Tales from Ovid: Classical Opera

performing in several central London venues — the Wigmore Hall, King’s Place and the Barbican — and continuing their admirable work in developing opportunities for young singers and instrumentalists, and extending audiences’ awareness of this lesser-known repertoire.

I have attended several such well-assembled and assuredly delivered
performances at the Wigmore Hall, the latest of which presented a selection of
instrumental and vocal works united under the umbrella, Tales from

We began with a substantial orchestral opener — Dittersdorf’s Symphony
in F major, ‘The Rescue of Andromeda by Perseus’, one of six of surviving
symphonies by the composer which were inspired by specific tales from Ovid’s
Metamorphoses. The performance was noteworthy for the beautifully
cantabile oboe solos of James Eastaway, particularly in the
Larghetto third movement where the phrases and cadences were
exquisitely shaped, and the appoggiaturas were milked for all they were worth!
Indeed, the decorative gestures throughout this movement were movingly
executed, and the gentle glow of muted strings and horns was tenderly
demonstrative. Page shaped the lively second movement effectively, building
gradually to the vigorous entry of the bright, vibrant horns. The ensemble was
excellent throughout.

The operatic contribution in the first half of the concert was an excerpt
from Act Three of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice: the sequence of numbers
leading to the renowned ‘Che farÚ’. Anna Devin, confidently singing
‘off-the-score’, was an engaging Euridice. She convincingly located a range
of emotions from indignation to defiance, from doubt to hope; ‘Che fiero
momento!’ (‘What cruel moment’) was characterised by emotional impact,
the woodwind shaping an affecting dialogue with the voice, the strings
producing a focused timbre. The phrase “Vacillo, tremo” (“I sway, I
tremble”) was fittingly unsettling and impassioned, full of driving energy.
As Orfeo, countertenor Christopher Ainslie was less secure: the register seemed
a little too high for comfort, and as Ainslie worked hard in the accompanied
recitative to convey the nuances of the text, the tone became rather shrill and
strained. He found a sweeter lightness, however, in the culminating aria and
the gracefully shaped lines conveyed Orfeo’s vulnerability and bewilderment.

The overture and a scene from Haydn’s Philemon und Baucis
followed after the interval, Devin (singing the roles of Baucis and Narcissa)
now partnered by tenor Benjamin Hulett (Aret). Written in 1773 for the
marionette theatre at the Esterh·zy palace, Philemon und Baucis did
not survive in complete form — possibly the victim of nineteenth-century
taste or of a theatre fire — and has been reconstructed from an extant
singspiel version. It takes the form of arias and duets, sung by six
marionette characters, framed by spoken dialogue; the libretto is
undistinguished but the music charming.

And, there was quite a lot of music before we got to the singing. The brisk
fiddle playing and punchy horn outbursts in the overture (somewhat dubiously
attributed to Haydn) depicted the thunderstorm which kills Aret — the son of
the peasant couple, Philemon and Baucis — and his fiancÈe, Narcissa, on
their wedding day. Despite their grief, the old couple offer hospitality to
Jupiter and Mercury who have come to earth disguised as pilgrims (cue another
instrumental interlude) and in return the gods transform the funeral urns into
an arbour of roses — the bucolic reliquary musically depicted in a suitably
pastoral idiom.

Inside the floral dell, the lost couple are restored to life. Aret’s aria
of reawakening established a quiet mood of musical enchantment, the unusual
timbre — solo oboe, muted triplets and pizzicato from the two groups of
violins above a firm bass — enhancing the sense of uniqueness and
preciousness. Hulett’s pronunciation of the text was clear but never
mannered, the gentle lyricism revealing his sense of wonderment and tentative
but blossoming joy at the miracle which has occurred. Then, together, Aret and
Narcissa celebrate their reunion and pledge eternal devotion; in this joyous,
invigorating duet, ‘Entflohn ist nun der Schlummer’ (‘The slumber has now
departed’), the crystal clear soprano of Devin blended beautifully with
Hulett’s mellifluous tenor in shared ardency and joy.

Part Three of Mozart’s first opera, Apollo and Hyacinthus,
concluded the programme. Hyacinthus, mortally wounded by Apollo’s discus
which has been deliberately blown off course by Zephyrus, has just identified
his killer to his father, Oebalus (Hulett) before expiring. Oebalus and his
daughter Melia (Devin) sing of their grief, their outpouring so moving Apollo
(Ainslie) that he turns the dead boy’s body into a flower, the hyacinth,
(with its distinctive marking, ‘Ai’, an exclamation of anguish in the
ancient world). Apollo then reaffirms his love for Melia and the three sing a
hymn of praise that their forthcoming marriage may bring restoration and good

Hulett was excellent in his rage aria, expressing his fury at the murder of
his son with forceful projection and accurate, supple coloratura, matched by
incisive violin playing. He joined once again with Devin in their duet of
mourning; their melancholy was eloquently expressed, the lines intricately
crafted, the sighing appoggiaturas and chromatic inflections perfectly judged.
The gentle undulations and pizzicato of the accompaniment was a perfect bed for
the opulently entwining voices, and for the affecting violin solo which opened
and closed the duet. Ainslie now found a more delicate tone, fitting for the
young Apollo; the final Trio was exuberant and elevating.

Musically and technically, Classical Opera offered much to admire;
and, judging from the near-capacity audience’s generous ovation the company
certainly has a band of loyal and idolatrous fans. But, one is tempted to ask,
if Page truly believes in this repertory — not only in its musical worth but
also its theatrical credibility — then should such conviction not be
demonstrated on the operatic stage rather in the concert hall or in the
recording studio?

In some respects, Michael Maloney’s overly thespian declamation between
the movements of the Dittersdorf symphony and before the opera scenes were the
most explicitly dramatic aspect of the evening — and they were, in fact,
redundant, since the programme outlined the mythical context and narrative in
some detail and provided the text of the sung numbers. The audience is
sufficiently well-informed and competent to assimilate such written information
with their aural experience of the music.

Snippets and bite-sized chunks might offer melodic charm, instrumental
colours might appeal and seduce, but ultimately such works need to be
‘tested’ in the theatre; only complete staged performances will ensure
their incorporation into the ‘operatic canon’ and their longevity.
Otherwise, the company might as well rename itself the ‘Classical
Themed-Concert-Performance Company’. That said, musical standards were
typically high, and we can only hope that Page gives us the opportunity to
enjoy more theatrical presentations of this lovely repertoire soon.

Claire Seymour

Production and cast information:

Dittersdorf: Symphony in F, ‘The Rescue of Andromeda by Perseus’;
Gluck: ‘Scene from Act Three of Orfeo ed Euridice; Hadyn: Overture
and Scene from Philemon und Baucis; Mozart: Part Three of Apollo
and Hyacinthus
]. Anna Devin: soprano; Christopher Ainslie: countertenor;
Benjamin Hulett: tenor; Michael Maloney: reader; The Orchestra of Classical
Opera (leader Matthew Truscott); Ian Page: conductor. Wigmore
Hall, London, Monday 20th May 2013.

image_description=Tales of Ovid [Image by The Classical Opera]
product_title=Tales from Ovid: Classical Opera
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Tales of Ovid [Image by The Classical Opera]