Barber Opera – Stradella’s The Power of Paternal Love

Stradella

The Power of Paternal Love [La forza dell’amor paterno] – Opera in three Acts to an anonymous libretto adapted from Nicolo Minato’s Seleuco [sung to an English translation by Christopher Cowell with English surtitles]

Antioco – Lara Marie Müller
Stratonica – Galina Averina
Seleuco – Paul Hopwood
Arbante – Francis Gush
Lucinda – Joanna Harries
Ersistrato – Giuseppe Pellingra
Silo – Brendan Collins
Eurindo – Andy Shen Liu
Rubia – Helen Stanley

Musical and Amicable Society Orchestra
Andrew Kirkman

Christopher Cowell – Director
Anna Reid – Designer
Matthew Cater – Lighting


Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 15 April, 2023
Venue: Crescent Theatre, Birmingham

Along with his contemporaries Bernardo Pasquini and the rather younger Alessandro Scarlatti – and although less prolific than them – Stradella stands at a transitional period in the history of opera, and all happened to work in Rome. In their hands, the form evolved from an essentially continuous sequence of recitative or melodious arioso, towards a clearly structured succession of recitative (advancing the basic narrative) and more melodic elaborations (for reflective moments) serving a plot with surprising twists and turns. Even in a generally serious work as Stradella’s The Power of Paternal Love (1678) (anticipating the format and themes of opera seria) such stage-works still integrate strands of comedy, as found in the works of Monteverdi and Cavalli for example, before the genre bifurcated formally along the lines of opera seria on the one hand initially, and opera buffa (or simple intermezzi between the acts of an opera seria) on the other a little later, and the two not entirely coming together again until Mozart perhaps.

In this first of three operas which Stradella composed for a single season at Genoa, and based very loosely on classical Greek history, Seleuco (founder of the Seleucid Empire, centred upon Syria, and formerly a commander under Alexander the Great) is betrothed to the Bactrian princess Stratonica. He has also arranged for Lucinda to be married to his son, Antioco, but the latter has become besotted with the portrait of a woman in his father’s collection of pictures. When Stratonica arrives, revealing that she is the person depicted, Antioco becomes mortally lovesick, and is only healed when Seleuco magnanimously decides to allow Stratonica to marry him instead, which also enables Lucinda to marry her former lover Arbante.

In between, that dilemma is the cause of much emotional tension and heart-searching on the part of the characters, in this scenario which foreshadows Verdi’s Don Carlo, as well as dealing with the similar theme of near-incestuous love as Racine’s almost contemporary play Phèdre (the source of Rameau’s great first opera Hippolyte et Aricie). The extended ‘mad scene’ at the centre of Stradella’s opera anticipates many other such scenarios in operas to come over the next two hundred years or so; in this case Antioco imagines himself personally engaged with various stories of love and lust from Classical mythology. But it was also clearly inspired by the famous, more immediate literary influence in Italy at that time, Orlando furioso, especially as Antioco imagines himself to be fighting with other members of his father’s court and finally participating in an excursion to the moon, just as Ariosto’s hero has lost his wits and goes there to reclaim them. It is interesting to reflect too that the situation in which Seleuco initially contemplates murderous revenge upon his son, at an opportune moment when he could come upon Antioco whilst lying indisposed, is virtually a reversal (presumably coincidental) of Hamlet’s wrestling with the need to avenge his father for the crimes of his mother and stepfather while the latter kneels vulnerably at prayer.

Although the opera is nominally set in ancient Syria, Christopher Cowell’s production updates the drama to the present, which plays out over Anna Reid’s effectively designed, whitewashed villa with a roof terrace over a lower extension, resembling those in the eastern Mediterranean and Levantine regions. The geometric metalwork items mounted upon it suggest the Middle East, and labels beside them identify the place as some sort of gallery for Seleuco’s art collection, among which the portrait of Stratonica takes central place. But the villa’s position, thrust forwards obliquely on the stage towards the audience, enables the consistently slick and dynamic choreography to work out around and over it – just as the drama itself encompasses a complex, fluid interaction amongst its various characters, their motives and their interactions, and also just as the two social strata of the narrative (the court, and the servants or hangers-on) are mapped out onto the set’s two levels.

Cowell also recognises the work’s self-awareness of its own theatricality within its libretto by allowing a Brechtian irony its place not only throughout the comedy of this production, but also to have the last word with the framing of the double wedding of the two couples, (elevated on the villa’s terrace) by the other characters’ taking their positions away from them on the ground below with backs turned to the audience, to create a final distancing effect as the ensemble delivers the text’s conventional moral of the happy ending.

Laura Marie Müller leads a strong cast with her resolute and unyielding account of Antioco, asserting ever firmer, steely musical control as her character becomes more psychologically desperate. Galina Averina is a more hard-headed Stratonica, despite suffering a similar conflict between duty and emotion as she outwardly conforms with expectations but privately welcomes Antioco’s feelings for her. Compared with the latter’s fraught state, Francis Gush sings with a pure-toned and straightforward guilelessness as Arbante, alongside Joanna Harries’s similarly unaffected Lucinda. It is perhaps only in the context of this well characterised cast that Paul Hopwood sounds somewhat subdued and anonymous as Seleuco, though there is something to be said for what otherwise seems to be a world-wearied or at least pragmatic presentation of the role.

Giuseppe Pellingra provides a jestingly hollow vigour to the almost oracular pronouncements of the court physician Ersistrato – here more like a plutocrat’s New Age self-help or yoga guru – while Andy Shen Liu capably personifies the smoothly cool Eurindo, another member of the court, with his arrestingly liquid singing, whose incisive agility is that of a sopranist rather than a countertenor at the pitch he achieves. The servants Silo and Rubia are played with irresistibly cheeky and saucy humour by Brendan Collins and Helen Stanley, as their amorous frolics and ribald repartee amusingly send up the earnest pretensions of their social betters, embodying the similar types of irreverent characters as the better-known types of servants or nurses found in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea or Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (as an ageing female assistant who fondly contemplates her allure for men, Rubia is not unreasonably cast in the scenario here as a ‘cougar’). It is particularly in their dialogue that Cowell’s lively English translation works best, with its idiomatic rendering of the libretto which brings the jokes and humour of the original in line with contemporary diction.

The small orchestra of strings, theorbo and harpsichord are conducted by Andrew Kirkman with a buoyant rhythmic impetus that maintains the work’s momentum, and a silvery elegance which sympathetically supports the voices. It gives the drama a compellingly nimble pace, without rushing, but doesn’t drag either, as it presses on from one section to the next, and neatly but perceptibly marks the shifts from ordinary duple meter to the lilt of triple time (often in Rubia’s more skittish music).

All these elements combine to make this one of the best productions of a Baroque opera I have seen for some time. It is a cause for regret that it isn’t being taken on tour so that many more people may appreciate it and be introduced to the genre. But it is a hope that it inspires others to take up the cause of Stradella’s operatic output, still very little known and revived – to my knowledge in the UK there have only been Il Trespolo tutore by New Chamber Opera, and a staging of the oratorio San Giovanni Battista by London’s Guildhall School. Just as Cavalli has now come to be appreciated again on many operatic stages as the mid-seventeenth-century heir to Monteverdi, so Stradella should be seen as the precursor, in the period immediately after that, of high Baroque opera seria, also now widely admired in Handel’s examples. Stradella surely offers an integration of expectations as to lyricism and melody in music, with the dynamic interaction of characters and situations which are ‘relatable’ (to use the modern patois) which is as attractive and engaging as the music drama of any period.

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