J. C. Bach’s Adriano in Siria – Rowan Hellier, Stuart Jackson & Ellie Laugharne; Classical Opera/Ian Page at Royal College of Music; directed by Thomas Guthrie

Johann Christian Bach
Adriano in Siria – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Pietro Metastasio [sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Adriano – Rowan Hellier
Osroa – Stuart Jackson
Emirena – Ellie Laugharne
Farnaspe – Erica Eloff
Aquilio – Nick Pritchard
Sabina – Filipa van Eck

The Orchestra of Classical Opera
Ian Page

Thomas Guthrie – Director
Rhys Jarman – Designer
Katharine Williams – Lighting

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 14 April, 2015
Venue: Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London

Rowan HellierPhotograph: andystaplesphotography.comOne could predict entirely accurately the origins and eventual fate of Johann Christian Bach’s Adriano in Siria (1765) as it followed that of so many other opera seria in 18th-century Europe. Bach set an already old text by the most prominent librettist of the period, Metastasio, for performance by a stellar Italian cast (in this case at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, where Handel had seen many operatic triumphs four decades previously) and, after its initial run, the opera was never seen again.

Classical Opera’s reason for reviving it now is as a centrepiece in the first season of an ambitious project (over the next 26 years!) that will chart, year by year, Mozart’s career 250 years on, through his music and that of his contemporaries. Bach’s work was the great operatic hit of 1765, the year when the nine-year-old Mozart was in London during the arduous three-year concert tour of Europe on which his father conducted him.

The drama (about the Roman Emperor Hadrian) revolves around the usual conceits of opera, misplaced amorous affections, political ambition, and disguise. Curiously, Adriano is not given much music – only two arias, apart from the recitatives – and so Rowan Hellier did not have much chance to develop the Emperor’s human side. With her well-rounded singing and wide vibrato we only saw the public, imperious aspect of the character.

Nick PritchardPhotograph: nickpritchard.co.ukHaving conquered the Parthians and their king, Osroa, Adriano falls in love with his daughter Emirena, who is already engaged to Farnaspe. This is also despite the fact that Adriano is already betrothed to Sabina. All is resolved happily when Adriano magnanimously forgives the plots against him and attempt on his life (reminding of the story of Mozart’s later Metastasian setting, La clemenza di Tito) and gives Emirena up to Farnaspe. As that innocent pair, Ellie Laugharne and Erica Eloff sang with appealing chaste focus, combining most delectably in their duet at the end of Act One, with the addition of two clarinets, perhaps putting one in mind of the ‘Recordare’ from Mozart’s Requiem with such scoring and suspensions. Eloff’s steady control in quieter, intense passages was particularly commendable.

Filipa van Eck sounded fearsome and impassioned as the spurned fiancé of Adriano, evincing a suitably steely tone in her singing. Stuart Jackson’s Osroa was a vocal highlight, too, with his lyrical, seamless tenor coloratura finely controlled, perhaps even to the extent that this belied somewhat the vengeful, scheming inclination of this role. In his one aria as Aquilio, Nick Pritchard also showed himself to be a tenor of considerable promise.

The support given by the Orchestra of Classical Opera and Ian Page was lively and generally well paced – urgent when necessary, but taking time for the music to enfold its charms elsewhere. The strings occasionally sounded thin and rough, but Steven Devine at the harpsichord provided a stylish continuo backbone.

Thomas Guthrie’s production is fairly simple, and indeed a little more action during the da capo arias would be welcome. However, there are frequent changes of scene to sustain interest in the overall atmosphere, which conjures up the world of the Roman Empire by décor and costumes, and the backdrop of ancient ruins. But quite congruously it also evokes the 18th-century with its silhouettes, subtle lighting effects, and garden scenes, making the production, in effect, an authentic (if not strictly historicist) take on Bach’s work.

The music itself is hardly a forgotten gem, but it confirms J. C. Bach’s position as a link between the twin operatic peaks in that century of Handel and Mozart, and as a pioneer of the galant style, of which the latter composer would become the supreme master. The rich scoring with winds and horns in some arias is proto-Mozartean, and the passion in numbers such as Farnaspe’s declaration of love to Emirena in Act Two looks as far ahead as Così fan tutte. Opera Settecento will present Pergolesi’s setting of Metastasio’s text at London’s Cadogan Hall in September.

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