Buxton International Festival – Hasse’s Antonio e Cleopatra

Antonio e Cleopatra – Serenata in two Acts to a libretto by Francesco Ricciardi [sung in Italian with English side titles]

Antonio – Thalie Knights
Cleopatra – Ellie Neate

Buxton Festival Baroque Orchestra
Satoko Doi-Luck (harpsichord)

Evangeline Cullingworth – Director
Grace Venning – Set & Costume Designer
Rachel E. Cleary – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 13 July, 2022
Venue: Pavilion Arts Centre, Buxton, Derbyshire, England

Hasse’s serenata Antonio e Cleopatra (1725) imagines the moment after the Battle of Actium when Mark Antony meets again his lover, Cleopatra, and they reflect on what fate now holds for them. The memory of this doomed pair seems to be a curious subject for this chamber-scale, occasional work intended to glorify the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, and his wife, Elizabeth (the deemed heirs to the ancient Roman Empire) since, in the work’s concluding licenza or panegyric to the royal couple, Antony and Cleopatra applaud Charles as overshadowing the heroes of the Classical world. But invoking them presumably served implicitly as a cautionary tale to the serenata’s contemporary audience as to how those entrusted with the command of an empire should behave, however magnanimous the feelings and motivations imputed to the ancient exemplars in the libretto, so as to avert the mistakes of the latter.

As the composition does not otherwise relate real history as such (not least in avoiding the depiction of the title characters’ deaths) it is as well then that Evangeline Cullingworth’s production gives no impression of what was, in fact, one of the great turning points in world history. Rather it playfully and ironically recreates the meeting as little more than a domestic crisis, played out in the present day within what looks like one of the less salubrious bedrooms of Buxton’s Palace Hotel (upon which many Festival goers descend). Some strobe lighting and crackling effects hint at the danger posed by Octavian (Augustus) beyond, but in essence the dilemma remains private. Certain choreographically symbolic gestures add import, such as the protagonists’ staged marriage, kneeling at the bed; Antony appearing enthroned with a clock and lamp in his hands as the ephemeral tokens of office; and both characters assuming, respectively, characteristically ancient Roman and Egyptian dress at the end, so as to hail prospectively the glory of Charles’s regime. But the dynamics in the personal relationship between the pair remain paramount, as they do in the libretto, which lends them a very different persona from the grandiloquent imagery cast for them by Shakespeare in his play. 

Thalie Knights cultivates a richly mellow musical character for Antonio, expressing calm and composure as he contemplates the consequences of his defeat at Actium, however flustered any of the music written for the part becomes. By contrast Ellie Neate is an often-fearsome Cleopatra singing, by turns, with powerful desperation or resolve, sometimes even a screaming urgency. They blend together in the cheerful chains of melismas for the concluding duet which has all the resounding euphony of the equivalent sections in a Handel opera, even if Hasse’s score is not otherwise as memorable as anything by his older German contemporary.

Satoko Doi-Luck leads the Buxton Festival Baroque Orchestra in a brisk account of the work – the one-to-a-part ensemble ensure vivacity, if limited variety in texture from one aria to the next, though the odd fully accompanied recitative offers the opportunity for a more expressive stepping back from the action.

But overall this is a witty, affectionate take on a rare and intriguing work which, in its eulogistic purpose, picks up the same theme as Caldara’s Lucio Papirio Dittatore – also written in honour of Charles VI and presented by Buxton in 2019. 

Further performances to July 22

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