy waters of Actium from which Antony has just fled at the outset of Hasse’s serenata in order, he claims, to show that his love for Cleopatra is more important to him than war and victory. What are dozens of sunken quinqueremes—those massive ramming ships that dominated his fleet—as compared to the sweet embrace of Cleopatra? This Antony apparently rejects Kissinger’s claim that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.
Given that this serenata launched Hasse’s career, one of the greatest in the history of opera, it is surprising that no recording had been made of it, until the recent issue of the sumptuously produced CD by Ars Lyrica Houston, under the direction of its founder, the noted American harpsichordist, organist, and musicologist, Mathew Dirst.
Compared to the richness of his older contemporaries Bach and Handel, Hasse’s music might seem to many to be facile and somewhat unrewarding. But such a position ignores the style’s governing aesthetic, which asserts that music, like man, should be above all elegant, well-mannered, and polished. Art should not be difficult, but as easy to judge as the cut of the waistcoat, the crispness of the bow, the ingenuity of the wit, and the grace of the diction. The profound revelatory moments of Bach’s cantatas or Handel’s operas are too dark and worried for the brightness of the gallant style. Bach himself admired Hasse’s music for a reason: it has relentless verve, and its composer was a master of both the big gesture and the small one.
Above all, Hasse’s music should be appreciated as a forum for virtuoso singing—endurance, speed, dynamic range, and expressivity. The music comes to life in the vividness and skill of a performance as effortless and compelling as that of Ars Lyrica. They have revived Hasse’s serenata with an 18th-century musical energy that must have set the torches flickering on that Neapolitan evening in 1725.
Demonstrating his ease with the ways of 18th-century music making, Dirst fills out his orchestra with winds (oboes, recorders, flute, and bassoon) not present in Hasse’s original setting. The operative principle is a baroque one: if you have the possibility to expand your musical forces than have at it; if you’ve get less, adapt and make do.
The colorful results of this expanded palette are heard immediately in the serenata’s sinfonia. Its regal opening followed by a sprightly second section, demonstrates the subtlety and discipline of the Houston band. The introduction is not eroded by the frantic approach heard in so many modern interpretations of similar overtures, but rather projects a grandeur that even a much larger orchestra should be jealous of. The string playing is exacting but exuberant, the notoriously difficult baroque oboe played here with both accuracy and panache.
An overture not only sets the scene but it also establishes the musical credentials of the orchestra, and after Dirst’s spirited, but always poised, reading of Hasse’s opener, one which draws out both the generic quality of the music while pointing out its unique turns and twists, the listener needs no more convincing. The instrumentalists set a high standard for the singers.
The likes of Tesio and Farinelli (with his 3-octave range, miraculous fleetness, unmatched sustaining power, and legendary dynamic range) will never be equaled in the 21st century, for the simple reason that castration is no longer an option for capturing the perfect adult male soprano. (Although rumors abound that Michael Jackson testicles were sacrificed by his father for the sake of his son’s voice, and the family fortune. Even the autopsy seems not to have quelled such morbid tales). While old violins and oboes can be found or replicated, the castrato voice cannot. Thus the gender-bending of the 18th-century runs in the opposite direction. Both roles in the Ars Lyrica recording are sung by not by men, but women: the mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton dons Antony’s breastplate and lets loose her gutsy powerhouse of a voice, which must project much of the intensity, texture and presence of the castrato voice of yore; soprano Ava Pine stands in for Farinelli, and tosses off Hasse’s demanding passagework with exhilarating fearlessness and unswerving intonation.
The scope and nuance of Barton’s powerful voice gives real resonance to Antony’s character, the defeated warrior and statesman basking in a fragrant twilight of love and death. In her first aria, Barton shapes Hasse’s repeated musical figures with an ardor that cannot betray a lack of control. Even at its most imploring the galant hero must not grovel:
If only I could reveal, my beloved,
my desire for you,
then I’d no longer care for empire,
and it would be enough for me to know
that I reign in your beautiful heart.
This is the 1960s slogan, “Make Love Not War,” but in a powdered wig. Barton’s reading of this and subsequent arias revels in the musical surface— the ardent ascent of a figure, the bloom of a long note, placement of the trill. It is music that shows off the richness and color of her voice, both its breadth and its impressive mobility. Her Antony never loses his cool—and that is the crucial galant attribute of this music and its performance.
In dealing with a pair of big stars and their equally outsized egos, Hasse gave each singer two arias per act, concluding each half with a duet—a symmetry that is typical of the serenata more generally. Nonetheless, the serenata’s best material was given to Farinelli, whose most famous arias were later composed for him by Hasse; the musical connection between them was forged in 1725 through Cleopatra’s arias. Right from the start one senses what really lights Hasse’s imagination: he unleashes Farinelli’s talent on the first aria “Morte col fier aspetto” (The fierce face of death holds no horror for me). The frenzied string writing, and seething chromaticism of the orchestral introduction sets up an unforgettable display of vocal pyrotechnics Hasse’s serenata gave Farinelli the chance to exhibit every one of his many weapons—speed, pathos, brilliance, tenderness, among many others—from Cleopatra’s opening aria through her own tempestuous renunciation of empire in the first aria of act two, to the embrace of death in her final solo. This last aria sung by Cleopatra, “Quel candido armellino,” is not only a tribute to the capacity of Farinelli and Hasse to dramatize sublime tragedy in refined galant musical language, but also a manifesto for wearing real fur at the opera:
This snow-white ermine
avoids staining its coat
but doesn’t flee from danger;
instead of flight it offers itself up joyously
to the hunter.
Pine is more than up to the impossible task of filling Farinelli’s high-heeled shoes. The dilemma is that Cleopatra’s volatility must be represented with absolute musical control. The resolution of this paradox produces uplifting and hugely entertaining results in Pine’s arias. The sureness of her coloratura cannot be shaken by Hasse’s careening passages, and in more intimate moments as well, the expressive fervor of both astonishes and enchants. In its range and conviction, Pine’s is an electrifying performance, even if the relative lightness of her voice could never match the richness of Farinelli’s. In an ideal musical world the voices of Pine and Barton would be blended to give us a better approximation of Farinelli’s speed, power, and expressivity (This was digitally done between a counter-tenor and soprano to yield the castrato voice in the 1994 French biopic Farinelli. But we should not be envious of what we don’t have, instead grateful for what Pine and Barton individually bring to this music.
With this recording Ars Lyrica has brought a crucial moment of 18th-century music history back to life by capturing Hasse’s devotion to the pleasures of the human voice in concert with the highest level instrumental performance—always in control, yet, for all its richly attired decorum, only a well-judged step from the brink of abandon.
After last week’s column on Black-Eyed Peas’ Superbowl halftime show, Lyle Setwyn wrote to me and pointed out that the group was far more craven in its abasement before that national altar on the Cowboy Stadium fifty-yard line than I had thought. His careful attention to emendations of the Peas’ “Where is the Love?” lyric, which I dismissed as pseudo-populist blather, was far more opportunistic and pernicious than I had thought:
Lyle writes that:
“I youtubed the video and the original lyrics and it is immediately apparent why the lyrics were changed. The original lyrics compares the CIA to the KKK. There is no way that the censors would allow that. The lyrics were changed from A to B:
A. What’s wrong with the world, mama
People livin’ like they ain’t got no mamas
I think the whole world addicted to the drama
Only attracted to things that’ll bring you trauma
Overseas, yeah, we try to stop terrorism
But we still got terrorists here livin’
In the USA, the big CIA
The Bloods and The Crips and the KKK.
B. What’s wrong with the world, mama
People livin’ like they ain’t got no mamas
I think the whole world addicted to the drama
Only attracted to things that’ll bring you trauma
In America we need to get things straight
Obama let’s get these kids educated.
Create jobs so the country stays stimulated,
This is dedicated to all the immigrated.
As usual, the media went along with the new version not wanting to mention that the old version was an antiwar song against the last President. As this President is a “good” one, protesting wars is not politically acceptable … Even the blogs have been ultra-bland.
I don’t know why I should expect less, but when this song came on during the Super Bowl I was shocked and I remember hoping against hope that they wouldn’t change the lyrics. Oh well, canned entertainment should not entertain … I mean upset people.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org