Indefatigable in its championing of rare repertoire, Buxton International Festival has brought out from oblivion the only opera by the little-known Giuseppe Brescianello on the occasion of its tercentenary anniversary. Adrian Chandler goes so far to claim that it is “a candidate for the finest Baroque opera ever”. It is hardly that: although boasting an imaginatively varied and well-written series of arias, and two fully-fledged choruses, the numbers do not quite reach the same level of inspiration of Handel’s operas, even the weakest of which can always muster at least one or two memorable pieces. The duet for Tisbe and the dying Pyramo, for example, with its attractive lilting rhythm in compound time is comparable to ‘Per le porte’ from Handel’s Sosarme, but fails to ravish to the same degree. The small cast of soloists, pastoral theme, and relative brevity make the work stand closer comparison with Handel’s exactly contemporary masque Acis and Galatea, and there again a certain disparity in quality is evident.
Nevertheless it is an accomplished opera of the Baroque era by any standards and clearly deserves an airing, proved by the winning and engaging performance it receives here by La Serenissima. Standing to one side of the stage, the players are alert to the varied rhythms, textures and Affekts of the opera’s sequence of numbers. As in Handel’s, these demonstrate an articulate Italianate vocal charm underpinned with a generally richer harmonic background typical of the Germanic school of composition, doubtless attributable to the fact of Brescianello’s employment at the court of the Duke of Württemberg at the time. Contributions by recorders and horns paint additional, vibrant colour to evoke birdsong and the hunt respectively. Robert Howarth provides discreet support on the harpsichord, leaving Chandler, from the violin, to lead the ensemble in its rigorous interpretation, and despatching an extended solo and virtuosic part in one aria with quiet flair. Only the Overture sounds somewhat languid, which is not the case with the Prelude which opens Act Three or the handful of interpolated dances, taken from a Suite in G-minor by the same composer to fill in some gaps in the score, which includes the instrumental postlude to make up for the fact that the work appears, otherwise, to end abruptly with simply a recitative on the death of Tisbe.
The solemn concluding movement offered by La Serenissima usefully underlines, then, the sense of the foregoing drama as almost a ritual, which the performance would otherwise lack, at least at a musical level. Mark Burns’s semi-staging, however, treats the work’s pastoral theme more as the occasion for satire in this season of summer festivals, with the characters on the stage to the side of the orchestra in contemporary dress, first enjoying a picnic, the shepherdess Licori bringing on her small flock of sheep in the form of inflated balloons, and the fountain at the beginning of Act Two as the place where Tisbe and Pyramo are to meet merely imagined around the latter’s mimes, except when he takes a drink from a bottle of spring water. The combination of the eight chorus members to form a fearsome interlocked group in place of the lion which attacks Pyramo is a witty and arresting choreographic touch.
Julia Doyle and Robert Murray are the lovers at the centre of the tragic little drama,which will be known to many as the basis of the play-within-a-play of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or perhaps also as the source for other Baroque operas. They do not come together in the drama until the final scene as Tisbe comes upon the mortally wounded Pyramo, who has stabbed himself in grief, mistakenly thinking that a bloody cloth betokened her death at the hands of a lion in the woods. Both sing with yearning, lyrical ardour as they search for each other initially and, in Tisbe’s case, fend off the attentions of an unwelcome rival suitor. Morgan Pearse is that suitor, Alceste, combining vocal strength and earnestness in his advances to Tisbe, with a comic vigour in his encounters with Licori, who falls for him. Hilary Summers, suffering an incipient throat infection, is somewhat withdrawn and reticent vocally as the shepherdess but that somewhat suits the lower, darker tone of this part in her furtive pursuit of Alceste.
This is altogether a vivid account of a worthwhile rediscovery and the only regret is that the opera is not given a fuller staging, though there is more action than the Festival’s appellation of “concert performance" would suggest.
- Further performance on July 17