Tales from Ovid – Classical Opera Company at Wigmore Hall

Symphony in F, ‘The Rescue of Andromeda by Perseus’
Orfeo ed Euridice – Scene from Act II
Philemon und Baucis – Overture and Scene
Apollo et Hyacinthus, K38 – Part Three

Anna Devin (soprano), Christopher Ainslie (countertenor) & Benjamin Hulett (tenor)

Michael Maloney (reader)

The Orchestra of Classical Opera
Ian Page

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 20 May, 2013
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Attendance at a Classical Opera Company concert resembles going to the Open Day of a long-established and thriving family firm. Ian Page is the head of this particular cultural household. He initially defined the basic area of music in which the Company operates (roughly the music of Mozart and his contemporaries) and maintains its basic principles of high performance standards, the presentation of unusual repertoire and the discovery and development of world-class young artists. Classical Opera offers its own period-instrument band, its small size well-suited to the platform at Wigmore Hall, and brings its own sound, difficult though it may be to define in words. Making a virtue of necessity, Page never encouraged his instrumentalists to seek volume: nothing was overdone, even in forte passages. The contribution of each section of the orchestra could always be heard and inner parts never disappeared.

Page largely devises the programmes. This time it was music based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, that lengthy collection of stories from Greek and Roman mythology, all of which end in some sort of magical transformation. Three of the four Ovid stories in this concert came from lyric settings for the stage. The fourth, with which the evening began, was a purely orchestral piece which was supposed to depict the tale of Andromeda, daughter of the Ethiopian king, who is bound to a rock and under threat of being sacrificed to a sea-monster installed there by offended deities, but who is rescued by the demi-God Perseus. Expecting a mimetic representation of the events reported in the poem, it was something of a disappointment to find that the Dittersdorf Symphony made little effort to enact the legend upon which it was based. Far from seeking to convert visual impressions into music, Dittersdorf has written generic music. The writer of the programme note made a not notably convincing case for the composer having translated Perseus’s flight by winged sandals and the various emotions felt by rescuer and rescued into music. Only in the last movement did it seem that the contrast between the opening Vivace and the Minuet with which it was succeeded could be a reflection of the fact that Perseus’s marriage to Andromeda was being celebrated both publicly and privately, as indicated by Ovid’s own superscription. So the score is best treated as pure music and as such it largely held its own.

It was not impossible to compare this prolific composer of some 140 symphonies with the three giants who provided the music for the rest of the evening. The opening movement was dominated by a lingering oboe solo of great beauty over plush strings and sustaining horns, the Presto which follows announced itself by two dramatic upward-exploding crescendos and there were other felicities, particularly of scoring, which Page and his musicians brought out. To keep us in touch with events an actor was engaged to provide narrative links. Michael Maloney’s style of delivery had moments of archness which was irritating.

At least two of the vocal pieces fulfilled the sense of wonder at rediscovery of forgotten music. Philemon und Baucis may have been written for a puppet production but Haydn’s music for it is entirely grown up. Aret’s aria of wonderment at his and his fiancée’s resurrection requires long-breathed phrasing and intensity of utterance, which Benjamin Hulett supplied in full. The closing duet saw him partnered by Anna Devin: an inventive piece in which each voice gets its share of the upper line. His lyric tenor impressed by its freshness and brightness of tone, which was ideally suited to the lifting of the shadows as Aret and Narcissa were restored to life; the uninhibited way he released his top notes was also exciting. He repeated the dose as Oebalus in the aria ‘Utnavis’ in the final section of the 11-year-old Mozart’s version of the Apollo and Hyacinthus tale. Indeed he enhanced the good impression already made, offering a consistently ringing sound, impeccable enunciation of the words (in this case Latin!) and accuracy in the runs in which the aria abounds – a lyric tenor of considerable promise and international success.

Christopher AinslieNot everything was unfamiliar: the scene of Euridice’s escorted return to earth in Gluck’s opera belied its format as a ‘bleeding chunk’ in the performance by Anna Devin and Christopher Ainslie. Both singers were thoroughly engaged with the situation of their characters. The soprano’s portrayal of Euridice combined growing bewilderment at the anomaly of her husband’s coldness with nobility and vocal refinement. The countertenor projected Orpheus’s frustration at what the narrator called the small print of his contract powerfully; the draining away of his resolution could be clearly felt. Ainslie’s voice has a naturally dark colour ideal for this role but there was a hint of strain in the dramatic exchanges, leading to the words becoming blurred on occasions. With the loss of Euridice and the advent of the famous lament his interpretation came into its own. Page’s smart tempo was consistent with his relatively lightweight approach to an aria which has a history of ponderous treatment. A couple of diminuendos were particularly eloquent and well-executed, and the original lower, less passionate conclusion to the grieving clinched an understated but effective performance.

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